There are some images so powerful and familiar that they become part of our fabric. It's as if we were there, sharing that iconic moment, and yet what lies behind the lens, and that moment is a photographer willing to take risks, push boundaries, and bring their craft to another level.
Michel Haddi is one such photographer. He has worked with some of the most iconic celebrities, capturing a young Kate Moss on the precipice of an epic career, Debbie Harry in candid realness, Winona Ryder unposed, and Jean-Paul Gaultier at his humorous best.
What is unique about Michel is his ability to draw out the essence of his subjects; each picture has humour, depth, and authenticity. And it's this that makes them stand out from the multitude of celebrity shots that saturate our screens.
Haddi's story began far from the glamour of the world he has come to inhabit. Born on December the 6th, 1956, in Paris rue d'Assas to a French Soldier whom he didn't know and an Algerian Muslim mother, Haddi's was a turbulent childhood. Moving between foster homes until the age of six, eventually, he found himself at the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul Orphanage in Paris. During this time, Michel's mother brought him copies of Vogue that the young boy flicked through with delight. Marked by a particular shot by the great Helmut Newton, Haddi aspired to leave Paris and become a photographer.
After a journey that took him by way of Saudi Arabia, Michel began assisting photographers, eventually opening a studio in north London's Rosebery Avenue. A meeting with Victor Herbert would result in a life-long mentorship, setting him on the path to success, and in 1985 Michel met Jon Hind and Lucinda Chambers, culminating in a ten-year collaboration with Vogue.
Michel has worked for some of the most famous magazines, including The Face, Vogue, Tatler, GQ, L'Uomo Vogue, Interview, and the Cannes Film festival. During this time, he has flitted between New York, LA and back around Europe, capturing intimate moments and the essence of all whom he shoots. From Cameron Diaz to Clint Eastwood, Michel sees past the celebrity and brings us moments of magic.
A film, several books and many exhibitions later, Michel remains a trusted image-maker. He recently published 'Anthology Legends' a stunning retrospective book that documents ten years of photography, featuring 400 iconic portraits from 1990-2000. We had a chance to talk to Michel about the next book in his anthology, his journey to celebrity photographer and his hopes for the future.
In her preface to your book "Anthology: Legends", Marisa Berenson describes you as having "infinite curiosity". How important has that quality been to your career, and what other personal attributes do you feel have contributed to your success?
It has been always very important to me all my life to be curious about everything and anything; when I was a boy, I was interested in why water goes from left to right down the sink. Was it important? Not really. But I always wanted to know why on everything, I supposed it is the fear of being a dimwit not knowing what you do. Yes, it is a good adjective; fear helped me to transcend my talent if I have any.
How much of that drive and determination to succeed was influenced by your upbringing, and what were the childhood influences that ignited your passion for fashion and photography?
When you are a kid raised in an orphanage, the only thing you have is the dream machine, and that one works overtime. Once a week we were allowed to watch tv, so I will gulp all the images, of course, the sister of Saint Vincent de Paul, that was the name of my jailers were so cheap, that all the programs were black and white this is why I adore b&w perhaps.
When my mum took me out of the orphanage, I saw a beautiful lady extremely well dressed in Chanel that maybe stayed in me for all my life. This is the paradox of 2 worlds, a bourgeois family from Paris, my father, and a country girl from Algeria who didn't learn how to read and write, but very beautiful, so yes, I love to show the excess of the bourgeoisie in photographs. Do I like the countryside? Not really, too much green!
When did you decide that you wanted to translate that passion into a career? What obstacles or difficulties did you face in achieving that ambition?
At a young age, I knew I was f***** if I didn't move my arse, so I took the decision when I was around 18, I will take the world by force if necessary. But interesting enough, I know I was different from the rest of the flock. I was enamoured by anything to do with arts, so I ended up working in a 2-bit hotel as a night porter; I got offered to transport gold from Romania 40 kg in a BMW, I decline not enough money, plus I am sure I will have been dead by now. I decide to go to Saudi Arabia to work in construction; of course, I found an angle and started to sell bootlegs, Johnny Walker, for 200 dollars a pop in the camp where I was working; I will have done anything in order to become a photographer by then 1978, God bless England. I moved to London to become an assistant in Covent Garden.
Having attained that initial ambition was there a particular breakthrough shot or shoot where you realised that your career as a photographer was going to take you in the stellar direction which followed?
When I was an assistant in London, I had a mentor, Victor Herbert, a fab designer. He took me under his wing, gave me money when I was broke, and he introduced me to Michael Roberts, and I ended up doing 1 page for American GQ with a model Ian Buchannan. But the real mc coy came when I returned to Paris in '82, I think, and the fashion editor of WWD Richard Buckley loved some test I did and gave me my first break and paycheck, but the real break came from Vogue Hommes Paris, I started to photograph dancers, like Jorge Donn, or Patrick Dupond.
You have photographed a who's who of global celebrities and are equally an international public figure. Are subjects ever nervous or insecure about being shot by you, and how do you put them at ease and bring the best out of them?
You see, the incredible thing about my career, I feel I didn't do anything, I think that I achieve zilch, nada, I don't want to realise who I am, I still feel like that kid of 20 trying to make it somewhere as they say. Somebody up there must like me, but I ain't going to put my guard down and be an obnoxious git because I did a few bits, so here are my predicaments and certainly my destiny. Plus, I only work to leave something to my family - wife, kids, grandkids; this being said, when I work with someone, I am like a good doctor, it's like you are lying on my couch, you will tell me everything about you before I asked, kindness, strength, and a precise idea of what you want to do.
Out of the pantheon of celebrities who you've photographed, who have been the most charismatic? Who have been the most photogenic, and who have most combined those two qualities?
I was lucky to work with Tupac. When I saw him; I thought he looked like Martin Luther King; he had beautiful eyes full of life and made sure the ambience was to his taste.
If you could invite five people, living or deceased, that you have photographed to a dinner party, who would they be, why would you choose them, and where would you take them to eat?
Veruschka, Kate Moss, Marisa Berenson, Iman, Aretha Franklin. The reason, first they are all woman of talents, and I prefer companies of women and Aretha will be singing as she did for me; I will take them definitely to the Café de Flore in Paris, it has been my office since I am 17 years old.
We love the book and accompanying film "Tribes of London" that you've made with your collaborator Roberto De Pozzo and which explores the subcultures, style and ambitions of young Londoners. What motivated you to undertake this project, and how rewarding was it to get an insight into their goals and aspirations?
Back in the days if you remember, London created the most incredible tribal society, you had, the punks, the new romantics, the buffalo etc., so I realised, nothing has changed in London or the U.K., British kids love to belong to a fashion tribe, it goes with baked beans on toast, and tea it is in the tradition, now you have the craze for the peaky blinders. The British are the spear of fashion when it comes to ideas. In the eccentric world of fashion, you need to belong to a tribe. Mine is very simple; it is the '60s overcoat by Anthony Sinclair, the tailor of Sean Connery in the first James Bond - with Adidas jogging pants and Stan Smith, I suppose they call me dapper.
The energy and optimism of that next generation of young London creatives were inspiring, and we wondered what inspires you to continue producing such prodigious amounts of work?
I am into NFT now. I love this blockchain and doing art in crypto. I love it, it will help the young talents to be totally independent, and not to rely on the good word or the ok of a fashion guru telling you, "son, you are not ready, come back with some real work". As far as I am concern, I have three more books in the pipeline and two features film. One is signed: it's a love story. The other one is a spy story that my partner Michael Drake and myself have been working on for three years; Cori Coppola will produce it. Energy, yes, I have no choice; I worked seven days a week as all the projects pile up on the table.
You have fully embraced social media and have a huge Instagram following. It's a platform that allows all of us to show our work to the world. Do you think it's made it easier for aspiring photographers to be seen, or do you think the sheer volume of content makes it more difficult?
Again, the social media are there to cut, so to speak, the middlemen, the useless, the sycophant. If you are young and enthusiastic about anything, you will find a niche or not a niche like the Kardashians. Whether we like them or not, 15 years ago, the fashion world will have puke on them. The content is what it is but try to imagine a road full of fake diamonds, like glass cheap, nasty and vulgar. Now somewhere, on the road, you put a beautiful 20 carats first-grade blue diamond, guess what? The first thing you will see is the diamond, not the rest, so.
What's the best advice you were given as you embarked on your career, and what advice would you give to aspiring young photographers?
Do not take a no for an answer; if the door is closed, jump in by the windows, if the windows are closed, tear the house down ahahahaha, really do your things have faith, God is on your side.
As we cautiously emerge from lockdown here in the UK, are there any plans or projects you have for the second half of 2021 that you can share with us?
The interesting thing about this pandemic was a feeling like being in jail, so my wife and myself, we decided to do three things:
a/ To prepare projects, meaning books, for the next four years.
b/ To shoot every week for the new book on flowers. It will come out in 2023.
c/ We just finished the new book, 'The Legend', it will be about Marisa Berenson, and we will start a pre-order in 3 weeks, the book itself will come out in October, for Paris fashion week, only 500 copies will be printed numbered and signed.
d/ the most important: Love & Mercy.
You can see more of Michel's work here: https://michelhaddistudio.com
What resonates most about Michel is his humour and frankness. His refusal to forget his beginnings has grounded him, lending him a sense of authenticity that is rare in his world. And it's that quality, perhaps, that makes his subjects feel at ease, allowing them a unique sense of normality; maybe this is the secret to capturing such intuitive shots.
These days, Michel may be a veteran of the world of photography, but he retains a refreshing enthusiasm and sense of humour. His youthful sensibility has propelled him forward, granting him a fresh outlook and the ability to embrace new ideas and technology; his following on his social channels is a testament to his talent, the appeal of his imagery and his capacity to move with the times. He gives one hundred per cent to all that he does, with strong work ethics and ceaseless energy. Michel continues to be a prolific tour de force with many new projects underway, exemplifying that adversity can be the driver of dreams.
Above all, Michel Haddi advocates for young, talented artists, demonstrating that anyone can succeed with ambition, hard work and a little bit of uncompromising tenacity. No doubt Michel has many more stories to tell of his time behind the lens, and if you too are an aspiring photographer, you'll probably find him holding court and taking in the sights from the Café de Flore.
Thanks to Michel for taking the time to talk to us.