My Working Life
The Awe-Inspiring Interiors Of Photographer Mr François Halard
The Arles-based photographer talks to MR PORTER’s US Editor about his new book
Raphael’s Logia of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, 2015. Photograph by Mr François Halard. All images courtesy of Rizzoli
I wonder if the Olympian age of lifestyle didn’t begin decaying with the advent of the internet, with interiors blogs, and personal lifestyle branding. Maybe it’s because image making has become so commonplace, that photographs of, say, Mr Cy Twombly in his Roman apartment taken in the 1960s seem infinitely more grand than, I don’t know, shots of a studio visit in a present-day shelter magazine. Maybe that has to do with the seeming scarcity of those older images, and the rampant ubiquity of the latter? At any rate, traces of that pre-digital, jet-set era of café society artists live on, here and there – and nowhere more vividly than in the work of Mr François Halard. The photographer’s newest and most personal book, François Halard: A Visual Diary (Rizzoli), documents some of his communication, across generations, and around the world, in photographs of the homes and artwork of some of the great artists and image-makers of the midcentury – from Ms Louise Bourgeois to Messrs Saul Leiter and Luigi Ghirri and Mr Twombly himself.
Mr Halard was born in 1961 and raised in an actual castle in central France. His parents, Yves and Michelle, were both well-known interior designers, and the young Mr Halard met a slew of the great photographers of the day, including Mr Helmut Newton, when they visited his house (Mr Halard’s earliest work, too, was centred around the family home). One of his first assignments, while he was still in his twenties, was to photograph the Paris home of Mr Yves Saint Laurent. By 25, he was working with Mr Alexander Liberman, the famous editorial director of Condé Nast, shooting for GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair and others, and thus, he says, began began his extraordinary meanderings around the world in pursuit of beauty, art, and artists – coming in contact, along the way, with those old Olympians of yore.
On a recent afternoon in the late summer, Mr Halard, surrounded by the art he has collected over the years (and by the photographs he has made of both the art and its makers), spoke to me from his grand house in Arles, to talk about a life well lived.
You’ve described this book as your Grand Tour, why?
I was always interested, ever since I was a kid, in the idea of the whole tour. My first exhibition, 12 years ago in Italy, was actually about the Grand Tour. So this time it is like an expansion of my first Grand Tour. So, it’s mixture of Grand Tour and memory lane.
I think something that’s interesting about your work is that it touches the generation – from Mr Cy Twombly to Mr Bruce Chatwin – that I look towards as the last of the romantic, great worldly artists. Do you feel that sense of nostalgia about them?
I don’t think it’s a question of nostalgia. I don’t think those pictures are nostalgic. Even if some of the people in them are dead already. But it’s a way of being close to them; having a close relation to either a place or an artist that I really respect and love. It’s a way to make a connection, to find the personal link between them… It is about inspiration. They are my friends and family.
Self-portrait, Arles, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Mr François Halard
So, it’s more of an involved relationship, you with the artists, than it is trophy hunting in the old Grand Tour sense?
Yes, maybe it was trophy hunting early on. I really love to be surrounded by them. They give me beauty, and rephotographing them gives me a sense of being with them. Also, there is the question of the reappropriation of what you love, and what you want to share after, you know? Because I’m like those teachers, for other people. [Sharing my pictures] so that they can share in the experience I am having. So, it’s about taking but it is also giving back.
It’s a regifting. Ha. Well, it is true in many cases – like the pictures of Mr Rick Owens’s home in Paris – that your photos become the definitive images of a space. Do you think about that as you are making the work?
Yes. For example, when I make the pictures, I try to get the best reflection of the people I am photographing. So, I try to be the best mirror for them. I really try to give all my energy to make their places look like them and not look like me. I mean, I am just a messenger in a way. I transcribe it, like a medium.
Medium is a good word for what you are doing in the pictures taken in the Manhattan homes of Ms Louise Bourgeois and Mr Saul Leiter after their artist-inhabitants had passed. Those pictures haunt me. What is the sensitivity that you are applying in those places?
When I do those – because I did both of them alone, with no interruptions, just by myself – I always try to be… I don’t know. They’re very present for me. And I think I can only do that if I really have love and respect for their work. But, again, I’m very close to them. It’s not something out of the blue. It’s something I really care about. And for me, it’s like being with them in their places for a day or two.
“Saul Leiter, Studio”, New York 2017. Photograph by Mr François Halard
Well, the whole book is really informed by people who clearly meant a lot to you. Such as the painter Mr Giorgio Morandi.
Yes, [the series of photos, taken in the studio of] Morandi is a double homage. Because the first homage is, of course, with Morandi, because I remember when I was a kid, my parents had a few Morandi books on their bookshelves. So, I was studying those from early childhood. And then, for me, the photographer Luigi Ghirri [who famously photographed Mr Morandi’s studio] is very important. So I did that story for those relations – my relation with Morandi’s work and my relation with Luigi Ghirri’s work. And the third relation is because I really admire those Luigi Ghirri pictures of Morandi’s studio. So, it was not at all a way of copying something. It was a way of getting inspiration from both.
Mr Ghirri is a cornerstone in this book – and also interesting because his images are recirculating a lot now, on Instagram. But this book, the way it is constructed feels like such a refusal of those digital platforms.
Exactly, it’s exactly the opposite. Because in the digital world, you get a lot of pictures, a lot of information very quickly and then, you’re gone. In this one, I really wanted to spend time and attention and lot of pages of, sometimes, almost the same pictures but a little bit different.
I’m curious about the way that you found your style. Did you begin by trying on other people’s points of view and finding what worked for you and what didn’t?
In a way, those pictures [of Mr Morandi’s studio, in the style of Mr Ghirri] are the kind of pictures I was doing when I was a kid, when I was 15, 16. Then I took some time, shooting for magazines to try a more commercial approach. And right now, in a way, I want to take back control of my own… reasoning. Back to the beginning. Which is just me, a camera and a subject and that’s that. No extra lighting, very direct. Without any correction, any retouching.
“James Brown, Studio”, Merida 2015. Photograph by Mr Francois Halard
How about your sartorial style? You shot a lot of GQ in the 1980s and 1990s. Did that help shape your the way you dress?
I guess I had that style, you know? I did a lot of fashion, for GQ and American Vogue, which was fun because I loved fashion. I think it’s great to be a young fashion photographer. And then after, you want to get something more personal to you. Now I see it like a revolution. It’s like coming back to my roots.
I’ve always really enjoyed being able to tell a story about a person through the things that they collect, or create, or the houses they make for themselves. You have done a very wonderful job doing that here – and then there is a whole book about your home in Arles, too.
Yes, exactly. I bought that house when I was very young, in my late twenties. Everybody was thinking I was crazy to live there almost years ago.
You’re a hopeful romantic to live in Arles, right?
I bought the house because it reminded me of Cy Twombly’s house in Italy. So that is what I did with the house, what I do with my pictures. It’s trying to create a stability around it, an inspiration, a momentum. It’s a constant work in progress. It’s always moving, changing and I photograph a corner, and maybe I change something after. It’s not real yet. It’s moving all the time.