How Patrick Demarchelier changed fashion photography (NSFW)
May 31, 2022
French photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who died in March, was one of the greats of recent decades, and injected a strong sense of personality into the fashion industry, says Damien Demolder
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Having heroes is a dangerous business. Some of them go and die on you, while others fall into disgrace. French fashion and portrait photographer Patrick Demarchelier has managed to do both, and it’s hard to know how to feel. Demarchelier was among the first photographers I idolised when my photographic brain was being slowly moulded in my teenage years.
Having exhausted the collection of books between 770 and 779 on the shelves between Printmaking and Music in our local library, I resorted to actually buying photography books and requesting them for birthdays. I think I saw the American Photography Master Series Fashion Photography by Patrick Demarchelier advertised by a photo book club in AP and, hoping it might inspire me, signed up and bought it.
Along with the fashion pictures by Tony McGee and others in my parents’ daily newspapers, this book really caught my attention and gave me something to aspire to. Of course, I never went into fashion or beauty photography, and the subjects I have photographed in the intervening years have been quite different. I also have had
fewer Vogue covers than Monsieur Demarchelier.
I do however hope that he has influenced me somewhat, not so much with the glitz and glamour of his celebrity sitters, but with the natural-looking images he created of them. As far away from the kitchen table in my family home as they are, I felt I could relate to the people in Demarchelier’s pictures. He had somehow got beyond the gloss and the marketing and was able to present the real person having a real life, so we could feel as if we knew them a bit. That was his magic for me then, and a magic he retained and was well known for throughout his long and distinguished career.
I’m certain Demarchelier’s career would have been even longer and more distinguished had he not had to duck out of view in the last four or five years after he was named as one of many fashion photographers alleged to have behaved inappropriately towards models. In the aftermath of the #MeToo explosion in the film industry, the Boston Globe newspaper published an investigation in which it interviewed models and workers in the fashion business who claimed they had been sexually harassed, assaulted and raped by photographers, agents and executives.
Seven women, including a former assistant, accused Demarchelier of sexual misconduct, and while he said they were lying, the publisher Condé Nast announced it would no longer be working with him, and his career rapidly petered out. Demarchelier was never charged with anything and he never got to defend himself in court – just as his accusers never got to state their cases – so we lack the certainty of the Harvey Weinstein verdict. ‘People lie and they tell stories,’ he said when approached by the Boston Globe.
‘It’s ridiculous,’ he said, adding that some models ‘get frustrated if they don’t work’. With the accusations coming out at the beginning of 2018, his official Instagram account had dried up by the summer, and it has since posted only archival images and posts about exhibitions. He was 74 years old when the story broke, so perhaps he just decided to retire and couldn’t be bothered with it all any more. Or perhaps he didn’t have a choice.
Now, though, we are left not knowing if it is okay to like his pictures, in the same way that it might be uncomfortable listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and we have to decide if the art is separate from the artist. I’m hoping that it is, otherwise if I have to stop listening to and looking at the work of people whose personal behaviour we might disapprove of, even the drunken, drug-taking, philandering Old Masters will have to go.
Paris to New York
Despite years of working in New York and London, and with predominantly English speakers, Demarchelier never lost a heavy French accent that made him very difficult to understand for those not used to him. Hairdresser Sam McKnight and former Vogue UK editor Alexandra Shulman both say they regularly had to translate Demarchelier’s ‘indecipherable’ English for clients and models.
Born just outside Paris on 21 August 1943 and brought up in Le Havre, Demarchelier was one of five brothers, whose mother was half French and half English. His father worked in a travelling circus, but left the family behind when he moved to Africa, and Demarchelier’s mother remarried. Her new husband bought a 17-year-old Patrick his first camera – a Kodak – which inspired him to learn to process and print his films.
He hadn’t been an enthusiastic student at school but threw himself into photography, shooting portraits of his friends and weddings at the weekend, and got himself a job in a local lab printing passport pictures. In the early 1960s, aged 20, Demarchelier moved to Paris to work in another lab, this time printing news images. He moved to a model agency where he was employed as the in-house photographer, and then moved once again to work as an assistant to the Swiss fashion photographer Hans Feurer. Feurer shot for Elle, Marie Claire and Nova magazines, which gave Demarchelier a leg-up in that world, as well as introductions to editors, art editors and fashion houses.
In 1975 Demarchelier tried his hand in New York, but his style was considered ‘too European’. It took a while for him to find success until he was taken on by publisher Condé Nast, where he shot campaigns and fashion stories for all the major fashion brands, both privately and through the host of magazines he covered for the publisher. He did very well there and really rocketed in the 1980s. He remained with Condé Nast until the early 1990s, when he became the lead photographer for Hearst Corporation, which published Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, O and Esquire. A ‘seven-figure sum’ enticed him back to Condé Nast in 2004.
Famous faces, and more
It’s almost pointless to try to list all the famous people Demarchelier photographed during his career. In short, if you were a supermodel in the 1980s or 1990s, you would have at some stage been in front of his lens for a magazine shoot, an advertising campaign, or for one of his books. You may also have been shot alongside him at a fashion party, backstage or in some exotic location. The list of fashion icons he shot really is endless, and I’m sure I don’t need to mention Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington or Naomi Campbell to remind you who the faces of the 1980s and ’90s were.
His style also attracted fashion-conscious celebrities, too, with Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Johnny Hallyday, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Prince and Tom Cruise all sitting for him at some stage for magazine covers, publicity and album covers. The political elite weren’t unaware of the Demarchelier effect either, and his portraits of Michelle Obama, Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton gave them a glamour and an approachability they would have valued a good deal for their public profile.
If you didn’t know who Patrick Demarchelier was before, you certainly would have done by 1990, when he photographed Diana, Princess of Wales, with a new short and very stylish hairdo for the cover of Vogue. Shot in stunning black & white in a plain white dress – which could actually have been a sheet – pearls, tiara and a beaming smile, the picture caused an instant sensation around the world.
It made Demarchelier a household name and empowered the princess at a difficult time in her life. She is quoted as saying the pictures were designed to ‘disarm my enemies’ and to give her an added element of independence in the world beyond the royal family. And they certainly did that. Diana had seen Demarchelier’s work in Vogue the year before and asked him to come to Highgrove to photograph her.
The picture that had caught her attention was of Vanessa Duve on the beach with her towel wrapped around Demarchelier’s son Victor. Victor was much the same age as Prince William, and Diana liked the casual and atmospheric nature of the picture – which appeared as the cover shot on the UK August 1989 issue. When Diana’s portraits were done, the then Vogue UK editor Liz Tilberis – who was a friend of both Diana and Demarchelier – asked to use one on the cover of
the magazine. And the rest is history.
Demarchelier went on to photograph the princess on many other occasions, including for another Vogue cover for the October 1994 issue and an especially striking cover story for Vanity Fair. The connection between all the pictures taken by Demarchelier of Diana is that they all make us feel closer to the subject. They present her as a normal, relatable, if very glamorous and elegant, person.
And this was a crucial factor in forming and reinforcing Diana’s relationship with the outside world and her ‘People’s Princess’ characterisation. The style of these shots has heavily influenced the images of the new generation of royals, particularly those of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Style and substance
It is remarkable that all of the images made available to AP for this article are in black & white. If you look at Demarchelier’s Instagram account (it’s well worth it) you will note that the majority of images shown there are also in black & white. He shot a lot of colour too, but the ’60s feel of his black & white – printed with shades of Helmut Newton contrast and tonality, and some Bailey-esque white backgrounds – perhaps best suits his cool Gallic style.
The pictures are alive and striking, and none can be ignored. They feature astonishing examples of beauty, sensuality, luxury and impossible cool even when shot without the assistance of props or location. They are bright, stylish and mostly happy. The sitters are still very chic, but they can smile and look as though they are having a good time in front of the camera.
This is one of the things that attracted me to Demarchelier’s work in the first place, that the subjects looked real, that they smiled a lot, that they looked healthy and that he presented them as people you’d like to know. His 2005 Pirelli calendar was a bit dark and mysterious – and black & white – but most of his work was light and airy.
Rather than being purely about fashion, Demarchelier’s images have a cultural element to them that’s possible because of his skills with people. The individuals portrayed in his pictures shine through the clothes (even when they aren’t wearing any) and the marketing, and many take on the weight of portraits. In recognition of the importance of his work the French Minister of Culture awarded him L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Literature) in 2007 for his ‘significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields’.
It is said that he was easy to work with and that he didn’t have a massive ego. He preferred a small team rather than an entourage, and was happy to move lights around himself. The Daily Mail quoted Alexandra Shulman as saying ‘…unlike many Vogue photographers, he wanted to deliver what you wanted. It was one of the secrets of his success.
‘Patrick had little of the ego of most fashion photographers. His aim was to achieve what was asked for in the best possible way – rather than to swerve it to a vision of his own, possibly something more complicated, dark and edgy. Instead, he appreciated a conventional notion of womanly beauty and through his skill was able to bring out the very best of whoever was in front of his lens. I always admired the beauty and casual sexiness he brought to his photographs.’
Whatever may or may not have happened between Demarchelier and those who accused him of misconduct, he passed from this world still well-loved by fellow photographers, models and those he worked with throughout his career. If the comments below the announcement of his death on Instagram are anything to go
by, there are plenty of former supermodels, editors and assistants who thought he was a fantastic person to work alongside, and many credit him with giving
them the break they so needed at the beginnings of their own careers.
He is said to have been happy to take a risk with new faces and to give people a chance. His death notice has attracted over 4,300 comments, almost all of which, as far as I can see, regard him in a very positive light, and come from leading figures from his beginnings to the modern age, including Amber Valletta, his long-time hairdressing partner Sam McKnight, Gigi Hadid, Christy Turlington, Christie Brinkley, Gisele Bündchen, Greg Williams and Kate Hudson, among many others.
I rather like a quote from another former editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour, who wrote in an essay for Christie’s auction house, ‘Patrick takes simple photographs perfectly, which is of course immensely difficult. He makes attractive women look beautiful and beautiful women seem real.’ That sums him up for me rather well.
Patrick Demarchelier died on 31 March 2022, aged 78.
The exhibition Beauty of Women III, which includes works by Patrick Demarchelier, is currently on view until 8 June – visit camerawork.de/en/virtualgallery
Featured image: Christy, Linda and Naomi, 2016