PHOTOGRAPHING THE GIRLS. Gilles Bensimon is a French fashion photographer and the former International Creative Director of ELLE magazine.
I was in London with the famous photographer Gilles Bensimon on a special day, because it was and it wasn’t his birthday. He was born on the 29th of February 1944 and it was the 28th of February 2023, and there was no 29th this year.
Gilles Bensimon, what are the circumstances of your birth?
I think I was supposed to be dead the day I was born. Part of my family, which was Jewish from the Alsace, and my father and mother were hiding in the middle of France in a small village, Vic-sur-Cère. All his life my father has always denied his Jewishness, but he is Jewish. My father’s cousin went to see the mayor of the place and asked him to give me fake papers with the name Gilles Francis Belmont. They had to be careful because the French militias were going to take all the Jewish people and all this part of my family went to Auschwitz. After the war my grandfather decided we had to go back to the name Bensimon. A lot of people didn’t do that and kept the name they had taken during the war, but my grandfather said we had no reason to hide.
When you were a child, when there was no February 29th was your birthday celebrated on the 28th?
I have a very nice family, but my mother was not living with me and my three brothers, of whom I was the eldest. She left my father, who was a charming guy and very social. We used to see my grandmother a few times a week.
Did your grandmother raise you?
No. She never stayed at home with us four boys. I was raised by nobody, and we got into the habit of doing whatever we wanted. My mother was an artist and part of my family were in the art world. She thought I would never be able to write or read. She thought I was proud of the fact that I refused to wear shoes when I was younger. She thought I was strange, perhaps retarded. Apparently it took me a long time to talk.
Were you a religious family?
My Jewish grandfather never practiced any religion. My Jewish grandmother from Alsace loved the church. We never talked about it. I wasn’t circumcised and we had a Catholic education, but I became Jewish about ten years ago when I did my bar mitzvah.
Not really. I want to be buried with my grandfather in Montparnasse and I don’t want him to have a Catholic on top of his head. I have a house in East Hampton and Jerry Seinfeld’s wife and Claude Wasserstein live on the same street. They organized my bar mitzvah on the beach at the end of August. I said, “Just invite people that live on the ocean. Don’t invite anybody else and don’t give me any presents because I am not 13.” It was great because the sound of the waves helped me when I mumbled or forgot something. A group of people were walking on the beach behind us and they were saying, “Isn’t it great, this gay couple getting married,” because the rabbi was wearing a white jacket.
How many children do you have?
Are your daughters Jewish?
No, they are all Catholic. Like my parents I never spent time with my kids as I was always away. I loved being away, just like my parents who were constantly with other people when they were young.
“I try to photograph the girls, not to have one style.”
Gilles Bensimon, why did you get your first camera?
In the summer we went with my mother to French Brittany, but she never paid any attention to us. When the tide went out I loved the reflections on the rocks, and I said to my brother Renault, “I want to take a picture of you.” I bought a camera, took one picture, and never used that camera again.
How did you become a photographer?
When I was young my idea was to do nothing. I saw how my grandmother lived. She woke up around 11, and at 12:30 “Madame est servie”. My grandfather would arrive with his driver and we always had a great lunch, in silence, my grandmother talking and my grandfather never really answering. It was great, and the food was amazing. That’s why my plan was to do nothing, maybe to go skiing in the winter.
And when you were a little older?
One very sunny June day I left our Paris place in rue de Bourgogne, went past the Palais Bourbon, went along the Seine, and took the 63 bus to sit my baccalaureate. I realized that there was the swimming pool – Piscine Deligny – and I decided to go and swim. This was a very important decision in my life, because now I had to become recognizable and famous for something. I had to do something with my life because that day I decided I would not pass the baccalaureate.
Did you really go swimming when you should have been sitting your baccalaureate exams?
I went swimming all that day. My father never asked me anything and my mother didn’t even know. Two years after that I prepared for the Arts Decoratifs. I was not lazy and I went to the preparatory school, every morning, Monday to Friday. You had to draw a plaster figure. Then I realized that if I just came in on Friday morning and drew I would still get the best marks. I didn’t need to be there all week, because I could do it in one day.
Were you going to be an artist?
I decided I was not going to be an artist. My father pushed me, but I hated the artists I saw. My aunt was a famous art dealer named Iris Clert – she discovered Yves Klein and Tinguely – but when I saw the artists, even the artist friends of my father, I thought “My God I can’t stand their attitudes.” As I said, I didn’t want to become an artist, but all my life I have been drawing.
Were you called up for military service?
For two years. I received the invitation to join the army in June, but I decided it was not the right time because I had made a plan to go sailing and have a holiday. I found a job at the Club Méditerranée in Corsica and pretended that I never received the letter. I went sailing, and all the girls liked me when I was 19. I don’t know why, but they did.
And you didn’t go into the army?
No, but the gendarmerie found me, because they came and asked my concierge in Paris if I was there and she said, “No, I think he’s in Corsica.” They picked me up in September.
How was your time in the army?
It was okay, but I spent a lot of time in jail – at least 60 days – for many reasons. For fighting, or arriving late from being on leave.
What happened after you finished the army?
When I came back from the army I was in some health trouble. There was a girl named Pacha who took me home and she looked after me. After a year we married.
“I went sailing, and all the girls liked me when I was 19.”
Gilles Bensimon, then you started working?
Yes. I thought it would be interesting to mix drawing and photography. Pacha was working in the beauty department at Elle magazine, and I thought perhaps taking pictures was something I wanted to do. Pacha bought me a Hasselblad and I took some very simple pictures and Elle started to give me some work as a photographer. At this time at Elle there was a Polish guy called Roman Cieślewicz. He is quite well-known, but he never liked me that much. Elle still had very stiff images, unlike American magazines such as Esquire, and I said why don’t we go outside and do something different. They said that’s a great idea, our driver will take you, but a week later I realised that this Roman Cieślewicz had completely erased and cancelled all my work and we had big argument.
Did they fire you?
Nobody said a word. After a while a German named Rudi Waldvogel – who was doing layouts – called me from Hamburg where he was working for Gruner + Jahr and said that he had 45 pages for me to do. It was a miracle; before I only did 2 or 4 pages. I went to Hamburg and fell in love with the only place in the world where the girls pick you up. I called my brothers saying it’s a dream here. I was married with Pacha, but I stayed there working for a few months and had a lot of fun. One of the Gruner + Jahr family wanted to create a new magazine and I worked for her doing some images, but after a couple of months she told me, “Gilles, this new magazine is never going to happen,” and gave me a check for the work I had done. I didn’t even look at it. I went to the bank and gave them my check to get cash – which is what you did in those days – and the guy took a long, long time to get the money from Gruner + Jahr. When it arrived I put it in a paper bag, because it was a lot. Walking back to my apartment I saw a place selling motorcycles, and in the window was a 441 BSA Victor Special in yellow and chrome.
You bought it?
I went in the store and said, “I am going to buy this one,” asked how much and gave the money from my paper bag. The guy asked if I rode motorcycles. “Absolutely,” I said – even though I’d never ridden a motorcycle before – “but just show me, because a British motorcycle works differently and things are on the other side.” He showed me. I got it, but it took me a long time to restart the motorcycle.
Then you went to live in America?
No. Pacha become extremely successful because she was very young and the much older woman who was in charge of the beauty department gave her a lot of work. At some point she actually stopped coming to the magazine. Nobody realized, and for almost a year Pacha ran the fashion department. But then they told her, “You’re too young to run this department, you have to wait your time.” But there was a very sophisticated guy named Jacques de Pindray who liked Pacha’s talent, and she started to do a lot of campaigns, and then Publicis hired her, and then she created her own agency.
What about you?
Back in Paris I decided to go to America for the summer with a friend who told me he had a place at the Carnegie Hall. When we arrived there was already another guy living in the apartment, so we moved to a small hotel on Sutton Place. I spent a couple of months there. At night we would always go to Max’s Kansas City.
I met Basquiat later. I met Warhol and I met him again later. I have boxed all my life, and one of my friends who lived there had all the boxing connections. We would go to see the fights at Madison Square Gardens. After two months the magazines started to give me some work, but I decided to go back to Paris and began doing a lot of advertising campaigns. It was really then that I started to work as a photographer.
And became well-known.
I never got this idea that I was well-known, and in any case I had a different problem. I had found another girlfriend and my wife told me that I had to leave her and that there was no way it could start again. In New York Regis Pagniez asked me to participate in the new American Elle magazine, and at that time I started to date Elle Macpherson.
Before long Elle magazine started selling millions of copies around the world?
It was a huge success, because it was different. We were the first ones to put African-Americans in the magazine and on the cover, which was exactly the opposite of what the cover of Elle magazine normally was. A good cover was usually thought of as a blonde girl smiling, like the one I did with Elle Macpherson with sunglasses on, biting her lips.
Did you fall in love with her?
She was young, she was twenty. We were working non-stop and we never had time to go out.
But you married her?
I married her after, not right away. My brothers told me it was a good idea.
Were you a playboy?
No. All my friends were running after girls and chasing girls. I said, “I’m not going to chase girls, I am going to chase a girl who likes me.” I was never a playboy.
Were you happy with Elle Macpherson?
I think she was happy with me. I don’t know. She says so. She says she learned a lot. We are still very good friends, very close.
Gilles Bensimon: Claudia Schiffer
Gilles Bensimon: Helena Christensen
“I am happy to be a photographer. It gives me everything.”
Gilles Bensimon, in the meanwhile you became famous in America?
I never realised that because we were so busy doing the magazine, and in any case people in America didn’t like us very much. They were not nice at all. After that, there were 14 Elle magazines in the world.
Where did you shoot the photographs?
Everywhere. At the beginning, we had no real fashion editor so Regis Pagniez and I did creative tricks. Regis was very talented, and I was very lucky because Regis already had a great experience with Daniel Filipacchi. I learned a lot from Regis. I brought something but he brought the other part.
Yes, at this time, but the problem was Condé Nast was so powerful in America that we tried to think of different girls.
Did you have a relationship with the designers?
The beginning was so much work with Regis that, while we sometimes went to the shows in New York, we would never go to the shows in Paris or Milan. When they did send me to Milan they put me in the sixth row. Franca Sozzani – who worked for Vogue – told other people who I was, and suddenly I was invited for dinner with Armani, and I was moved from the sixth row to the first.
What about Paris?
It was easy when we did go to Paris because I was best friends with Azzedine Alaia. Saint Laurent no, although I knew Pierre Berge. I photographed some of the Saint Laurent people, but by accident, because I wasn’t living in Paris and Saint Laurent had a group of people around him. It was my job to be friendly with the designers and you always learn from these people.
Did you work more with Italy?
With Versace and many others. From my point of view the Italians know better about fashion than the French. When Giorgio Armani was on the cover of Time magazine and there was an article that said fashion is Italy the Italians didn’t get it. They let the French grab it and create something slightly different. There were always great houses of couture in France, but there were more small groups of very talented people among the Italians. Missoni were the first ones to do prêt-à-porter. The quality of Italian craft is high.
Do you consider yourself a particular kind of fashion photographer?
No. I try to photograph the girls, not to have one style. I get very anxious the night before every shoot. I still do, perhaps even more now.
Because I’m not too sure what I am going to find and I don’t try to decide what I am going to do beforehand. I like to find the feeling of the day – if it’s raining, if it’s not raining – and when I start I like to shoot fast and get excited.
What camera do you use?
Every kind. I am not obsessed with cameras. I take my best pictures without a camera. The best picture is the one that I didn’t take.
Do you mainly photograph women?
Are you happy to have found your métier in photography?
Yes, I am happy to be a photographer. It gives me everything. I spend my days drawing. I wake up early in New York, start drawing and keep drawing until six or seven at night. After that I go to my gym downstairs.
What do you do with your drawings?
Nothing for now. For a time I would throw them away. Now I keep them, and people have asked me to do a show next September, but I’m not really convinced because I do it as therapy.
Do you always carry a camera with you and take pictures?
Yes, a lot, every day. I always have a small Sony camera in my pocket and I photograph everything. One of my girlfriends tells me at least she is happy if I don’t bring my camera into bed! I look at everything. In my apartment I take different pictures of the same thing. I always look at people. I’m curious about who they are, what they’re doing, and I try to take pictures.
Do you ever take pictures with your telephone?
I don’t like to. I sometimes do a video. I remember I was in a plane coming back from Paris to New York in first class and suddenly I realised Henry Kissinger was sitting not so far from me, reading a newspaper. All during the flight I secretly took pictures of him. I had met him before at a lunch in New York, and when we were leaving the plane I didn’t know if he would remember. He came up to me and said, “Mr. Bensimon, did you get good pictures of me?”
How was it to photograph Madonna?
It was strange. I was very anxious about photographing her and when I saw Stella McCartney I told her I was very anxious about flying to Los Angeles to do this, and she said, “Oh I know her and I will say good things about you.” I was not happy. She chose the stylist and I was not happy with the look, but you can’t say anything with her because she knows what she wants. They made me sign the paper that she owns everything. She owned the pictures, she owned the Polaroids, she even owned the back of the Polaroids. I said okay, but I could probably do a better picture of her if I had the opportunity and she did not always insist on taking control.
Are you pleased with being a photographer?
Yes. There are a lot of things that I would love to do, but I realized the other day that even if I tried to do everything I would like to accomplish I cannot. I would like to live in Japan for one year and sit there drawing and taking pictures in a place where nobody could find me – not Tokyo – and I don’t think I will ever do that. My other idea was to go around the world taking pictures, but I am not too sure I will find the time or live that long!
Do you love to travel?
I love escaping. I think it’s a Jewish thing.
Gilles Bensimon, thank you very much.
All images courtesy of Gilles Bensimon.
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