François Halard owns interior photography today. Actually, he has for several years. His secret has to do with "warmth." Passion for reading and traveling is warmth. Passion for seeing and observing is warmth. Passion for imagining and following dreams is warmth. When looking at the world through his eyes, you, too, want to read, travel, see, observe, imagine, and dream more. His life has taken him around the world and into some of the most exquisite and famous interiors and his warmth has captured indelible image after image, many of which I think will become definitive documents of these places for decades to come. If the clothes make the man, then in François' case, the spirit makes the photograph.
I was able to meet François last month in Paris and this is the first interview in the OGR series which I did in person and recorded. He was dashing around the city looking for film as he had a very short window in Paris between shooting trips, but he could see me for an hour. It was a cold, drizzly morning and I was able to find us a table in an empty sideroom of a cafe on Place Saint-Sulpice. He showed up wet with a peacoat and watch cap on and was happy to have a coffee. Once we settled in and I asked him the first question his eyes lit up and he was off to the races, for François LOVES books. The hour flew by and he bundled back up to continue his search. As he walked away I remember thinking he looked warm -Wes Del Val
WDV: If you could read personal histories about any of the interiors you’ve shot, which would you choose and who would you want to write each?
FH: I would choose my first main shock actually, which was being able to photograph Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s house in 1982 in Paris. It was a shock to be by myself in front of that collection. I managed to do some trips with them after, in Russia and elsewhere, and I started a collaboration with them over the years. The idea of a real collector, in a very Proustian way, is why I would like to have had Proust writing about both of them and their Paris apartment. It would have been really interesting to read his description about the juxtaposition of the periods in that home.
I am currently reading Proust in the Power of Photography, a book that Brassaï wrote, and it is absolutely super interesting. He says that Proust was very attracted to photography, which I did not know, and he used to have his portrait taken many times and he would exchange portraits with the people he admired, or with a girl for instance that he wanted to write about. The focus he had on photography is very interesting.
What are three important books for you which you think not enough younger people know about?
Since I have 5,000 books it is very difficult to choose. I would start with Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens, People by Horst, the original one with the portraits of Cy Twombly’s house and Pauline de Rothschild’s. I think it was the first time someone opened the door to really unique interiors and that was of main importance for me. I was inspired by it, especially as I saw it before working for US Vogue, for how I could document history and generations’ visual moments through interiors.
The second one is Alex Liberman’s The Artist in His Studio because I had the chance to be brought to New York by Alex in 1984 to work for Condé Nast. I was a very young French photographer living in a sixth floor walk-up and he called me and asked if I wanted to work for Condé Nast. I didn’t speak English, I had absolutely no clue, I learned German and Latin in school. But I said “Why not?” and went to New York by Concorde and started my relationship with Condé Nast. Basically I was the last trouvaille (find) by Alex. I really admired the people who were working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, meaning Penn, Avedon, Horst and Newton. Helmut used to often work at my parent’s place when I was a kid and basically I thought it was more important to see him working than to go to school those days he was there.
What I liked about Alex’s books is that he himself was an artist, an art director, and a photographer, and I think he used this particular one as a tool for himself to get to go into the artists’ studios, to visit Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Dubuffet… The last time I was in New York I found in a flea market all the press photos from the “Artist in His Studio” exhibition at MoMA in 1959. There is a direct link in a way with my own work and that body of work. I think it is really important, along with Ugo Mulas’s work of artists working in New York in the 1960s.
My third book is Cy Twombly Photographs, the Matthew Marks catalog from 1993 of Cy’s first photographic work when it was not really well-known. Cy used to always say he was known first for his paintings and drawings, and then his sculpture, and then his photography. I found in this small book really a sensibility of how you can use your own environment and your own place as the base of your photographic work as personal meaning.
My work is really a combination of those three and what I wanted to make myself: the photographs of my house with the same Polaroid camera Cy used for his own, the connection was very important, making it an homage to him; an homage to Alex going to the artist’s studio like I do now with visite privée for my personal research; and with Horst about my relationship to being a commercial photographer and how working for the big magazine titles can open some doors.
Since you travel so much, how and what do you like to read when you do so? Do you prefer to bring multiple books for variety, or one long one which will sustain you for the whole trip, or none because ebooks suffice and weigh nothing?
First, I never read books on a tablet, only physical. That’s why I make books, because I love them as an object and not only as reading material, so for me the final object is as important as what is inside. Because I travel with all my camera equipment in the plane or train I usually get minimal extra space, so I can not travel with as many books as I would love to, but since I buy books in almost every place I go, I always have a couple in my bags and it always varies. For example, over my last few trips to Arles I’ve been reading a small new Luigi Ghirri book about some photography experiences he had in Italy in the 1970s; the John Richardson book, Picasso and the Camera; and a big Sigmar Polke book on photography. I’m not a fan of paperbacks, but I am reading La Pelle (The Skin) by Malaparte at the moment because he is very influential on me and was one of my mother’s favorite writers, and with shooting his house I have a connection.
What are the most pleasurable conversations you’ve had about book culture with any owners of the properties you’ve photographed?
Right now I am working on another book, this one with Beatrice Monti Della Corte, called A Tower in Tuscany. She has the Santa Maddalena Foundation, a retreat for writers. Her father was a friend of Malaparte’s and she always talked to me about her childhood and the times she spent alone with Malaparte in Capri, when she was 15, 16 years old. With Beatrice it is a long story of traveling for 30 years together around the world: to London to photograph Bruce Chatwin’s flat done by John Pawson; to Greece with Bertolucci; going to Istanbul with her searching for her family memories; visiting the Pierre Loti bedroom in the Bosphorus; crossing India with her husband Gregor von Rezzori for a month and doing a travel and photography diary on Mogul architecture; visiting and photographing the ateliers of Cy Twombly and Bob Rauchenberg...just to name few. She had a great influence on me—traveling in such company was the best education I could get.
I also had a chance to photograph John Richardson and we had fantastic conversations about his relationships with all the artists he knew. We talked mainly about his time in the south of France with his lover Douglas Cooper at the Chateau de Castille (I was lucky to photograph its Picasso mural), going to the bullfights in Arles with Cocteau and Picasso, and visiting them (Picasso and his wife Jacqueline) at Villa La Californie. John’s life during these years is described in his wonderful book, The Sorcerer‘s Apprentice. I brought John a gift I found: a photograph by Jacqueline of him, Cooper, and Picasso talking on the stairs of La Californie.
Ha, what a coincidence, I’m reading The Sorcerer’s Apprentice right now.
Which books most influenced your photographic sensibilities when you were starting out and which today impress you?
All of Helmut Newton, but especially Pola Woman. Brassaï is very important—his Paris de nuit (Paris By Night)—because there is a link between him and literature with Paul Morand writing in Paris de nuit. I always wanted to collect Brassaï’s original pictures of him photographing Picasso’s studio, so I have a couple of those prints. When I was younger and didn’t have the money to collect photography, Brassaï’s again, for example, I would collect the book and the postcards. Owning an actual print or first edition is almost like traveling for me. I am also a big fan of the publishers Cahiers d’Art and Zervos.
Something important I want to point out is that when I was a kid I was not speaking, I had a problem with language and was stuttering into my late teens. I didn’t speak, so my world was very closed and the only relationship I had with the outside world was through my parents’ library. So for me books offer even another way of discovering and I could dream with and through them. For example I remember a book which was very important to me was one about Katsura, the royal garden in Kyoto, and at 10 years old, 12 years old, I always looked at that book, almost everyday. So of course the first place I went when I visited Japan was Katsura. Another is Mario Praz’s book on interior decoration (An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau). He was a scholar and collector of paintings of interiors.
Today what impresses me is books about African and New Guinea art because I’ve started to collect those objects. Another relationship I have with books is that when I find an object I want to do some research on, the only way I do it is through books. I always go to a book before looking online. That’s why I always wanted to live near the Strand when I lived in New York. You can not imagine the number of hours in my life I spent in that bookshop! And I found absolutely great treasures for nothing. Especially before everything was online. It’s very difficult now to find discoveries. It’s funny, I still always go first to a bookstore.
What do you want to happen to your 5,000 books when you die?
I’m working on archiving everything because I would like to start a foundation in Arles. I would love my house and its contents, including the archive, to be a resource. I just think it will be a fabulous opportunity to be able to share visually with the rest of the world some precious moments I was lucky to have recorded through the years. It’ll also allow me to do some more books with it. But first I have to organize it. It’s probably a ten year project.
From discovery to purchase, how do you find what you want to read these days?
I still buy newspapers, Le Monde and Libération and the New York Times when I’m in New York, and regularly read the New Yorker, so those are my main sources. That’s why I loved working for a newspaper, even as a photographer, even when they paid shit in those days. I love working today for T magazine, WSJ, and Die Zeit in Germany. And for many years I had a contract with La Repubblica in Italy. Last year I started a relationship with M, Le Monde’s weekend supplement, and I have carte blanche so every week the magazine will open with one of my images.
It all goes back to my love of paper. I think that’s really why I love photography, it is a link between that and magazines and books and print.
Which living writers’ homes would you most like to photograph? Which dead writers’?
Much easier for me to list dead writers, but if I had to pick a living one I’m sure my friend Maylis de Kerangal would give me something interesting. I just like the way she describes intimate feelings and spaces. I can see visually through her.
As for dead ones, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa for sure. Proust for sure. Victor Hugo! I love his drawings, too. Celine would be another one. My father was a big fan of Dostoevsky so that would have been interesting to see where the imagination and aesthetics meets. Roland Barthes. I would love to have photographed James Baldwin’s place, either in Saint-Paul de Vence or New York because I think he was so innovative and I loved how he was so politically correct and incorrect at the same time—working with Avedon, part of the civil rights movement, gay, anti-establishment. I love his juxtapositions and he is very important, especially now, especially now!
If you had to select only five books from what is in your home right now to display on your coffee tables for all of 2021, what would they be?
For sure Picasso’s catalogue raisonné of his ceramics by Alain Ramié. The catalogue raisonné of Cy Twombly’s sculpture. A James Turrell book because I’ve had chances to photograph some of his installations, including the early one he did for Panza di Biumo in Italy, which I did when I was very young and which inspired me a lot. My fourth one would be something crazy, a Dieter Roth artist’s book. The last one would be the Polaroid book of Carlo Mollino’s nudes because it’s always inspiring me. I have a couple of obsessions: Cy and Carlo Mollino, where I have almost every book, every catalog, even the smallest publications.
I have to pick one more and it would be the catalog from the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco called La Carte d'après nature by Thomas Demand because I love Luigi Ghirri’s work in it.
What are your favorite books by either writers or photographers who only published one during their lifetime?
Lampedusa, again. He only published Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) in his lifetime. After his death a few small notes have come out, but only the novel while he was alive.
Ah yes, an unusual one, which I love, is the Description de l'Égypte by Napoleon (full title in English: Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and researches which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army—WDV). When he invaded Egypt he did a big history of its monuments and buildings which the French Army discovered at the time.
How do you prefer to live with your books: neatly organized where you know where everything is or the opposite?
Stacks. Everywhere. And I more or less know where everything is since I have a good visual memory which helps me navigate.
Which books on your shelves make you fantasize the most?
Before the Second World War there was a French periodic journal called Voyage en Grece. It’s what they would give people taking a cruise to Greece for them to discover everything once they got there and only ten issues were made. I have six of them and found them at a bookshop next to where my mother lives in Paris. This series along with Greece, Gods and Art by Alex Liberman make me dream and were big inspirations for my latest book, Fashion Eye Greece. I have a copy of Alex’s book in every house of mine and when Louis Vuitton asked me to do this one I thought it would be another great way to pay homage to Alex since I really like to do that with the books I make—connect them to the books I’ve read.
And you should know we, your many fans, relish your extraordinary connections every time we turn the pages of one of your books. Thanks François!
François Halard, photographed by Chantapitch Wiwatchaikamol