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His captivating portrait photography has immortalised many of the most famous faces in the world. We catch up with the effervescent German photographer Marcel Hartmann to find out more about his illustrious career and why he is a Parisian at heart.
RV: How did you first get into photography?
MH: I was born in 1965 in Cologne, Germany. I come from an artistic family, where my father is a painter and my younger brother too. Through my mother, I had the chance to meet a very good photographer in Cologne, Helmut Claus, so I started my career as his photography assistant. He was the one who actually encouraged me to move to Paris to pursue a career there. He sat down with me and we started going through Vogue magazine and talked about photographers such as Albert Watson, Peter Lindbergh, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, all the masters. It was like a school for me in a way, he really opened my mind. He told me, “I heard that there's a studio in Paris called Studio Pin-Up. You should go and assist there”. I worked with him for a year and a half, and then, like in the movies, I said to my parents, “Well, I want to go to Paris for a year or so, to see that studio”. I’d never even spoken with the studio on the phone, I just had their address. That was in 1988 when I was 23 years old. So I showed up in Paris, and said, "Guys, I heard that you're the best studio in Paris," and I was very lucky. I did an internship there for three months, then once I had a foot in the door, I eventually started working there as a full-time assistant. That was the best schooling I ever did. It was like in a dream, I was working with Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Lord Snowdon, even Guy Bourdin just before he died. It was 1988 - 1989 and it was an incredible time.
RV: What are some of the most important things you learned from these top photographers?
MH: Maybe it's a German thing, but when you’re an assistant, you want to learn all about the technical details – how each light works, etc. However, with top photographers you learn very quickly that it's not so much about technique, it’s more about how you are with people. When working with a master such as Peter Lindbergh, he treated everybody the same way – the talent, assistants, everybody – and never showed any sign of stress. It was just beautiful to watch. I loved his attitude and his passion. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, I would love to be like that if I'm going to be a photographer. I have the best job in the world, and I’m even getting paid for it.” I also learned a great deal from Dominique Issermann, as I was her assistant for two years. That was an amazing experience.
RV: What were some of your first assignments as a photographer?
MH: My first assignment was a fashion shoot for French women’s magazine, 20 ans. It was a launching pad for the big magazines as it was young and open-minded. I worked with them for several years, which really opened doors everywhere for me as a fashion photographer. I worked for magazines such as W Magazine, Vogue Homme, and Marie Claire, it was a really good experience. However, I had the feeling after a few years that I was already starting to repeat myself. Then I had the chance to get into portrait photography with L’Optimum magazine. I shot my first cover of Bernard-Henri Lévy, then I went on to shoot around 25 covers for the magazine. For years we worked together on many different stories. They’d call and say, “Marcel, can you go to Las Vegas to shoot U2?” It was just incredible. I shot Leonard Cohen, all of the French actors and American actors, lots of people.
RV: Can you tell us more about some of your most memorable assignments?
MH: I have shot a lot of French actors such as Romain Duris, Guillaume Canet, Benoît Magimel, Melvil Poupaud, Audrey Tautou. I meet these people very often, so it’s more like, “Okay, guys, what are we doing today? How are you feeling today?” It’s more like shooting friends, in a way. Internationally, I would say a touching moment was shooting some of the legends such as Kirk Douglas. The moments that I share with people as a photographer is an exchange, where each person gives something. This is what interests me. I’m not about bringing people into “my world”. Vincent Cassel is someone who is very electric, so you have to be very quick. He cannot stand still. The key to working with Vincent is that you have to be even quicker than him, to surprise him with that. It’s very easy, in a way, because he always gives you so many options. He’s a joy to shoot. I also did a recent shoot with Léa Seydoux who was still in the middle of shooting the new James Bond movie in Paris, and she was meeting Daniel Craig on the James Bond set the next morning. I said, “You probably only have one chance in your life to be a James Bond girl, so what can we do to mark this chapter?” So I decided that I wanted to shoot her in the water. In the beginning, she was very reluctant to do it because she had to put her head underwater and we didn’t want her to get sick. I said, “Trust me, let’s go for gold.” It took us two-and-a-half minutes. She went in the pool only twice. We had the big screen in black and white, and it looked really great. She was so elegant, and so James Bond. I will never forget it.
RV: What is one of the most important skills that a photographer should have?
MH: I would say that photography is 90% psychological, where you have to be able to read people in a very short moment. You have to be able to make people trust you, so that in that moment you can shoot something real. If I had maybe one talent, I would say that I can read people pretty well. Even if I have only one or two minutes with someone to shoot them, I take one-and-a-half minutes just to talk to them. To see how their day was – whatever comes to break the ice, to get close to this person, to make them trust you. That is the key. Photography is an exchange. I’m surrounded by people who are talented, who are interesting people. How can I translate this? Once they are in front of the camera, I always say to myself, and I say to them, “This moment, I take it very seriously. I’m responsible for the image that I take of you. A lot of people are going to see these images, all over the world, and I’m responsible. So let’s do this right.”
RV: Now that you’ve been living in Paris for many years, what does Paris mean to you?
MH: Paris for me is like an elegant lady. It has so much style and elegance. It’s difficult to live here, it’s tougher than New York. If you can make it in Paris, you can make it anywhere. Everything takes its time here, but it’s one of the only places in the world where you can spend your whole day in a café on a terrace looking at people. I don't think you can do this in any other city. I love Paris, and now my life is completely centred around this amazing city.
Interview By: Enrique Nalda & Kimberley McLoughlin
Photography: Marcel Hartmann
Interview first published in RedVisitor Magazine Issue Three - Purchase Now
M O R E I N T E R V I E W S . . .