In Conversation: Gilles Bensimon

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Gilles Bensimon has spent the past 40 years photographing some of the most beautiful women in the world in some of the world’s most beautiful locations, helped to define the visual identity of ELLE magazine, married and divorced Elle Macpherson and appeared on America’s Next Top Model TV show. UNP Founder and Curator Grant Scott managed to catch him on the phone in Paris to find out more about his life, times and photography.

Grant: Gilles, when I was art directing ELLE magazine, your style of photography was synonymous with the original French weekly version. How did you get involved with them in the 1980s and start taking those kinds of images?
Gilles: I must admit that when I was young I never wanted to work. It’s every kid’s dream to become somebody, and I went to art school, then the army and when I got out I realised that I was obliged to do something. I thought that a drug dealer was a good job but it had disadvantages. I never did become a drug dealer, but when a friend was trying it out as a business, I said to him that it seemed like a good job for me. He said he didn’t think so. So I tried to become some sort of artist, because my family were in the art business. Then I worked with a photographer for a very few months and then after that, very strangely, I started to work for ELLE magazine. But from the beginning they didn’t really want me to do what I wanted to do.

Grant: Your photography at the time seemed very natural.
Gilles: I’m happy you recognise that but at that time people didn’t think what I was doing was trendy, you know. I was never obsessed with trends. I think that photography should be timeless. It’s like cooking, you do not want too many ingredients. People talk more about my work now than they did then.

Grant: You were shooting a lot of images on beaches at the time which became your photographic signature.
Gilles: During the 1980s most of the work I did was for US and French ELLE and people commented on my pictures; I got heavily criticised. People said that whenever you opened ELLE all you saw was Gilles Bensimon on vacation. This was partly true but it’s funny because only the other day I saw a photograph in a magazine exactly the same as one I took in the 1980s.

Grant: A lot of people think that your style of work is easy to emulate but you made it seem effortless and in fact it’s not easy to do, is it?
Gilles: It’s not easy, I always think I take my best pictures without my camera, because photography is not about the camera, it’s about the way you look at things. Taking pictures is part of it but the important part is what you decide to shoot. I’ve just finished a trip to Tunisia where we had to shoot 30 pictures for publication in two to three days and I had to make decisions quickly, there was very little time. There is no recipe for a good picture.

Grant: Your work for ELLE through the 1980s became the ‘ELLE Look’; do you feel that clients started to buy that look by commissioning you?
Gilles: Yes and no. My relationship with ELLE is over now because they have lost a lot of my archive. They think they owned my film and negatives, and in America they have lost up to 50% of my images shot for them. I have had to go to court over this. I am not obsessed about working for ELLE and in fact I can’t even remember why I stopped working with them, I think they just wanted something different.

Grant: It’s very interesting when a photographer finds a client and forms a relationship where they understand your work and trust you.
Gilles: That’s the best but it is very dangerous also. If you have any problems with them or if someone involved in commissioning you leaves, they can get rid of you very easily.

Grant: But when you have had such a long career as yours, don’t people start to respect you as a photographer as well as for your photography?
Gilles: Yes, but although I do not compare myself to Guy Bourdin, if you remember, French Vogue fired him for no reason. That was really unfair. Two new girls were working there and when I spoke to them at the time they said Guy Bourdin was not what they wanted. It was strange.

Grant: It’s very hard to have a long career within the fashion industry, but your images seem to have always been in demand.
Gilles: It’s very kind you say that, it is important that my pictures are timeless; sometimes the clothes date, but the people are still real, you get something from that .

Grant: Do you think that the type of people who commission and respond to your photography has changed over the years? And if so, has it been for the better or worse?
Gilles: I don’t want to say for the worse, but I do not like being given mood boards – where the idea is not about looking at things and doing what the photographer thinks is right. This puts the photographer in a tough situation. There is so much you can do with photography. Each day I send to my friends two pictures; I take photographs all the time, which is the great thing about photography. It is a medium you can use in so many different ways and I am still excited to work. I now work for different magazines but I have not yet found the right one to work with on a long-term basis. I have done great portraits but I do not think I have done the ultimate portraits. I adore Irving Penn, who was a great photographer and when you look at his work you realise that there are so many things you can do with photography.

Grant: There used to be a number of great photographers coming out of France, with a French aesthetic similar to your own. Were you aware of this at the time?
Gilles: I must say that the British photographers were very good, they were fantastic.

Grant: But the British approach is very different from the French.
Gilles: Because you have a very special creative country, but the thing I always think about Britain is that you are very creative people but you destroy yourselves at some point. The French do have a different attitude, but there are not many fashion photographers coming out of France now. It is a money problem and they give up.

Grant: Do you see your work as a continuation of an approach you established?
Gilles: I have been lucky/unlucky because I have never made a lot of money from advertising, as some people have, so my career has been very steady within editorial. But I think my work has evolved, my work has changed as I have changed. Fashions change, attitudes change and I change. We do without realising that we have changed.

Grant: Your career has been defined by photographing beautiful women. Are they intrinsic to your photography?
Gilles: Yes and no, because I think that every woman is beautiful and every woman has something to say in a photograph. I have no aesthetic of what is supposed to be good or what is supposed to be bad, you know. My pictures are about trying to show women at their most beautiful. I try to take good pictures. I don’t judge my photographs, I don’t try to think about what people are going to say. Many photographers lose interest in photography after a time. They go to the studio every day to produce something they think they have to produce. That is not me.

Grant: Your approach is to create images that feel very natural, like a conversation, do you work very hard at creating this
Gilles: Yes, that’s funny because you’ve used the word I use sometimes, conversation. I like the people being photographed to forget the shoot, I say that we are not working, we are just taking some pictures. I try to get something, to get them to give me something that they have already.

Grant: Rather than getting them to be something or somebody they aren’t.
Gilles: Exactly. I am even more curious about taking pictures today than I have ever been. I have a need to take pictures, it’s like a craving for me to make sure that I do not miss the chance of recording something.

Grant: I have always been very aware of your work but do you think it has been recognised as much as it should have been, bearing in mind the influence you have had on photography?
Gilles: Honestly, I never really think about this. I was so much involved with ELLE magazine that it became irrelevant. It did not matter to me to become famous or be recognised. I was taking pictures almost every day and travelling, that was my life. At that time photographers were not as recognised as they are today. Many people now want to be celebrity photographers like Steven Meisel. But he is very influenced by other photographers’ work, and he has no shame about that. I have talked to him about this and he says he has the right to do it. This brings me back to the problem with the mood board. I understand that if you are shooting an advertising campaign the client needs to show you visually what they want, but it has become too important and encourages photographers to create photographs like ones they have been shown on the mood board.

Grant: I’d love to see a book of your beach images from your career, although it may end up on a lot of mood boards.
Gilles: I will do this, but only when I resolve the problem with my archive. I have already made one book, but I want to make a more complete one. If you are going to do a book it needs to be complete. I need to find someone to help me with this, with the editing. A photographer is the worst editor of their own pictures.

Grant: Do you think that it’s possible to become tired of the photography business, but not of photography?
Gilles: I believe that not everything has been done in photography and if you have kids, a lover, you photograph them, to capture a moment. But I think that it is possible to become tired of the business. A lot of fashion photographers have ended their own lives. They find it difficult when clients want new, young photographers. For example, if you play music, say piano or cello, then ageing is not a big problem, but if you are a fashion photographer it can be like being a pop star and then ageing becomes an issue. Also the fashion photographer’s attitude can be a problem if they become too arrogant and difficult.

Grant: I think the analogy with the music business is a good one.
Gilles: Yeah, yeah, the problem when you are a photographer is that you need to continue to take pictures for money. You may make less money than you did at one time or work for less prestigious magazines and get less recognition, but you have to accept this. If you work for recognition only, you may find this hard to accept, but if you work for money, then it is part of the business.

Grant: I agree and that seems to be a very healthy attitude to have if you want to create as successful a career as you have done over such a long period of time. I remember talking to the photographer Jeanloup Sieff about this.
Gilles: The problem with Jeanloup was that he thought he was the best photographer in the world. He never felt that people recognised his talent as much as he would have liked. You have to accept jobs even if they are smaller than you once did. But if you think you are at a certain level and do not accept jobs that you feel are beneath you, that’s a mistake.

Grant: I know that as we are talking you are in Paris, but are you still based in New York?
Gilles: Yes, I will go back to NewYork in a few days, then I will be back in Paris for a few days, flying, you know; I will go everywhere to find some work to do.

Grant: Thanks for sparing the time to talk, it’s been a pleasure
Gilles: For me too.

© Grant Scott 2016

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