Michel Comte is a tireless man. The art restorer turned fashion photographer turned war photographer turned director turned environmental philanthropist has never been afraid to challenge himself, a trait he likely inherited from his grandfather, Swiss aviation pioneer Alfred Comte.
“So many people are afraid to do things. ‘Oh I shouldn’t do that,’ or ‘Somebody tells me I should do this,’ or ‘I wanna make a lot of money so I have to shoot this.’ No! Follow your instinct and things are gonna work out,” Comte said over the phone from his retouching suite in Velem at Milk Studios LA. “Try not to follow anybody. Don’t try to be influenced by other people. Use the history, and influence, and environment; and show no fear. And risk, risk, risk!”
That attitude has propelled him throughout his career as one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers for magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue. This year marks Comte’s 35th shooting for Vogue Italia, where he recently completed a shoot with model Angela Lindvall for the March 2014 issue with his wife and stylist Ayako Yoshida.
Comte entered the art world as a restorer for art galleries and museums in Zurich and soon after began working with Andy Warhol and Yves Klein, which is when Karl Lagerfeld in 1979 presented him, over a dinner one evening in Paris, with one of the first opportunities of his photography career.
Helmut Newton had shot a campaign for Lagerfield—this being before Lagerfield himself had begun shooting for fashion houses as he does now—but technical issues required a re-shoot and Newton wasn’t available, Comte recalled. "And at the table, the curator of the museum knew I took a lot of pictures and he told Karl, ‘Why don’t you use Michel?’ And I shot the Chloé campaign."
The campaign would ultimately run internationally in Vogue, catching the eye of editorial director Alexander Liberman, who by 1981 had Comte on a Concorde to New York to begin shooting for the fashion magazine.
In between shooting for Vanity Fair and other fashion magazines, Comte has worked with a host of advertising campaigns including Chanel, Armani, Lancome, Revlon, Ferrari and Jaguar and Mercedes Benz. Starting in 1986, Comte also began to devote himself to humanitarian causes with collaborations with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes and many others. As his grandfather Alfred Comte helped Jewish families in World War 2, so too did Michel Comte use his war photography to raise awareness and aid hospitals in war zones in Africa and Afghanistan.
"I got very lucky. I never got harmed. I was very close several times because I was in Somalia for Black Hawk Down. I was in Bosnia during the genocide. I was actually in Kigali during all the massacres. It’s not something you really talk about," he says, yet it’s experiences like these which have shaped his latest film project G for Genocide, a look at the conflict in Cambodia, which Comte witnessed first hand.
“I know a few of the survivors so it’s a story that’s quite close to us. And I’ve been to Cambodia over 40 times and it is probably the most horrific genocide for no reason at all that’s happened in the last 50 years,” Comte explains. “It was not like a religious war, it was not a war of ideology, but basically one man deciding to change a society.”
He plans to begin shooting the film in early 2015 and expects it to take about a year to make. Comte wrote the script for "G for Genocide," just as he wrote The Girl from Nagasaki, his visually stunning directorial debut of Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly, which showed at this year’s Sundance and will premiere this coming fall in New York.
In the meantime, he will continue to work on an international installation project featuring his photographs, film and installations titled Light, which he’s been working on for the past 10 years.
“They’re all projects that I start and then they go on and on and on,” Comte says of his career. “Now I’m starting a big project on Chanel that’s gonna take me probably another 10 years. It’s all things that evolve over the years and then suddenly they are gone, but they all get done.”