Christian Simonpiétri, war reporter, charm photographer, guitarist, adventurer
Christian was born to a Corsican father in 1940 in Saigon, Cochinchina, he liked to specify where he spent his childhood, his parents separated and he shared his time between Vietnam, France, and Corsica, then continued his studies in Philosophy in Nice, with his aunt Rose. When his father died, he returned to Saigon to take over the family transport company where he became bored to death. He was 22 years old. The Vietnam War had started and the Americans had landed, the Marines, the GI’s, the journalists, the photographers… Christian spoke good English and immediately became friends with them. He met the famous Life magazine photographer Larry Burrows who offered him a Nikon and befriended Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Michael Herr, Eddie Adams and in a decisive meeting in May 1968, Henri Bureau introduced him to Hubert Henrotte: the deal was concluded in 5 minutes in the bistro next door and it was for Gamma that he “covered” the attack on Saigon and the battles of Hue, Khe Sanh and the second Tet offensive… he had become a war photographer. Vietnam was hell and Christian’s photos captured this terrifying atmosphere. His photos were in Paris Match and in the international press.
But, more than a war photographer, it was the adventure that appealed to Christian. “It was Western and Rock and Roll when we were in the field… Then we went to Saigon, we drank, we listened to the Rolling Stones, and we smoked joints.”
And yet, wars, he covered many others: the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. His photo showing soldiers killing pro-Pakistani rebels with bayonets was retained in the series of the 100 greatest photos of the century. Then, Israel in 1973 and his iconic photo of Syrian prisoners during the Yom Kippur War.
Time and Newsweek were fighting for his pictures. I organized a meeting between Eddie Adams and Christian who had not seen each other since Vietnam, a great emotional moment.
In 1973 is the big clash Gamma / Sygma. Jean Pierre Laffont and Alain Nogues remember that it was in Christian’s car, an old Bordeaux color 4-door Jaguar, parked just in front of 4 rue Vacquerie, that the slides, contacts and negatives were stacked, but the back of the car was overloaded and the car did not start. They all burst out laughing… dear Christian… because of his car from another time, the divorce of the century could have gone wrong…
A few years followed in Paris, but the world of French politics bore Christian deeply.
He wanted to live “at full speed” and was not afraid of danger, but nothing is harder than war reporting and so much suffering was beginning to weigh on him. He gradually left the News for People, first in still photography, then with moving images. Monique Kouznetzoff sent him to Los Angeles, “People, it’s a break” he said.
Thus begins his new period of “charm photographer“ Appellation which suited him so well, Christian was charm himself.
The charm is also the happy news, the people there are beautiful, famous and the Sygma agency excelled. In his West Hollywood house, full of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, friends from France and photojournalists from all over the world, all agencies combined, paraded there. Jean Pierre stayed with Christian when he went to Los Angeles. I often accompanied him and enjoyed our evenings together. Jean Pierre was preparing dinner and Christian and I talked about Vietnam, not about his photos which he didn’t like to talk about but about the friends he had met there and to whom he was deeply attached. Our discussions lasted late into the night and then Christian played the guitar and we listened to the music of Elvis Presley.
This was a time when there was no publicist around yet, Kouzo was in direct contact with the stars she introduced to Christian and very quickly he became friends with some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the time, Nastassja Kinski, and her father Klaus Kinski, Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne, Sylvia Kristel, Francis Ford Coppola with whom he became friends during the filming of Rumble Fish with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke, Yul Brynner, Tippi Hedren, Clint Eastwood, and many musicians, Michel Polnareff, but his most beautiful meeting will be with David Bowie whom he found the most handsome, kindest and most cultured man he had met in his life and of whom he would take unforgettable photos.
But, Hollywood tired him, the publicists arrived and he refused to submit to the new rules and constraints. He returned to France and lived in a suburban house in the Bois de Vincennes, just opposite the zoo. We could see the giraffes from the windows of his living room and in the evening, at sunset, we opened the windows wide to hear the roars of lions mingled with the cries of birds… Exotic, out of time, like Christian.
Finally it will be Corsica, the country where his father took him on vacation when he was a child.
Atypical and unforgettable character, daredevil and jack-of-all-trades photographer, friend full of finesse and intelligence, eternal adventurer, goodbye Christian, we will never forget you.
Eliane Laffont – March 3rd, 2023
We also received this very touching text from Cédric Therin.
Here is the chance I had four and a half years ago to cross paths with Christian.
I had the chance and the honor, from there, was born a friendship and a collaboration, he became my master in photography. So I’m not going to dwell on this great gentleman for ever, because he didn’t like it at all, I’m just going to say a few words about him:
He was a very good man, someone very intelligent with a lot of humor, professional and perfectionist in everything he did. I had the chance and the honor to be at his side almost every day to learn. Besides, he argued with me in the morning when I didn’t look enough at “the Eye of Photography”. I loved listening for hours to his stories, his anecdotes, his adventures and it was through this that I learned and that I built my photographic background, as well as through all the books he lent me. He was a very discreet person, who did not like to talk about himself too much. He was a big man with a capital M, and very hardworking too. Our last joint project was that of the exhibition for La Maison Blanche in Marseille, on which we were still working until the day before his sudden departure.
He is someone who has changed my vision and my life, and I give my full support to his daughter Valérie, and to his granddaughter Laura. I would like to share this sentence that he kept repeating to me “We are not here to laugh Coco (my dear). »