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Jean-Marie Périer on Life Behind the Lens

With a new star-studded photography exhibition picturing the biggest names from the ’90s fashion world, French photographer Jean-Marie Périer holds forth on his funniest career moments and not giving a damn

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but for the legendary French photographer Jean-Marie Périer, that number may be slightly conservative. Over the crackling line between London and France, Périer is charming and buoyant from the get-go. Between fits of laughter when recounting the most comical and bizarre of photo shoots (and subjects), in an accent as thick and smooth as the richest foie gras, it’s hard to catch every single word, no matter how many times I play back the recording. But no matter, as only half is more than enough to get a feel for the larger-than-life man, who, when barely out of his teens, managed to infiltrate and document the lives of some of the biggest stars of his generation – and beyond.  

Born in France in 1940, Périer began his career assisting Daniel Filipacchi (now the chairman of magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi) shooting jazz musicians for pop-rock magazine Salut les copains. Through the early ’60s and ’70s, he produced some of the most famous and now collected photos of the era, with subjects including The Beatles and Mick Jagger. After working for 15 years as a feature film director in France and an advertising director in the US (where he shot more than 600 adverts for Coca-Cola, Ford, Nestlé and Camel, to name a few), Périer’s star-studded career was to peak again in the ’90s, when he re-focused his lens to shoot some of the biggest fashion names in the industry. And it is these photos that have prompted him to exhibit in London for the first time this September with Jean-Marie Périer: Designers at The Little Black Gallery.

“In the ’60s I had a great liberty in making pictures – no limitations in terms of my imagination."

“As a photographer, I’ve had two lives,” he enthuses, although you’ll simply have to imagine the exclamation marks after every sentence, for the subs won’t be having any of it. “In the ’60s I had a great liberty in making pictures – no limitations in terms of my imagination. And suddenly I had the opportunity to do the same thing with the fashion designers.”

With his sister Anne-Marie, the chief editor of French Elle magazine, he was indeed given unprecedented access and freedom. “These designers were the rock stars of their day. They had the money, talent and imagination to advance their lives like the stars of the 1960s.”

We discuss some of the shots you can expect to see at the show, and Périer laughs as he can’t quite remember the specifics of what is and isn’t included, having taken so many portraits in his time. The one that moves him the most is an image of Yves Saint Laurent peeping out from behind a red curtain. “We had a great friendship and I have a lot of tenderness for this man, so it’s very moving for me. It says a lot to me about our generation.”

He laughs (again) as we touch on the shot of Jean-Paul Gaultier dressed as the pope, so much so that the anecdote itself is barely audible. “He is someone with a sense of humour who is ready for anything, as long as we laugh.” And he laughs yet again when looking back at the portrait of Vivienne Westwood, who ended up with a naked suitor by her side, totally unplanned. They were shooting in a “beautiful little gallery in London”, although the name escapes him, and somehow or another the suitor ended up in the frame. “The director of the museum – his reaction was so English. He just looked and didn’t say anything. He just accepted that we made the photo of Vivienne Westwood with this man who was naked. The reaction of the director was hilarious. It wouldn’t have been the same reaction in the Louvre, I can tell you.”

“It was extraordinary to be in touch with the likes of The Beatles, to live with them"

Although it is Périer’s second wave of work that has brought him to London nearly three decades later, he still looks back with fondness to the ’60s. “I had the good luck of being 22 in 1962 and that was still the highlight of my career,” he says. “It was extraordinary to be in touch with the likes of The Beatles, to live with them. Through the ’90s things changed a lot in the celebrity world. It became a business. Everyone was writing about image. In the ’60s all these guys were between 18 and 20 years old. They didn’t have an image problem because they didn’t know they had an image.”

Inevitably, we move on to modern celebrity and the image-obsessed world of social media, selfies and selling out. “Everybody can be a photographer today.The life of a photographer that I had the luck to live is over,” he says, although it isn’t with any sadness or resentment. “Maybe these young guys with their iPhones will become just as creative in a different way, which is fantastic. Photography is not reserved for the few anymore. Everyone can do it. I don’t think it’s a good thing for me personally; I’m an old man. I’m finished. To say, ‘oh, I don’t like new technology’, is to say, ‘oh, I don’t like the flu’. It’s stupid to say because it’s here. It’s everywhere.”

I ask if he collects art, or photography for that matter, but the answer is no. Indeed, he finds the question quite amusing – the idea that one artist would collect the work of another, or even display his own. “I’m not a specialist and I’m not a professional at all; I just choose to do what I like. Art is a dangerous word. I don’t trust people who refer to themselves as artists. It is for other people to call you an artist. Nothing is sacred – there are only two things that I think are important in life: illness and giving birth to a child. Your career, being respected, being loved and honoured – I don’t give a s*** about that.”

Although I suspect the answer won’t be a serious one, I ask for any advice for the next generation of photographers from a man who really has seen it all. He scoffs. “Let’s make the best of it and push all these young people to do it their way. They are young so therefore they are right. Even if they make mistakes, they are right because they are the future. All the young people who come to see me to ask advice, I always say to them, ‘Don’t listen to old people’. I say, ‘Do your thing, do exactly what you want and forget everything else’. The rest is bulls***. When I was young I never listened to anybody.”

While Périer will be heading briefly to the capital for the opening of his show, it’s somewhere he no longer feels comfortable for long periods of time. He is happy at home, in the French countryside, with his bare walls. “My new protégé is a donkey,” he says. “My donkey needs me.” And for the first time, he doesn’t laugh.

Jean-Marie Périer: Designers, 14 September – 14 October, The Little Black Gallery, 13A Park Walk, SW10, www.thelittleblackgallery.com