NUMÉRO: Like me, you’ve been working with Numéro since the magazine’s launch, over 20 years ago. How on earth have we managed to hang on so long?
JEAN-BAPTISTE: Well isn’t that a nice way to start the interview? Listen, we’ve absolutely nothing to complain about, we’re talking about Numéro after all. There’s a real sort of resistance to this magazine, which, moreover, unites in one cover all the ingredients I like.
What exactly do you mean by “resistance”?
A real resistance with respect to an era that worships at the altar of celebrity. Numéro has remained a fashion magazine in the noble sense of the term, and has kept fashion as its central concern.
How did you meet our delicious editor-in-chief, Babeth Djian?
I met her in the 1980s, at a time when we worked together on many shoots for magazines such as The Face, Glamour, American Woman, etc. I didn’t get the chance, alas, to work with her on her magazine Jil, but she was part of a group of young creative fashion editors who mattered, alongside Carine Roitfeld.
How have women’s magazines changed since then?
Things change, the world moves on and the main quality of fashion is to constantly be evolving so as to both reflect and anticipate the Zeitgeist.
So where did you actually meet Babeth for the first time?
I don’t remember, I’m too old.
You never slept together?
No. I guess I’m not her type.
“I’ve always felt a sort of dissatisfaction – or curiosity perhaps – that pushes me to widen my horizons, to see what it’s like elsewhere.”
How the devil did you manage not to be undone by the #MeToo movement, which has put an end to so many other famous photographers’ careers?
I don’t use my camera as an extension of my penis.
What was it like growing up in the disadvantaged 93 banlieue?
When you grow up somewhere, you don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, so you don’t fantasize about things you don’t know. I’ve always found wherever I was living interesting, but at the same time I was never satisfied with where I lived, no more today than when I was in my housing estate in the 93. I’ve always felt a sort of dissatisfaction – or curiosity perhaps – that pushes me to widen my horizons, to see what it’s like elsewhere. And I’m not at all nostalgic – I’d be incapable of telling you, for example, that there were periods of my life that were better or worse than others, not even when I went bald, which is saying something.
I noticed that you’ve very rarely taken part in exhibitions during your career…
I never did so until Babeth asked me to show my work for Numéro at the Studio des Acacias.
What about your 2012 exhibition of photos of cows at the Milk gallery? That counts for nothing?
Thank you for reminding me of it! It was a series of photos I’d done for Philippe Starck for the Hudson Hotel in New York, right in the middle of the mad-cow crisis. Which is where the idea came from to photograph bovines coiffed with rather large couture hats. Especially since I knew I wouldn’t have any personal copyright issues with cows, so I could exhibit them as I saw fit.
At what age did you start getting interested in photography?
What do you mean, “never”?
Photography never interested me.
So why on earth did you become a photographer?
Images are what interest me, not photos – it’s not quite the same thing. What’s more, I still don’t own a camera. The medium is of little importance – be it a pencil and paper, a stills camera or a video camera, it’s all the same to me. What counts is the final image.
Do you remember the first image that struck you?
Yes, it was almost certainly a Christ on the cross.
Sorry, what did you say, Christian Lacroix?
Oh help, I say “Christ on the cross” and he hears “Christian Lacroix.” Who I like a lot by the way, but clearly I’m dealing with a screaming fashion queen here, this isn’t going to be easy. When I was a child, my mother had the very good idea of signing me up for the choir in the local church in Aubervilliers. To give you a bit of background, I was born in 1949, after the war, to a family of Italian immigrants. In my childhood there were no newspapers, TV, images, statues – the world I lived in was grey, sepia and black. There were no representations of the human body, no nudity, everybody was covered up. So when my mother took me to church, it was the equivalent of taking me to see an exhibition of work by Jeff Koons – the colour, the smells, the incense, the statues, the sensuality, the ecstasy, the beauty…
“Images are what interest me, not photos – it’s not quite the same thing.”
…the priests on the lookout for young flesh…
I never had any problems where that was concerned, thank god. For me the church was a realm of fantasy: there were bodies, curves, muscles, blood, etc. and it was the first time I was confronted with such sensuality. Icons I discovered later – the album covers of Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley – produced exactly the same effect on me. Anyway, at the age of 20 I left Aubervilliers on a pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight to hear Hendrix in concert. And I never came back – I stayed in London where I learned English working in nightclubs.
And what was your job in these nightclubs? Bouncer?
I had the violence but not the physical bulk for a doorman, so I ended up in the cloakroom of a club run by a group of French people called La Poubelle. Then I worked as a barman and afterwards ended up as the DJ. The term “DJ” didn’t exist at the time, I was known as the “disquaire.” What’s more we shouldn’t forget that it was the French who invented the disco; the English swore only by their pubs and live music. Anyway, in London I learned a new language, and I learned how to use it – because in the 93 things were pretty miserable back then…
“When my mother took me to church, it was the equivalent of taking me to see an exhibition of work by Jeff Koons – the colour, the smells, the incense, the statues, the sensuality, the ecstasy, the beauty…”
How did sexuality express itself in the pre-AIDS 70s?
I was 20, horny as hell, and hadn’t been taught about any of that during my childhood. So you can imagine. A lot of wanking to start with, then a few English girlfriends, then sex, the female body, trying out drugs, music… When I finally returned to Aubervilliers, exhausted – because while all of that is character building it also takes its toll physically – my childhood friends didn’t recognize me, and nor did I.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a cleaner and my father – who moved with her to France during the reconstruction after World War I – was a mason and later a stevedore. In spite of myself, I went further than my father very quickly: at 20 I played guitar, spoke English, wore an earring, lived in London… The poor guy didn’t know what to think, and was very worried about me.
I remember being astonished by an ad you directed for the launch of the Jean Paul Gaultier perfume in 1995… What gave you the idea of using morphing, a type of technology which was very rarely employed at that time?
Wait a minute, we’ve jumped miles and miles ahead here, I was still talking about when I got back to France from London…