Since the early 1970s, the photographer Claude Gassian has been photographing music celebrities. From the Rolling Stones to Daft Punk, Jimi Hendrix and Madonna, he has assembled an impressive collection. In the course of his work, he met with Leonard Cohen on five occasions. His portraits of the Canadian poet and singer who passed away six months ago are currently featured at A Galerie in Paris.
What were your photo sessions with Leonard Cohen like?
I met him in the context of his French tours and promotions. On every occasion, it was just a few minutes in a hotel or on the premises of his record company. The constraints were complex. You need to take the best photos possible within a few minutes and with a very limited décor. So you use whatever curtains and chairs happen to be at hand. With Leonard Cohen, the sessions turned out to be richer than I realized. He let me work in my own way and I felt that he understood what I was looking for.
Do you recall any memorable moments?
I was lucky to have one longer and less restricted session than the others. Once, I met him as he was shooting a video clip with Dominique Isserman in Trouville. I was able to spend a whole half hour with him, and we went to the beach, then into the lobby of his art deco hotel. I felt that day that I had managed better than ever to capture the essence of who he was. There is a photograph I am particularly fond of. It shows him on the beach, wearing his long raincoat, his back to the sea… I find that in this photograph he really is himself.
Do you find you have captured something special?
I believe Leonard Cohen was someone fundamentally human. He never put on the celebrity act. He never made a fuss when he was being photographed. He understood my way of doing things and accepted it. He let me do my thing, gave me total freedom. I really loved those sessions because I felt I could express myself fully. Once, however, he decided to pose in a certain way. I found the result interesting because he was reinventing his image. For example, there is this photograph where Leonard Cohen rests his face in his hands, his eyes closed.
He had a remarkable character, didn’t he?
He possessed grace and class… His eyes sparkled with laughter. At first, he seemed to be rather reserved, but in fact he had a keen sense of humor, he was very outgoing. When I photographed him, I felt we were working towards the same thing. He was present in my silence. He was part of it.
Since the 1970s, you have photographed the biggest names in music: Prince, Radiohead, Nick Cave, U2… What is it like?
I started out a bit by chance. I got into photography first as a music lover. At first I photographed concerts just to attend them. Then one day, the press secretary of a record company told me that Patti Smith was going to visit Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and invited me to come along. I did, and for the first time — I was twenty-five — I plucked the courage to ask an artist to pose for me. Patti Smith agreed. I took my first personal photographs of a great music performer.
Has your profession changed over time?
It has, indeed. I was lucky to be a totally independent photographer, which is quite unthinkable today! Back then, I would go and photograph without any assignment. I simply wanted to photograph such-and-such an artist and they would spare me a moment. Of course, gradually, my work gained some recognition, and people knew I published in the press. But at the beginning, people trusted me without knowing anything about me. Today the system has changed. The artist’s image is much more controlled, and in the case of some celebrities, you have to go through a series of intermediaries, which racks up some serious production costs. I don’t think I could ever photograph Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Eminem the way I would have been able to before. The opportunities to follow artists have grown scarce. How lucky to have been able to follow the Rolling Stones, Prince, and many French artists on tour! This type of documentary photography seems to be rare nowadays. I sometimes joke that the only ones I was never able to photograph were the Beatles and Elvis Presley…
Interview conducted by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Jean-Baptiste Gauvin is a journalist, writer, and stage director. He lives and works in Paris.
Leonard Cohen by Claude Gassian
May 3 to 20, 2017
4 Rue Léonce Reynaud