Michel Comte at Leica Gallery Prague & Galerie Vernon

Carla Bruni, Vogue Italia, 1996, © Michel Comte

This Thursday saw the opening of an exhibition in Prague by one of the world’s most significant fashion and portrait photographers, Michel Comte, entitled Not Only Women – Feminine Icons of Our Times. On at Leica Gallery Prague in cooperation with Galerie Vernon, the exhibition features iconic but at the same time intimate portraits of models, directors and actresses including celebrities like Carla Bruni, Catherine Deneuve, Geraldine Chaplin or Sophia Lauren.

Michel Comte, photo: CTK
The Leica Gallery is a perfect venue for Mr Comte’s large and smaller prints, presenting a laid-back atmosphere, sharp balance but soft light, and for anyone interested in either fashion photography or portraiture (although Mr Comte also does reportage in war zones and conflict-stricken areas) – this one is not to be missed.

Ahead of the opening on Thursday, here’s what the photographer himself had to say:

“It’s always fantastic to be here in Prague – I love Prague. I like the format of the gallery that it’s almost like a coffee shop. It’s a very good atmosphere. There’s another show, at a private apartment (Galerie Vernon) and I think the contrast between the two is very interesting.”

Not Only Women at the Leica Gallery features much of his most famous work – a lot from the 1990s, images chosen by Italian curator Serena Baccaligni. In some ways, the show is a ‘confrontation’ for the photographer himself. Michel Comte explains:

Carla Bruni, Vogue Italia, 1996, © Michel Comte
“Some of the pictures follow you for too long. Because we move on very quickly and my new work is very, very different, which people will see in shows next year. So, we take big steps. But somehow it’s great to look back and say ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad!’ But photography is an evolution, like technology: we evolve and our eye changes and our vision changes. But some of the simplicity of the pictures is good.”

Some of the most iconic images include a famous pout by Carla Bruni (at the opening the photographer and the curator disclosed the former model “never stopped talking”, with Mr Comte saying that at the moment the photo was taken she was complaining that she ‘looked stupid’. There is a sensual portrait of German supermodel Claudia Schiffer, there is a vibrant Tina Turner, and a portrait of the late sculptress Louise Bourgoeis and more. In the gallery Michel Comte also discussed an unforgettable black and white image of the great Sophia Loren:

Sophia Loren, Vogue Italia, 1992, © Michel Comte
“This one was taken at a beach outside of Rome. Of course you can’t see it, but there were hundreds of people behind me. And right after this picture was taken, she took her coat off and underneath she had a long Valentino dress on and Sophia Loren went into the ocean, with the evening dress! All the children were swimming around her. Basically, she’d been too hot in her fur coat so she dropped it and went into the ocean! I have a follow-up picture of her swimming in the water with a big smile on her face, with all these children around her, and this was a public beach in Rome. This is the background to this picture.”

Another image sure to capture visitors’ attention is a portrait of a younger Sofia Coppola (director of The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation), dressed but immersed in a full bathtub.

Sofia Coppola, Safe Sex Campaign, 1993, © Michel Comte
“This is in the Chelsea Hotel, I shot is as a part of a safe-sex series with a bunch of kids at the time! It’s just in a bathtub in the hotel and she was made-up to go to a party and the shot was taken in about two minutes. Donovan Leech was there (the son of the singer Donovan), Zoe Cassavetes and a few other kids and I just warmed the bath and told her to get in. It took about two minutes but I think it’s an iconic picture of Sofia Coppola.”

The author, as well as those close to him, stress how unusually quickly Comte works, but with the sharpest of eyes. And he’s always shooting: organizers said jokingly that even after arriving in Prague, he was only able to sit about an hour through dinner with friends and entourage before he had a camera in hand again. The same was true here: even as he showed me around, he was struck by a reflection of Sofia Coppola’s photo in one of Whitney Houston, combining for a new visual, and he immediately snapped the shot.

Not Only Women’s curator Serena Baccaligni said this:

Photo: CTK
“What amazes me is that he is very quick, he has an incredible eye. A photographic session with him can last just five minutes! When you ask him ‘How can you be so quick?’ he says it took 30 years to take a picture in five minutes! It’s experience. I have the feeling, though, that no interview can give what his portraits give: he’s able to get from a person such sharp intensity, irony and it’s amazing. Yesterday at the Vernon he even shot me against a portrait of Louise Bourgeois - a photo full of humanity. He has an enormous capacity to get something inside and take these pictures of people and some of them become iconic.”

Here’s how he described his approach to photography as a medium:

“For me, I take pictures every day. I make short films and I take pictures. On the train from Berlin to Prague yesterday I took like 500 pictures! Just of my wife in the reflection. I never look at myself as a fashion photographer or as a portrait photographer. I look at it as ‘recording time’ and time will tell what becomes good. I think that is what photography was meant to be, and for me anybody who attempts to do art in photography doesn’t look at it in the right way. Because only time should tell what is a good picture.”

Photo: CTK
Comte, who is trained as an art restorer and in the 1970s worked for Andy Warhol, also has a love for snapshots as well as the paparazzi style. He said on Thursday he said he had great respect for the earlier paparazzi greats:

“There was Ron Gallella, there was Barilari in Italy, you know, and these people were really hard workers. It wasn’t like now, you know. They each had three or four apartments in Rome, each with a darkroom, and Barilari at the same time had four mistresses in the different apartments, who would iron his suits! Incredible stories how these people work and all true. I think the digital world made the paparazzi very vulnerable, and today they are basically seen as gangsters because of the appropriation. But I think, you know, they do an incredible job. And as much as the celebrities say they hate them, they love it!”

Not Only Women lasts until April 3 and comes highly recommended: it will leave viewers rejuvenated. The prints, large and small, famous from the pages of glossy magazines and reproductions or unknown, are crisp, sexy, dynamic and exciting. Invariably, you may come away comparing Michel Comte to the great Helmut Newton, although some have argued Mr Comte’s approach is more subversive; more subtle. Not surprisingly, their paths crossed on numerous occasions.

Photo: CTK
“Helmut… Helmut left a note in my hotel in 1980 after I had published my first pictures in Italian Vogue, saying ‘Someday young man you will be one of the greats!’ Two years before he died we were both at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc for the film festival and he said ‘You owe me!’ And I said ‘what?’ And he said ‘Twenty-five years ago I left you a note and now you will take me to dinner and we are the only one taking pictures at this hotel.’ And, you know, Newton never pays! So we had an amazing meal and we talked all night and he was fantastic, so funny. I also saw him at Robert Evan’s house the night before he passed away.”