Exclusive: Olivier Zahm Talks the Art of Nudity with Cleo Le-Tan
Olivier Zahm is a staple of Milk Studios events, always donning a camera and snapping pictures left and right. So it’s no surprise that the French founder of Purple Magazine is celebrating his newest photography show titled Anthracite at Milk Studios in Los Angeles… it seemed like the most natural collaboration. Ahead of the opening of the show this Thursday, Zahm sat down with LA darling, author, and frequent fixture of Purple Diary, Cleo Le-Tan, to discuss art as an experience, Gia Genevieve, and the three kinds of girls one can photograph.
Cleo Le-Tan: So you’re in LA for your exhibition at Milk next week, how did that start?
Olivier Zahm: It started with a friendship with Milk Studios and Willie Maldonado. Willie is the most incredible person and editor. He likes the people, he likes the art, he likes the photography, he likes to party, he likes the nightlife. We met up maybe two or three times for a Purple lunch and dinner. He took me to a few parties and dinners. The Milk Studio in LA is very big and spacious, well designed, beautiful, not pretentious, minimal, and he’s not afraid to transform it into a club in a minute. So he invited us one time for a party and one time for a dinner and a party. This time he saw the book with my pictures. He said, ‘In addition to the dinner, let’s do an exhibition with your pictures.’ So it’s a real friendship. Plus, we found out that we have common friends.
CL: So it’s easy to invite them?
OZ: Yes. It’s like a Purple family in Los Angeles. Brad Elterman is a common friend. He’s a common friend but he’s also friends with the writer…what’s his name? The one who did Hollywood Babylon.
CL: Kenneth Anger?
OZ: Yes! Kenneth Anger comes to the dinner. So Kenneth at the Purple dinner and Purple parties was a dream to me. Kenneth is like the dark side of Hollywood. So now we have two major figures of Hollywood that I really love, the interesting side with Kenneth, Bret Easton Ellis, plus all the friends and photographers. We’ll see. It’s a good mix. To me it’s the creative scene of Los Angeles. So you get to know people and it creates a community of artists. But this time it’s not just Purple, it’s my pictures as well.
CL: What’s in the exhibition? Is it just pictures from the book, or are there new pictures as well?
CL: Any main themes?
OZ: The show had to be imagined for the space. I’m not just presenting photography. To me, doing a show is creating an experience. And it’s not that I don’t consider my pictures good pictures. I do, or I hope so. I want the people to enjoy the show as much as they enjoy the installation. I want them to see the architecture of the studio, the studio itself, the music…
CL: The whole thing.
OZ: Milk totally understands that and we love that. So I told Willie, ‘if we want to make this experience, we need to print in a huge format that can compliment the sight of your studio.’ Because the studio is gigantic. The main studio is like two times the size of a swimming pool. It’s just massive. You’ve been there?
CL: I have, but I haven’t been in each studio. I’ve been in the entrance and café.
OZ: The biggest one is about 200 or 300 square meters. You can’t show little work there, you have to make it big. So I printed them big, and also framed them. They’re really massive, I don’t know the dimensions. Did you see them?
CL: Yes, I saw them with Brad. They look big!
OZ: We also had a long table with like 60 or 80 people invited, which was in the middle of the show. On Tuesday night I really worked on the installation. My idea was to have all the pictures installed next to each other, very close, with no other space around.
CL: So it’s like a wall of pictures?
OZ: Yes, it’s a wall of pictures. It’s a bit cinematic.
CL: It’s like the Purple Diary, how you’ve got to scroll through it all.
OZ: Exactly! I remember the first exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Los Angeles at the Gagosian Gallery, in I think ‘87 or ‘86? It was his first massive show. He put all of the production of the painting in. He did exactly that, he put massive square frames for the paintings and he installed them very close to each other.
CL: Oh nice!
OZ: The idea of installing the work really close together is so good and I also saw my friend’s work Eric Troncy. He’s a French curator. He did a painting show at a gallery in Paris at Almine Rech. He did a different format but all of the paintings were almost touching each other. So I’m stealing this idea.
CL: So what are the pictures?
OZ: The pictures are always difficult to select. I shoot for myself. I shoot what I like.
CL: It can be anything.
OZ: Yes, it can be a plant, architecture, a girl, a friend. But then you have to select from all of these pictures. Choose what can be printed for a show, and then hopefully they are bought by a collector to hang on the wall. You have to ask, what kind of picture can hang by itself? You have to look at it and think, ‘what would I think if I saw this hanging in a bedroom, or a hotel room, in someone’s living room.’
CL: Right, you have to ask yourself, what would you think?
OZ: You have to decide if it’s a good picture, a striking picture, without knowing who took the picture. Art is dependent on the name of the person. This is why, when I visit a show or a museum…I like to try and look and appreciate the work without looking at the name of the person, so that I can really appreciate the work itself. Then, sometimes, if I really like it, I’ll look and see if I know the artist, or if I don’t. First, I try to appreciate the work itself especially, because no one knows me. [laughs]
CL: [laughs] I think the people who come will know you!
OZ: Yes, but not the people that will buy. I’m not friends with any rich collectors in the area. So here’s some of the final pictures. This one is the detail of a statue of a woman. I love the sex of the woman, who might be a goddess, I don’t remember. It was in a museum in uhh, not Rome, not Florence.
OZ: Yes, Naples I love this picture. This is a pussy hidden by a tray and a vodka tonic and you can see her legs, but you don’t see anything else. This is the Fish Woman, by Rodin and it really looks like she’s giving a blow job. It might be the first blow job in art history. This is a graffiti of Serge Gainsbourg on the wall of his house. This is the face of a friend, Katherine Goldberg. She’s a friend and I also wanted to have the face of a teenager in the show. She’s not really a teenager, she’s 22 but she looks 17. She has a very poetic face to me. She’s the incarnate of young girls in this generation to me. This one is the Chanel staircase. There is where she used to stand and look in the reflection of the mirror. I think it’s very abstract, very different. It’s very Parisian too, for me. I love the stairs, because the stairs are access. Access to the room, access to mystery, access to a private part of the room.
CL: It’s a bit art deco, so that’s’ a bit L.A. or little Miami.
OZ: Totally. In black and white like that. This is the kind of picture I like to take, it’s the girl at night. It’s the most sexual picture of the show.
CL: This picture is cool because you don’t really know from what angle it’s taken. She’s just here with her leg out, but you don’t know.
OZ: It looks like a musical note to me. It’s sexy and I love it. I also took a picture of an 18th century floor for a tall apartment. It has a nice rhythm. And there’s one last picture, it’s in color and it’s the last picture I shot for the magazine. It’s Gia Genevieve in a kitchen in New York.
CL: Isn’t it a bathroom?
OZ: Yes, it’s a bathroom! I wanted to have one picture in color, and I wanted to have one sexy, voluptuous lady that to me encompasses the glamour of Hollywood.
CL: Yes, the hair. It’s super blond.
OZ: This is my vision of L.A., which is really a cliché, but I like to play with clichés like that.
CL: L.A.’s a big cliché.
OZ: Yes. She used to be a biker and a model for a magazine about cars and girls. Now she’s very popular in the industry because she’s very curvy. She does a lot of campaigns for lingerie.
CL: Was it difficult to get her naked?
OZ: No. Since she was very young, she’s been used to getting naked.
CL: Is it difficult to get anybody naked?
OZ: There’s three different kinds of girls to a photographer. There’s the girl who will always say no, and you know it. You don’t even have to ask. There’s the girls who are ready to shoot naked, but their agent says no. And then there’s all your friends, who say yes! So basically, I shoot girls that I know, that I like, who are friends.
CL: That way you’ll always get a yes.
OZ: They are comfortable with me. They know I won’t jump on them. They know what I do, what I like. It’s like a game. It’s playful. But she’s a professional nude model. She’s a lovely girl, and a Californian girl.
CL: She looks Californian
OZ: She’s beautiful. She’s not tough, but she’s super American.
CL: She’s Americana integrated.
OZ: She’s blonde and has this natural glamour. No that’s stupid – glamour is the opposite of natural.
CL: Glamour with ease?
OZ: She’s very curvy and a strong woman, she is the opposite of other models. She’s a sex queen, which is why she ended up on the cover of Playboy. She’s great to shoot. Totally confident and comfortable in her body. I said to myself, she should be the star of the show. But I also love the teenager picture, because she’s smart, but very tortured. Maybe not tortured, but complicated, complex and interesting. She’s your typical crazy New York girl. This show is a mix of my life. It’s Paris, LA, New York. Yes, a bit of fashion,
CL: sex, architecture, art.
OZ: It’s a selection of what I like, and I hope that each picture can be seen individually —
CL: — without knowing you
OZ: even though they’ll be
CL: stuck together as if they’re one thing
Portraits of Olivier by Brad Elterman
Read our interview with Gia Genevieve here
Read our interview with Brad Elterman here