“The camera has always been both a tool for expression and a protection, a bulwark between you and the rest of the world.”
Francois Halard is a photographer based between New York, France, and Greece. Halard is known internationally for his intimate photographs of interiors, architecture and artists. He has photographed artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Louise Bourgeois, as well as properties such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris apartment, Casa Malaparte, Villa Noailles, and La Maison de Verre. For over 30 years, Halard was a regular contributor for Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and House & Garden, and his photographs have been featured repeatedly in The New York Times. His photographs have also been exhibited globally in museums and galleries and published in books by Rizzoli, Actes Sud, and Kehrer.
In this interview, Francois Halard shares his earliest memories of taking photographs, how he turned photography into a career, and where he finds inspiration now.
TGL: How was your childhood?
FH: I was born hemiplegic at six months, which affected my language skills for a long time. I had a lot of trouble expressing myself verbally and was somewhat withdrawn and introverted. But my parents lived in a nice house, in an environment where I felt comfortable. They had a lot of books. Since I was verging on autistic, my main pastime was looking at the books and magazines my parents read: architecture magazines like Habitat Ré, Casa Vogue and fashion magazines like Vogue, Marie-Claire. One of my first memories of books is of a book my parents had on life in the Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan. After I went to Japan for the first time, I looked at the photos in that book again.
I would take my father’s camera and take photos of my bedroom, of everything around me. Those first images, in the end, aren’t so different from the ones I take now. My parents had a beautiful house that other photographers would use as a backdrop for their photographs. When there were photoshoots at my house, I thought it was more interesting to watch the photographers work than to go to school. Whenever photographers came, I skipped classes. I went to school at Henri IV across the street, but it was more interesting to watch Helmut Newton work than to go to a Latin or math class. I’d observe, watch and, every time people came, I’d ask them if I could help or just stay there. I tried to be a part of the project. This is the genesis of my intimate relationship with interiors and photography.
TGL: When did you take your first photograph?
FH: From the age of 14, I really wanted to be a photographer. My parents didn’t want me to; they weren’t very supportive. They’d say, “If you aren’t the best, it’s no fun to struggle.” Every summer, instead of going on vacation, I tried to work with photographers as an assistant so I could learn.
TGL: Did you study photography in school?
FH: I studied photography at the Decorative Arts School, where I was accepted before getting my baccalaureate. I was the youngest student and also the youngest student to leave, because for a few years I went to school and I worked. At one point, work took on the bigger role, and I couldn’t keep doing both.
TGL: What was your first job as a photographer?
FH: I’d taken some photos for my parents and Marie-Paule Pelle, who was the editor-in-chief of Décoration Internationale, said, “I’m starting a magazine. I need a photographer to be an assistant to the artistic director Fred Rawyler.” And there it was. The first thing she had me do was the cover for the magazine. So, at 18 years old, my first job was the cover.
I was thrown into the deep end. She sent me all over the place. She sent me to work in Los Angeles, to do my first portrait, which was of David Hockney. There were no restrictions. She said to me, “With you, I don’t always need to send an editor or a stylist. You can figure it out, you know what needs to be done.” My most interesting photos are those I do alone. I like being by myself with the subject, alone to tackle the subject.
Later, I did a lot of fashion photos, where I did love doing that. Alex Liberman had me come to America, and the first job he gave me was the cover of American Vogue. He wanted to create a fashion that didn’t exist yet, something between fashion, home decoration, and the art of living, but through people. It’s any fashion photographer’s dream to cover couture for American Vogue, especially at a time when there was Saint-Laurent and the first collections by Christian Lacroix. It was actively creative.
TGL: Did you move to the United States or were you traveling from France?
FH: Unfortunately, I have always felt very French. I always considered the US as a workplace. Even though I had a house, even though I had many friends, I always only came for finite trips. I never wanted to live here 100% of the time. Although I like expressing myself here, something is missing. For many years, my personal life was in France and my work life was here.
TGL: How did your career develop after Vogue?
FH: After Vogue, there was Vanity Fair, GQ, House & Garden…I’ve always done things simultaneously. I was never someone who put all my eggs in one basket. After my first photos, I did many commercial jobs. For years, only two photographers did Ralph Lauren: Bruce Weber and me. If I do something commercial, I’ll do something more personal on the side. It’s very fluid, how one relates to the other. One of my first trips was for Décoration Internationale in 1981. I followed Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé throughout Russia, invited by Gorbachev, and I had carte blanche. I was the first photographer to be able to photograph all of it: the Hermitage, Pavlovsk, Tolstoy’s house…I did a whole Russia issue. I also worked with Bruce Chatwin on some of his travels. I was spoiled at a very young age, graced with the promiscuity and freedom that was allowed and no longer exists with magazines.
TGL: Where do you find your inspiration now?
FH: Now, I only take magazine assignments to have access to a place, so I can take photos for myself and reuse them in another way as well. Otherwise, everyone would take the same photo. That’s of no interest to me whatsoever, two by two, very clean, very sharp. I don’t like digital photography, because I find that it flattens emotion.
TGL: Do you still work with film?
FH: Yes, I work with rolls of film. If they have to wait, they have to wait. I stand by this way of working. First, because things continue to exist and also because nothing is more frustrating than someone looking on the computer at a new photo you’re working on and them judging it before you’ve even had a chance to look at it. For me, it’s an intimate relationship. The camera has always been both a tool for expression and a protection, a bulwark between you and the rest of the world. Now, the camera is suddenly linked to another accessory and everyone can have access to it.
TGL: You have met many extraordinary figures. Have any of these encounters had a significant impact on your relationship to your work?
FH: Yes. I had an encounter with the house Casa Malaparte on Capri. Malaparte was also my mother’s favorite author. I collaborated a lot with Beatrice Monti della Corte, and she had a gallery. Her father was a close friend of Malaparte’s, and she spent her childhood in that house. She would tell me her memories in that house as a teenager with Malaparte. I was crazy about Italian architecture, and this house was Italian modernism in all its glory. Plus I was obsessed with Godard’s films because my uncle had worked with Raoul Coutard, who was Godard’s cinematographer and did Le Mépris. I waited fifteen years before having the opportunity to enter and take a photo of the house. At the time, it was the centennial of Malaparte’s birth, and I worked for La Repubblica.
You always have to think of a great idea to be able to go into someone’s house and take photos. You can’t just call them up and say, “Hi, I’m François Halard and I’d like to come into your home and take photos.” It's undignified. Sometimes it can take me ten or fifteen years to get what I want. After such a long-term project, waiting a few days to develop the film is nothing. The more you dream about it, the more it becomes a fantasy. There’s a reality that you want to capture through images.
It was the same for Cy Twombly. Cy was the first work of art I bought. I bought it when I was very young. A Roman Notes, limited edition. I bought my house in Arles because it looked like the photos I saw as a teenager of his country house taken by Deborah Turbeville. There’s a relationship with the image or with the memory of the image. For Cy, I waited until there was the major retrospective at MOMA to be able to go to his house. I worked with the Yvon Lambert collection, where I did the Blooming catalog with all of Cy’s photos. Every time I take a photo, there’s a connection between something intimate and the image. It’s an invisible link between many things I like to photograph and the results are there. This is why it’s more personal than when someone else tries.
TGL: Is there something you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
FH: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. This is how I answer questions like that. Every day, I try to come up with the next idea that will help me move forward. I think about this daily. I don’t wait because, if you wait by the phone for the ideal job to be offered, it will never happen. You still have to send out signals, set some traps, so you can be your own catalyst for your own energy. I do not want to be increasingly radical, I want to be increasingly personal. It’s also because I want to evolve personally. My next book will be on Greece, because I live in Greece, and how to reappropriate a place that inspires you, approach the place differently, and capture the place. There is always a connection, whether to literature, other images, painting. That’s what drives me.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
FH: Brice Marden. That would be fitting since I photographed many of his peers back in the day, such as Twombly and Rauschenberg, and he shares my passion for houses. I would ask him why the places he lives in are as disparate as mine and how they inspire his work, which is abstract. How do they bring into play the causal relationship between, for example, his first Hydra paintings and now his Marrakech work? How does the place one lives, a house, influence even abstract work? In what way is it nourishing?
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
FH: Don’t give up. Don’t let go. Like an old dog with a bone. Don’t get discouraged, because the more you move forward with simplicity and honesty, the more difficult it is. You need to know how to stick with it and not give up.