Interview by Filep Motwary
François Halard graciously agrees to an early-morning interview over the phone from New York. The French-born, continent-straddling photographer has been one of the world’s most highly regarded interior and architectural photographers practically since his teens, and his collaborative résumé is a roll call of legendary American and European artists, editors, fashion designers and art directors. The critic Vincent Huguet’s description of Halard’s work needs no translation: he photographs “en liberté, avec gourmandise, mais aussi avec une forme d’urgence, de nécessité”.
FilepMotwary: For how many years have you been going back and forth from Paris and New York?
FrancoisHalard: Oh God, I think the first time I received a call from Alexander Liberman I was in my mid 20’s, so its been 25 years already; but first visit was at the age of 14-with my parents-and I found it shocking and at the same time it felt like it was my hometown.
FM: Mr Halard, how did everything start for you really? There is too little or vague-at times-information about how you formed your career and how everything begun?
F.H: Yes, there is very little information around only because I like privacy… I started photographing around 12 after witnessing Helmut Newton taking photographs at my parent’s home! At the time it was a very popular location among photographers, there was something very special about it indeed. I think its because my parents were very famous interior designers. I was a very reclusive as a kid and I didn’t talk that much, being very shy.
FM: You have brothers and sisters?
F.H: One big brother yes. So as I was saying, I had speaking difficulties in my early years. Having a life within which you had to “look” through a lens in order to make a living was really intriguing and in a way very protective, or at least this is how I saw it from a young age. Of course I don’t feel like those days anymore (laughs). I was thinking of owing a camera as a sort of protection from the outside world…
FM: So you are saying you were a “distant observer”?
F.H: Yes! Exactly. There were a lot of photography books in the house and I remember my dad used to make collages using fashion tear sheets in the dressing room. By the age of 14 I could see the difference between a page from Elle and a picture from Vogue. FM: Such a habit normally would have been chosen by someone young like your age at the time, rather by someone like your father, it makes it even more interesting for me to hear this detail.
F.H: My parents didn’t want me to become a photographer.
FM: But they must have had a formed opinion on beauty in general, since the were working in interior design…
F.H: Yes. It was great. Every weekend we would visit museums, the flea markets, exhibitions…
FM: Did you feel the need to prove yourself to them?
F.H: Yes of course, yes. I wanted to prove that I would make it so I quit going on school vacation every summer instead I would call photographers asking them to hire me as an assistant. So I worked for free in order to learn.
FM: So was it naivety of youth or just thirst to actually get involved in this business?
F.H: I think it was both. At the time working in a studio seemed much more important than hanging out with kids of my age. Being not too social, it was a good way for me to learn and experience new things that would also secure the distance I wanted to keep from things I didn’t find appealing for my tastes. Also, I preferred being around older people than my age.
FM: So more specifically, was there a moment or a specific incident that made you realize that this is what you’re supposed to do with your life?
F.H: It all came naturally. I was saving money to buy a camera and then I saved to get a better one and so on. There was never a doubt about this choice of mine.
FM: How old were you then, when you started with Vogue? Did you see it as an opportunity, were you aware of what you were getting yourself into?
F.H: I was 25 and I absolutely had no idea! (Laughs) My first job was to do a couture story, which of course is the highest one can get, you know? At the time was living in a very small apartment in Paris on the 6th walk-up-floor with the loo on the corridor and in one day I had a driver… Alexander Liberman wanted to see me so he sent a concord ticket for me.(Laughs) I had no idea on how perverse the situation would be after. I was so naïve.
FM: What else were you looking for at that time? How would you describe that period of your life?
F.H: I started with a woman called Marie Paule Pelle, she was the editor of a new magazine at the time called “Decoration International” and from very early on she offered my first commissioned job after she saw some pictures I did for my parents company at 18. She asked me to show her my portfolio.
Two months later, out of the blue, she called at home-as she was also friends with my mother- and informed me that “tomorrow morning” I was doing the cover of Maison Marie Claire…in a studio with lights, models, décor… I said, “ I have never done this before” and she responded, “You’ll be fine”.
At the time when Decoration International was first released I was still a student at the The École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. She was looking for a guy to help the magazine’s art director with the layout like a photo editor etc. So, although I quit school, a job was already waiting for me.
At the time I was looking for being out in the world, I wanted to be free and to explore and discover. It was a very exiting period as I had the great opportunity of living my dream, working where I wanted to work among the best people around. I wanted to progress! Then Marie Paulle moved to Vogue Decoration for which I contributed and at the time it was a really revolutionary magazine mixing décor, artists, portraits…
Really avant garde! US Conde Nast was aware of my photography by then and Alexander Lieberman asked me to work for House and Garden. Then they launched Vanity Fair and asked if I wanted to work also for that!
It was also the time when the opportunity to shoot couture came and on a very naïve sense in terms of what politics involve, I said “yes”. Though before that, I always used to work in the lowest profile possible. I had no assistant, almost no camera, no studio and everything was in a little bag. So Vogue offered everything that was missing.
FM: You could have chosen any other type of photography, yet your work focuses on architecture and interior. This choice was a result of getting inspired by your parents then?
F.H: These days yes! I did fashion for many years and I truly loved it back then. I was the first one to shoot Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, shooting the Victoria’s Secret catalogues, big campaigns and things like that.
It was great to live fashion success very early on. What else can you do if you taste it all too early? Well, when you get all that accomplished the next natural phase wants you to do something more full and nourishing. I used to travel with great writers..etc
With the fact of my architecture and landscape photography, the magazines used to send me all over the world and I would come back with pictures- especially American Vogue-in India to shoot the architecture or the next day I would fly to Topkapi with free access to shoot anything I wanted. For example, I remember once for Vanity Fair, when I was by myself with all Picasso’s sketchbooks in a room. Do you realize the freedom and opportunity this work has given me?
I was blown away by the opportunity of learning and the freedom to access the most obscure things; meeting all these great artists also or me, this was the best education I could ask for. Maybe this is why my style is a little different from the rest of the interior photographers, since many of them do not like photographing people. I like to mix interior with people, you know, its something that really makes me feel at ease.
Today I’m doing a mix of both. Even when I am photographing an empty room, you can still feel the presence of the owner. I like this sense of life and I detest pure architecture photography because I think very often it comes out very cold.
FM: What is so fascinating about the human living space?
F.H: Homes tell a story. It’s like the autobiography of the owner in a way. For example I was recently photographing the house of Cy Twombly and you could feel what he would feel when looking at it. I like when I photograph a place to have the friends of the owners included. Its not only about the decoration, its about how everything comes to life with the energy of people and their reflection in the space.
FM: What would be your justification or definition for the ability and the fact that humans are connected with their residences, their homes?
F.H: It’s their protection, something that works like clothes, the way someone likes to dress, what they choose to read, what they collect and so on. A house tells a lot about the person.
FM: Is there a reason that makes the human relation to elements -things like furniture or decorative objects-an extension to his/her own being?
F.H: Yes! Most definitely! There are too many different houses, like the American home for example: which is more about collecting symbolic status and about its relation to the society, the art-world. When you see an artist’s house, it tells you something more personal, the personality etc..
FM: According to your own experiences, what do all these houses you photograph, have in common?
F.H: Nothing actually. Well nothing really, though in my case I am always asked to photograph the best houses (laughs) so I am pretty privileged about it. I love it. When I’m not photographing, I take care of my own space. I collect objects and furniture. It’s really like a drug somehow.
FM: So what kinds of things you collect?
F.H: A lot of things!! I’m a collect addict. With the first paycheck I got I bought my first Modern art-piece, which was a lithograph by Cy Twombly, 25 years ago. Recently I bought an Egyptian sarcophagi of Horus.
FM: Oh, like a real one?
F.H: Not really. It’s smaller. Also a Greek 4th century stone sculpture. So my collection ranges. I still go looking for objects every week, anywhere I am. I love decorative art.
FM: Is your photography close to your life?
F.H: Yes, it is very close. It’s part of it, solidly.
FM: Your pictures always incorporate multiple layers; object compositions and it seems like a musical piece at moments. How do you react when a space does not work for your lens, your concept?
F.H: I work very hard to find something and make it happen, sometimes it is not easy but I always fight it. I try to see it, understand it, look around, and approach it in different ways. It’s easy when you do things that you have put together. But when you have such an “assignment” that does not work, you have to push your own limits.
FM: I want to focus on your portrait photographs. What do you look for in a face? How does it work for you when taking portraits?
F.H: Honesty! For example, I was very happy when Tate Gallery chose my portrait of Cy Twombly to use for all his TATE exhibitions. I am speaking for the portraits I do for myself though. For Vogue it’s a little bit different because you have to look at the fashion, put them in a smiley environment. But when I work for myself, I try to see “honest” and “direct”
FM: In your opinion Mr Halard, what is a photographer’s role in fashion these days? How do you perceive fashion today, since you have distanced yourself from it?
F.H: The business has changed tremendously.
FM: In what ways.
F.H: When I was a kid it was the time Newton, Bourdin, Deborah Turbeville, Penn, Avedon, Bailey… They all were following their own vision and style.
FM: So you are saying that there are no such originals?
F.H: There are a few. But now I feel weird when I see a story a new story based on something that was perfectly made in the 1990’s or 1980’s. There’s so much re-reference.
FM: Is it necessarily bad? Couldn’t a new interpretation of an old photo be better than the original?
F.H: For me the industry is lacking a sense of surprise at the moment, lets put it this way. My best friend was Katell Le Bourhis, head of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, and also I used to collect dresses, my mother also wore couture. You could show me a painting, a magazine, a photo and I could tell you where it came from, the references behind it, the inspiration, all of that.
I could pretty much put a date on everything.
I worked a lot with YSL and all those people. It was a fabulous time and I remember my mother speaking about Dior… Back then, any time these people created a collection it was a true revolution…
Or even what Newton did for YSL, he took the clothes and created another version of the YSL woman, pushed it to another level, you know. So, yes I must be frank.
I’m not surprised anymore though I wish I could say so. Also with the digital aspect of fashion today, I don’t like it! Sometimes I can recognize easier the “retoucher” instead of the photographer. I prefer things to be a bit more raw. I didn’t become a photographer to spend my life in front of a computer screen correcting images.
FM: You’ve continued with your own way of photographing, for many many years now. Is it a matter of ego or being afraid of new things?
F.H: It’s a question of generation I think. It’s not about the technical. A lot of things work digital but I prefer to see the “human trace” somewhere.
FM: Do you feel more comfortable when shooting houses or humans?
F.H: Both! It depends on the humans and it depends on the houses. (Laughs)
FM: Men or Women?
F.H: Both!!! You know I love men’s fashion working at GQ for ten years. Women attract me and all feels like an experiment for me, as long as I get stimulated intellectually, aesthetically. I respect people and what they do.
FM: What is the greatest lesson you learned from someone else’s mistake?
F.H: That you always have to be fresh and you must have an instinct on how things need to be done.
FM: How do you justify fresh?
F.H: It’s important for me to treat each shoot like it’s my first one.
FM: Because “fresh” is a term only used by fashion people and in a way its something understandable only from those in the industry. Outsiders do not get what “fresh” means, if you see my point.
F.H: It’s difficult to explain! Fresh… Hmm… (Pauses for a while) Something not too much done… Freshness means that something is still to discover.
It needs a certain approach to be revealed and looks as something new when finished. Fresh means to be a “kid” in front of a candy. I don’t like when I see people not connected with what they do. For example what I like about Hans Feurer, since you mentioned him earlier, is that he likes what he is doing and it’s always done in a fresh way. Il n’est pas blaze. It’s not about repeating yourself; it’s about looking each thing from a different angle each time.
FM: I wish to ask you about art; in your photographs very often you focus on a painting, a sculpture, a photo on a wall. How do you perceive art as Francois and what does art reveal for someone’s personality or home?
F.H: Art speaks to me and I need to be surrounded by it. I like photographing, living, feeling it. Now I’m doing more and more exhibitions and I am trying to move a bit away from magazines and focus on projects like curating my own body of work. Sometimes its strange when you create your own art by photographing the art of somebody else, you know.
There is a fine line but I think there is always something very exiting to try. Taste from taste differs. There are two opposite categories: the people who buy art because they love it and own an important body of art collection, the people who really feel it. You see what they have gathered and naturally they could become an art advisor for example. Then there’s the other category that buys art for the personal appeal to the outside, and you can understand it immediately.
FM: From all your famous stories, my favorite and most outstanding on personal taste is the series you did of Villa Malaparte. I would like to know more about it. The time, the story behind this legendary architectural masterpiece.
F.H: Oh Yes!!! The first time I went to Capri, I was walking with an editor, friend of Alex Lieberman, Baronessa Beatrice Monti Della Corte Rizzori, who used to spend time with Malaparte in his house. Her father was a friend with him; they were in Africa together during the war.
I would always hear stories about that house and of course when Jean Luc Godard released my favorite movie I became fixated. It took me ten years to get a day’s permit ion in the Villa, ten years! I was craving. It was like wanting to have sex with someone for ten years (laughs)
FM: Yes, by looking at the pictures I can sense that you where there but couldn’t believe it.
F.H: Yes, I was even shaking. I was emotionally moved and disturbed. It was something between dreaming a love affair and living it. Sometimes I get physical when I enter a space that moves me, very emotional, especially when I try to capture it, dominate it. You also have to be very respectful about it. I rarely move things when I shoot.
FM: So how did you get the permission for Malaparte finally?
F.H: Well I got it on the 100th anniversary of Malaparte. At the time I was working for La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper. I used that connection to get me in for a day. I loved the house on a different level. Even my mom was a fan of Malaparte’s writing. I was a fan of his architecture. I also liked the fact that he named his house “Faites-moi une maison comme moi!” He always considered his house as part of his own autobiography, an extension of him. You can see that. I’m happy when I hear that something that made me so emotional, made others emotional, like you.
FM: It felt the same for me a few months back when I first visited the notorious Villa Noailles.
F.H: Yes!! I photographed that also. I had a show there about a year ago. Before the renovation of the house I did a little movie story there in which I was trying to recreate some of the Villa Noailles Man Ray images in black n white Polaroid. So I did these series of Polaroids that will actually be included in a book that I am preparing. The Villa Noailles for me is completely mythological.
FM: How do you see the future of photography?
F.H: That’s a good question! The answer is my own question: “How I see the future of magazines? Well, they don’t know themselves and in order to survive, maybe they should be less safe.
FM: So you are saying that magazines today are predictable?
F.H: Yes, predictable, that’s the word!! Predictable, on what they show and the way they show it.
FM: Your next plans? Tell me more about the book if you can.
F.H: I continue to work for the magazines and I am also preparing the book with Rizzoli, which will be about my interiors, a bold publication. Actually 350 pages. For the next couple of months I will need to be in Arles and go through my archive, which will be a very long process. Maybe I have 2500 -3000 stories to look through. It’s the work of 30 years (laughs). It scares me a bit to dig into my past and see…
FM: What are you afraid of finding? Mistakes?
F.H: No, no! I am afraid only the amount of work it’s going to be.
François Halard was born in 1961 in France but now spends time between homes in New York and France. He studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Soon after, he began working for Decoration International, and then with Conde Nast art director Alex Lieberman. In 1984, François moved to New York City where he began regular commissions for several Conde Nast publications, including American Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and House & Garden.