Michel and I first met two years ago, in Aix-en-Provence, which happens to be his birth town, although he grew up in Paris. We were both visiting an exhibition exploring Marilyn Monroe’s relationships with photographers, like himself. It was in early March. He caught me exposing my wan face to the sun, he was about to do the same. We just clicked (pun not intended).
When I visit his Paris studio it’s a rainy afternoon. We are chatting over coffee when a violent storm blows in. “I should get used to this weather though,” he says. Did you know I am part English?”
How is your name pronounced in English,“genius”?
It is funny you would ask! Your question reminds me of the day I tried to get Orson Welles to sit for me. I called up the Plaza Athénée. In the seventies it was easier to get in touch with a celebrity. You just had to ring their hotel, and the front desk would connect you to their room. I could not believe my ears. I was expecting a secretary on the other end, but the director picked up the phone. “Hello, this is Orson Welles,” he said with his legendary baritone voice. My breath was taken away. I was so nervous that I mispronounced my own name! One should never gallicize or anglicize a name. Yet I introduced myself as Michel “Genius”. He laughed and replied: “So you are the genius here, huh?” My blunder had no consequence on my not getting the interview. It was simply a question of bad timing. I wish we had met in person though.
Speaking of celebrities, how come you started off as a paparazzo…
My grandfather took me to photographer Henri Ely’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, where I used to spend my summer breaks. I was maybe ten. I saw images pop up on a blank board. It was magical. I knew I wanted to do that for a living. My aunt offered me my first camera when I was fifteen. After graduation, my first job consisted of developing photos. Then, when I reached twenty, a friend dragged me to the Sipa Press agency, where we were both hired on the very same day. They were giving away films—which wannabe photographers could barely afford—and assignments like free candies. One day I was snapping away at ministers. The next, I was waiting for Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol to stagger out of the restaurant Maxim’s. I also got to travel a lot, from Honduras to Cuba, where I met Fidel Castro, but I did not care for politics. I can only photograph people I like.
Any memory worth mentioning? Off the top of your head?
I was driving my motorcycle from one palace to another. Most the stars would usually stay at the Ritz. We found a hole in a wall, on the façade, where we could leave notes for one another. There were no cellphones back then. It was the only way to let my friends know where to find me, and vice versa. I really enjoyed shadowing Jack Nicholson, for instance. He is one of the nicest public figures I have ever met, as classy as he was accessible. He knew playing along with the paparazzi was part of his work. Celebrities tend to complain more nowadays. Unlike some of my counterparts, who gave up quickly, I would shoot until my targets were out of my sight. Which caused Catherine Deneuve to call me “a goody-goody nuisance”. It’s true that no-one ever saw me coming. I have one of those faces you want to smile back at.
You stopped working as a paparazzo in the 1990s to focus on portraits. Why?
It was time for me to move on. I was getting too old to spend my nights waiting in the cold outside. My grandmother was an art dealer. Art has always been a big part of my life. I do not necessarily make an appointment. I prefer taking pictures on the spot. I worked with Keith Haring three days in a row, a month before he died. I adore William Klein and was lucky enough to be able to buy a picture by him directly from him, whereas others had to deal with his gallery. We became friends. He took a picture of me. I covered his latest anniversary. And it is because of him I joined Instagram last December! I thought if my ninety-year-old idol took the plunge, why not me?
Since 2000, you have been also collecting music and cinema images, from movie posters to photos from Italian or Godard films? Why not before then? Has your collection ever helped you meet new models?
I think I had it in me all along. One day I was accredited to take shots of Serge Gainsbourg during a TV show. The singer ended up burning a 500 franc (£67) note live. This episode made such a fuss. I rushed onto the set in order to pick up the last piece of the deteriorating bill. I framed it to showcase it in my living room, as you can see.
“I do not think my eye was mature enough before then. I knew it had grown sharper the day I identified an untitled picture of Patti Smith as a Mapplethorpe”
A couple of years later, I bought my first photograph at the flea market. I do not think my eye was mature enough before then. I knew it had grown sharper the day I identified an untitled picture of Patti Smith as a Mapplethorpe. And I was right. I would never actively bargain my way into meeting a potential sitter. However my collection did favour some gigs. I sold literary critic Bernard Pivot a poster he was looking for. As a favour he later agreed to appear in a series of photos of his house in Burgundy, after turning down many of my colleagues. I did a photo shoot with Claudia Cardinale lying among posters from my collection which have her face on them.
What about Francis Bacon? I know you how important he is for you. Could you elaborate?
In 1987 I heard that Francis Bacon was presenting his work at the Galerie Maeght Lelong in Paris. As a Bacon fan, I had to go! The PR advised me not to ask for anything since the artist was usually reluctant to pose. I still asked him, once the room had cleared out, if I could take some pictures of him. “I am all yours,” he said. I am usually shy, but this time I showed great firmness. I did not want anyone next to him so I pushed all the remaining visitors back. My absolute dream would be showcase this series in London at some point.