20 Years Of Milk: Michel Comte In His Own Words
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Milk Studios. After two decades of creativity, we’re finally leaving adolescence behind, and we’re doing it in a big way. To celebrate this occasion, the Milk Gallery is exhibiting works from one of the very best Milk collaborators: legendary Swiss photographer Michel Comte. As one of the most important photographers in the fashion industry, Comte has shot prolifically for magazines including Vogue and its various international editions, Vanity Fair, and Interview. He’s captured the portraits of everyone from Naomi Campbell to Sharon Stone, and last year he released his first feature film, The Girl From Nagasaki.
Comte has lived such a fascinating life that we thought it would be best if he told you about it himself. Read on to learn about Michel’s history with the Swiss Air Force, his big break with Karl Lagerfeld, and his long, close collaboration with Milk.
Comte on his youth:
I grew up outside of Zurich, in the countryside. I was obsessed with horses – that was my main passion. I come from a family of adventurers. My grandfather was the founder of Swiss Air. He learned how to fly in 1909 in Paris. One other man, Oscar Bider, brought an airplane to France, and that became the Swiss Airforce. He was a very eccentric man, and he was very close to people that we read about, like Winston Churchill and Howard Hughes.
Most of my friends were older, and British or French, so I wanted to leave and go to school abroad. I ended up in a very strict English school where we had to wear tails. That was my very first experience abroad—it was England in the late ‘60s, and London at that time was… it was the time of Blow Up, and British Vogue was the fashion bible of the time. David Bailey was dominating the pages, and my dream was to assist him. He said I could, but then my father brought me back to Switzerland to continue my education. I wanted to become a doctor. I then moved into the art world and learned art restoration. I started collaborating with Andy Warhol and Yves Klein, and through strange coincidence that lead me to becoming a photographer.
Comte on his career beginnings:
I always tell people, when you start, don’t try to please. Your vision has to be very defined. By coincidence, I met Karl Lagerfeld at a dinner. He needed a photographer because he worked with Helmut [Newton], but for some reason the camera jammed and there were no pictures. And those pictures that were published; that was a Chloé campaign.
For anyone who steps into this crazy fashion world, I think there’s nothing better than a background in art. It was the ‘70s, and land art was prominent. I went to Michael Heiser’s double negative when it was built, and now we just produced the film Troublemakers by James Crump, and that kind of connected all the dots. People like Walter de Maria, James Turrell and Michael Heiser dominated the land art scene, while in New York and Paris and Germany we had everyone from Yves Klein to Joseph Beuys, so it was an incredible time. We even used to visit Francis Bacon’s studio in London.
I had a very early success. My first magazines were Italian Vogue, American Vogue, and Interview. We stayed loyal, that group of people, and we still collaborate. I met Franca Sozzani at the beginning of my career, and we still talk almost every three days. And now her son is a great photographer, and a friend of mine.
When I started working, I was like a white sheet of paper. I knew nothing. I learned how to use a camera from the great Life magazine books, On Photography. One of them was Irving Penn in the studio, and there was [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. I learned how to build a lab from the Time-Life books. I processed and developed everything. The first two years I did hair and makeup myself. It was a very different time, you know? It was a real labor of love.
“Don’t try to please. Your vision has to be very defined.”
Comte on his beloved animals:
My favorite animal is the black panther. There’s nothing like the eyes of a black panther. I used to own one. In present time, we are taking most of the habitat away from our wildlife. I worked, oddly, during a period of time when there was a lot of animal slaughter. In the war in Angola, a lot of animals were destroyed. So I did a project called Beauty and the Beast, that focused on these animals, and the pictures became very famous. There is an incredible need to protect habitats, and it’s a huge responsibility. Anyone with a camera can demonstrate the destruction of wildlife. Anyone with a camera can see it; from bears forced to eat garbage, to polar bears floating on melting ice caps, to the incredible destruction of sharks after the film Jaws, that entertained us all so much.
Since I was very young, I swam with sharks. I went to the Maldives, to an island called Shark Island, where you dive at night. We were absolutely surrounded by sharks. Later I did it in Mexico, I did it in the South Pacific, and I always swam outside of a cage. It was my first introduction to Milk, when I had the opportunity to again swim with great whites and continue that project for a few days.
Comte on discovering Japan:
In 1988 I was called by Akira Kurosawa to come to Japan. He invited me to photograph him, and I spent maybe 18 or 19 days photographing him in Japan. It was my first trip to Japan. There are four directors that greatly influence me. The first is [Michelangelo] Antonioni, the second is Kurasawa, the third is [Stanley] Kubrick, and the fourth is [Luchino] Visconti. And that trip in Japan to me was really incredibly life altering. I married a Japanese woman eight years ago, and she is my muse. It’s also the way I live; our life has become more and more minimal. I do not like to own things anymore. I get rid of most things that I own, or that I owned. My goal is to build our own compound far above the ocean, with almost no furniture. Eileen Gray said, “I want two transatlantic chairs and a room with a view.” The more we go on, the more minimal we get.
Comte on Milk:
Willie Maldonado worked with me in the ‘80s already, and Willie opened Milk in LA. About one month before they opened up Milk in New York, I met [Mazdack] Rassi. He kept telling me, “I’m going to open a studio, and it’s going to be the best studio you’ve ever seen.” He came back to the studio where I was shooting, and said, “you have to come see my studio”. I already had three studios. But I had a problem. I had a client in Switzerland who designed very beautiful contemporary furniture. Some of the pieces were gigantic, and they had to be lowered onto the studio by a helicopter, and we had to shoot them on the roof because that was the concept. I asked Rassi if he could do it. He said no problem. A week later, the helicopter was dropping furniture on the roof of Milk. We’ve been friends ever since.
Then I did my very first huge event for the International Committee of the Red Cross. The whole street by Milk was covered with crosses that were a hundred-feet big, and the whole building was lit with candles. Julian Schnabel also did an incredible installation.
I’m working on a second film. When you’re a photographer, you’re already a storyteller, but with film you have to see a bigger picture. We shot the trailer of this second film in the hangar at Milk [Los Angeles]. It is about five minutes long, and we shot it all in one day, using all natural light and one bare light bulb. We were able to sell the movie based on that trailer that we made at Milk. Milk made it possible.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s exclusive video interview with Michel Comte
Michel Comte and Milk: A Collaboration, is on display at the Milk Gallery from November 20th to December 22nd.
All photography by Michel Comte. Images Courtesy of the Milk Gallery.