Fashion photography can be a nostalgic business, but Emmanuelle Alt’s appetite for the unexpected and glamorous keeps her in the vanguard of taste. A forty-seven-year-old stylist who learned her trade at French Elle, Alt is celebrated for reinvigorating the industry’s tired ’70s fashion clichés with surprising, sporty modernity since joining its most prestigious magazine, Vogue Paris, as fashion director in 2000.
Taking over from Carine Roitfeld as the publication’s editor-in-chief three years ago has demanded a more global view of making a magazine, shifting Alt’s focus away from styling and aesthetics alone. She may not now enjoy the luxury of being on set with Mario Testino, David Sims, and Inez ^Vinoodh every week, but Alt still has the knack of intuiting exactly what a photographer needs to make a truly great picture. Penny Martin, editor of the women’s title The Gentlewoman, interviewed Alt at the Vogue Paris offices on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré this past May.
I think your first music and visual influences stay with you forever. My group all listens to Bowie; there’s nothing better. You live with what was around when you first became curious.
Penny Martin: Let’s start in the present. Emmanuelle, tell me about your most recent shoot—how did it come about?
Emmanuelle Alt: I was just in St. Barths with Inez & Vinoodh, shooting for our lune/Iuly issue. I’ve known them for about twelve years, so we’ve developed an easy way of working.
We all love the same period of photography. And it’s not only the images; it’s the whole culture—a certain time of models, clothes, a certain time in music.
PM: I gather you started off in music videos?
EA: Yes, when I started styling, videos were very important.
It was the era of lean-Paul Goude and lean-Baptiste Mondino, a totally new medium.
PM : Was this while you were at Elle']
EA: Yeah, I was working as a production assistant at the same time. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a director; I was just fascinated by images, I think. I assisted on some Mondino videos; at that time he was fashion photography’s God. The stylist was Ray Petri. It was a brilliant team.
PM : So that was the golden age for you?
EA: Yes, for me, probably the beginning of the ’80s, the end of the ’70s ... I think your first music and visual influences stay with you forever. My group all listens to Bowie; there’s nothing better. You live with what was around when you first became curious.
PM: When it comes to initiating a shoot, then, are those common influences even mentioned between collaborators of the same age?
EA: Well, this story began with Inez and me exchanging images by email. Sometimes it comes from almost nothing; it might just be a color. When you’re shooting in the sun—you know that strong blue sky in St. Barths—you need a contrast. So I might say, “What do you think about red and white?” And Inez is like, “Oh, yeah, sure!” I’ll send a picture of a red shoe and a René Gruau illustration, which is full of red, and just a silhouette or a little sketch. It’s not always photographs—often it’s a painting or a frame-grab from a YouTube film. Very quickly, we’ll start to build up an image of a woman, and then we can discuss the casting. Some photographers will keep changing their casting or think they need a stronger idea. But Inez isn’t someone who hesitates. It’s like three phone calls and everything is booked.
PM : Do you ever have preproduction meetings with photographers in person?
EA: Unfortunately, everything is done over phone and e-mail since no one is in Paris. Of the bigger photographers we work with, I think Peter Lindbergh is the only one. Besides, at this time of year, we need to shoot overseas for the light. And unless photographers have made a career out of studio photography, like Penn or Avedon, I think most of them get bored if they’ve been stuck in there all year.
PM : The studio is all about control—leaving very little to chance so an idea can be executed exactly as imagined.
EA: Whereas outside you’re looking for accidents. I’m going on a trip with David Sims in a few weeks—once a year we take him on location. For a studio photographer like him, who controls the lighting, everything, he has to face a lot of unexpected things outside. Suddenly, rain makes a fantastic picture or there’s a dog in the street. The only thing is it costs a lot of money to fly photographers and their teams out there. We’re far from the days of Helmut Newton traveling with one assistant, one person doing hair and makeup, the model, and a fashion editor. Five people: it was nothing.
PM : How many people were on set with you and Inez & Vinoodh?
EA: Oh, it’s always twenty, minimum. You have the digital operator and now you have a producer... it’s like a mini version of the cinema industry.
PM : I wonder how many editors could take such a pastoral role in their photographers’ careers. If you hadn’t styled their shoots over the years, you wouldn’t know they’d be desperate to get out into the air by now. Would you say your relationships have changed since you shifted from fashion director to editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris?
EA: Before, it was probably more personal. Then, I was in charge of my shoot and had some other responsibilities. But now I have to think, okay, if I take this direction, I have to make sure that the two or three other fashion editors represent a different type of woman, clothes, and type of photography.
PM : Are you involved in looking for young photographers to work for your magazine?
EA: Well, I try to. I’m proud of the young photographers that we’ve discovered, like Lachlan Bailey—all these young guys we’ve pushed, who are all very successful now. As editor, my role is to take a global view—paying attention to things, like making sure we don’t end up with an entirely black-and-white issue.
Often it’s the magic solution for photographers when there’s a problem.
PM : For a magazine like The Gentlewoman, in which a very small proportion of the women we photograph are models, it’s crucial, though. Many of our great stories are about women over thirty, and black-and-white is a very generous means of presenting them.
EA: Oh, of course, everyone looks better in black-and-white. And there’s something about those portraits that links them to eternity.
PM : As you say, a large body of black-and-white portraits in the issue puts a lot more pressure on the fashion stories to up the color balance elsewhere. But when I think of your work, lively color is what I see. You cut down your stories once you became editor but you still contribute one per issue, right?
EA: I like to if I can; I was a stylist first. And when you have a woman in mind, no one else is going to imagine her exactly as you see her. It’s so personal. It’s like with photographers.
You can give them exactly the same model and exactly the same dress but you’ll get two very different pictures. It’s the same for fashion editors—it’s you, it’s the way you see it, and you want to make it happen yourself, with your hands.
PM : When you say, “It’s you,” do you mean a version of you in the picture?
EA: Yes, sometimes, though the styling will vary from photographer to photographer. If you shoot with someone like Peter Lindbergh, you’re not going to bring a pink fur coat.
You know that his wide shot is going to be magic because he focuses on the face, the character, and the emotions, so you have to be discreet. It’s a totally different scenario from working with David Sims. His woman is very strong, masculine; she’s a warrior. Oh, I love this exercise—anticipating what’s going to be photogenic with each photographer’s technique. With David, your styling needs to be very sure, because the white background of the studio will show everything, all the little details.
PM : You touched on the fact that portraiture has been quite dominant in fashion photography over the past decade, where head shots or three-quarter shots are common. It wasn’t until I started working on the magazine that I appreciated how incredibly difficult it is to achieve a great full-length fashion image.
EA: Yeah, sometimes you have to beg photographers to get your shoe in the picture! “Can’t we just try one shot?” I think often they feel that the closer they are to the face, the more emotion they’ll get, which isn’t necessarily true. Many of the fantastic images that were a big influence on all of us, from Newton and Bourdin to Norman Parkinson, they used to show an entire fashion landscape.
PM: People complain that so few photographic teams shoot the big stories and campaigns but it takes an enormous amount of experience to pull off a well-balanced vista.
The debates about retouching and postproduction levels in fashion photography can obscure the phenomenal skill that’s required on set.
EA: Actually, we’ve had quite a bit of criticism that our current cover of the actress Sophie Marceau has been very retouched, which isn’t true. She does a lot of sport and her legs look that good in real life! Sometimes people just don’t want to accept things as they are.
PM : Well, this is the new role of the editor, isn’t it, to be constantly fielding assumptions about the levels of postproduction on the images. But it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? People might ask me, “Do you retouch your images?” And the answer is yes, of course we do. We might balance the color against other shoots in the issue. We might make sure that there’s not a flaw that’s come through from the negative.
EA: Of course! We try to make it as perfect as possible. If she has a big spot, it’s not going to make it onto the cover but that doesn’t mean that we’re manipulating her face—
PM: —or chopping two inches off the thigh or stretching the body out of all proportion. People forget how much a face can be distorted by lighting or in camera, after all. That said, our art department is frequently having conversations with photographers about reducing the levels of retouching: “Could we see the pores, please?”
EA: We really suffer from that. I’m saying to every photographer, “I want to see the veins!” You know, it’s similar to the levels of surgery we’re seeing in real life. All those older women you see in restaurants. You’ve no idea whether they’re seventy or fifty-five but somehow, there’s no illusion about their age.
It’s an abstraction—one face for all.
PM : Those pillowy cheeks you associate with Californian cosmetic surgery seem so far from classic Parisian beauty. How mindful do you need to be of the Frenchness of French Vogue?
EA: It’s funny, I’m not sure French women see themselves in the same way as the rest of world does: those books about why French women never get fat, as if we have miraculous metabolisms. It’s fantasy! What’s particular to this Vogue is that whereas all the other Vogues are the name of a country—British Vogue, Spanish Vogue, American Vogue—we are the name of a city, Vogue Paris. Everyone has a clear conception of La Parisienne.
PM : One of the questions Pm frequently asked in interviews is whether Pm the gentlewoman of our magazine’s title. Female editors are under a huge amount of scrutiny to personify their magazine—it must be especially the case for the editor of Condé Nast’s most revered fashion title.
EA: It can be difficult, with all those pictures taken of us during the shows. We’re not models: sometimes I don’t feel my hair is great, I’ve been running between shows, or you’re just coming out of a lunch and just don’t feel in the mood. Especially me; it’s not as if I’m doing all these crazy looks every day in order to be photographed.
PM : Which of the images you were involved in creating do you look back at—which would you say were most important in terms of establishing your signature visual language?
EA: About four years ago, my first story with David was “Commando” with Iselin Steiro—she was wearing army stuff; this was a tough, new character we created. I was very proud.
And not long after I came to Vogue, I started working with Inez & Vinoodh and I think we really created something together.
PM : Do you mean all those images of Jessica Miller with the extravagant poses?
EA: Yes, that was the beginning. They were good, I think. I loved the femininity and the mystery of Inez in them.
PM : Those were published in the M/M (Paris) years, when Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag were art-directing Vogue Paris in 2002 - 03: for me, one of the magazine’s absolute creative zeniths.
EA: Yes, it was a great time, I have to say. There was a lot of freedom. It was French people of the same generation all together, we all knew one another very well and it was fun. What M/M did was so influential, when they started painting on covers, creating captions in handwriting—especially on such an established title as ours.
PM: I remember saying to Michael and Mathias when they first got the job, “Oh my God, that archive! Having that resource downstairs is going to b e great” I was so surprised when they replied that they had no intention of using it.
EA: It’s a dilemma, working with an institution with such a history. “Should I look back? Should I not look back?”
PM : In our industry, a conversation about using archival references can be very nuanced. Bring it up, and people might think you’re accusing them of copying someone else’s work.
EA: Well, people can’t say they don’t work with references—I mean, they’re everywhere, from advertisers’ storyboards to fashion designers’ mood boards. But sharing a picture in order to discuss lighting or allude to Jessica Lange’s hairstyle from a particular film is different from redoing something. And what’s the point of that? It’s like when singers cover “La vie en rose”—you just know it’s going to be a disaster since there’s nothing to add.
PM : Plus, even with the best intentions, sending a photographer images of someone else’s work, especially by a contemporary, is delicate.
EA: In some cases, it’s better to show some people their own work than somebody else’s. One of the photographers we send a lot of their own references to is Gilles Bensimon. We’re like, “Oh, we want to recapture that shot of Yasmeen Ghauri or Elle Macpherson....” At the same time, nobody wants to be asked to redo something they did years ago. Sometimes I’ll show David Sims those pictures he did with Linda [Evangelista] whistling in the early ’90s and I’m like, “Oh wow, they’re so simple,” and he’s like “Whoa, no!” On one hand, I think he loves that I’m acknowledging his archive, his world—his property.
But at the same time, it’s 2014 and that girl doesn’t exist for him anymore. The result isn’t going to be as strong.
PM : It must have happened to you regularly when you were still able to do consultancy before the changes at Condé Nast at the time you took over as editor. Wouldn’t a client say,
“Oh, Emmanuelle, remember that amazing shot you did of Kate [Moss] in the water with the bikini? Can we have that again?”
EA: Yeah, and sometimes I’d say, “Great, we haven’t done that character in a long time; let’s do it!” and other times, I’d be like, “I’ve done that too many times, and this girl’s got nothing to do with that one—she’s going to look stupid in this outfit.”
PM : When I worked for Nick Knight, we shared an office with Peter Saville—two of the most copied image makers of our time—and it was a weekly occurrence. I’d hear people say to them, “Never mind, imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery.” But actually, now I’m commissioning for a magazine, I know it took six months to get that story executed, and it was so hard and you’re so proud of the result, that I find it hard to take lightly. We sell ninety eight thousand copies, so not everybody in the world gets to see the images in the magazine, but more likely they do see the poorer copy since it’s for a much bigger commercial client and it’s with them they associate the original idea. It sounds so petty, but it hurts!
EA: Of course! It happened all the time when I was working on clothes, doing collections. You spent months doing the research and making the pants with the designer, and suddenly they’re everywhere for twenty euros. But you know there is nothing you can do about it, so I try to stop myself from looking and focus instead on finding satisfaction in the fact that it was influential.