Cinema has played a major role in the life and career of Paris-based photographer Dominique Issermann. This year’s recipient of the Lucie Award for Achievement in Fashion was majoring in literature at the Sorbonne when she moved to Rome with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student leader of the May 1968 protests in Paris, and French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard to work on films. In the Italian capital, she co-directed the avant-garde films Tamaout and Elettra with Marc’O.
Upon Issermann’s return to Paris in 1973, she produced a series of photo essays for Zoom magazine on the movie sets of Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento. In these formative years, she photographed up-and-coming and now-legendary actors, including Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani. In 1979, designer Sonia Rykiel hired Issermann to collaborate with her on advertising campaigns for her fashion line, which put her front and center in the world of mode. Fashion editorials for periodicals from American Vogue to Elle soon followed.
Her work continues to flow seamlessly between fashion, portraiture and advertising campaigns for major brands from Chanel, Christian Dior, Lancôme and Yves Saint Laurent to GUESS, Victoria’s Secret, Tiffany & Co., and Hermès. In addition to shooting or directing commercials and shorts for some of these fashion and beauty houses, Issermann has created music videos with her signature free-flowing, yet immaculately framed shots.
DPP: You fill every millimeter of your frame meaningfully and effectively. How did you develop such a precise eye?
Dominique Issermann: My friends used to call me a lynx. I was a cat with special eyes. An editor on one of my videos told me that in each of the 24 images per second, I’m seeing every frame. I remember as a child looking at people on the street or at events I would go to with my parents. I would stare at them with my mouth open, totally enraptured by their beauty or something that I thought was very special. I would just look at them, staring very impolitely.
DPP: But innocently. When did you actually pick up a camera to capture what was fixing the gaze of your eyes?
Issermann: I picked up a camera when I was four years old, my father’s Kodak Brownie Flash, and photographed my mother hanging bed sheets on the line to dry them, then I stopped until I was 16 or 17. I had a great opportunity with my friend Philippe Galland, whose father had a little factory in Paris manufacturing these green glass pieces that you find on electric lines. The industrial design section of the company had cameras that we could use. They had no clue about doing anything artistic with their pictures. But they had the tools, the cameras. We would shoot during the day, then go there at night to develop the negatives and make prints in their lab. Unfortunately, Philippe’s father died, but he gave me one of the cameras, which was a Rolleiflex. Years later, Philippe did two or three decent films, then dropped filmmaking and went back to his late father’s business.
DPP: Later on you became friends with Jean-Luc Godard.
Issermann: I just saw Redoubtable, a movie about Godard played by Louis Garrel. It was quite good. I recognized all the scenes I had been through in Italy with him and our friends. It was very fun.
DPP: It’s interesting that you were around a number of filmmakers early on, but it seems that you shoot a lot of verticals. Traditional cinema, of course, is all horizontal.
Issermann: I was shooting square photography for years with my Rolleiflex, then I moved to Hasselblad. It was kind of a dream to own a Hasselblad. I remember the joy I felt when I could put my hands on one. From the square format, it was not easy to adjust to shooting verticals, but it was very difficult to convince magazines when you’re shooting fashion stories to have only double pages with one girl and one item. In the beginning, I was putting several girls in a staged organization in the same picture so that I could fill a spread. The magazines give you one or two double-page spreads per fashion story, usually the opener and perhaps one other, so the rest have to be verticals. If I could shoot everything horizontal, I would do it, believe me. But I love to be published in magazines. I love the smell of the ink, the texture of the paper. I like that my published photo is going to eventually wrap up some fish or be stuffed in some shoe to keep its form, or when I go in the metro or on a train, and I see someone reading a magazine and they’re looking at my photo. I love the press.
DPP: When did you switch to the 35mm format?
Issermann: I switched for one good reason: I wanted to use the PolaPan film that you could instantly process with a little hand-crank machine. You would cut the frames and put them in a slide holder. It was very fragile film. That exists only in the 35mm format, so that’s mostly why I changed. I stayed with 35mm film cameras, then switched completely to digital in 2006. I remember my last job with film was in Switzerland photographing the actress and model Laetitia Casta for a book. She was a “GUESS Girl” in the early 1990s and later a Victoria’s Secret Angel. We did it at the Therme Vals, a spa built by the architect Peter Zumthor. He’s a genius and a wonderful person.
DPP: How did the idea to use that location come about?
Issermann: I had already done a book on Anne Rohart, who was another model who I’ve worked with a lot. I wanted to do another book with another girl. I wanted to do a trilogy, actually. I’ve done two until now. It’s so hard to find the right place with the right girl. The shooting has to be just like a promenade. Like the girl is entering the building, then, in the building, it has to be flowing, natural, beautiful, shot with all-natural light; I’m not adding any of my lighting. It came naturally with Anne Rohart. We did it in the Château de Maisons in Maisons-Laffitte on the outskirts of Paris. Then Laetitia and I wanted to do this book together. At first, I didn’t think the Therme Vals was a place for her. It’s a very radical building and very austere, and she’s so natural and voluptuous. But then I thought, “Let’s try.” She had never seen the place before, but when we reached there she understood the building immediately. The first picture in the book is her hand on the wall. It’s like the opening of a new world. She placed herself in this beautiful light. We were not alone—it was a public bath so there were other people there.
DPP: So you actually shot while it was open.
Issermann: We could shoot at night for two hours when they were closed and they were doing the cleaning using the building’s artificial work lights, but I preferred the light during the day. The water in the bath is so beautiful. The building is not like a building with a swimming pool; it’s more like a building submerged in water, like an ancient city. It’s the same material on the wall, the ceiling and in the baths. She was three months pregnant when we did the shoot. I told her, “Just float in the water like the baby is floating.” It happened!
DPP: How many days was the shoot?
Issermann: Three days, and the same thing for Anne Rohart. I keep that unit consistent. For the third of the trilogy, I had something in mind with Susie Bick, the wife of Nick Cave. She’s a model I’ve worked a lot with. We were thinking of doing a book many years ago in an abandoned industrial structure with old machines. Just after we had decided to do it, someone bought the building and transformed it into the Tate Museum. So I lost the opportunity, and it hasn’t come back yet. I am always busy, but I hope it will happen.
DPP: Do you typically try to shoot using ambient light?
Issermann: I love to shoot with the ambient light. If I shoot with lights, I shoot in the studio with a black or gray background and usually one light, maximum two lights. I like one source of light, and that light is doing everything, lighting the background and the person in a beautiful way. If I’m indoors somewhere on location, I don’t want to have to light it.
DPP: You’re able to get the exposures you need at locations sans lights?
Issermann: We go where the light is. There’s always a beautiful light somewhere. You just have to look for it and be patient. I’m working with a Canon 5D Mark IV, so I can shoot at high ISOs, if needed. For example, there is a picture of Susie Bick, the wife of Nick Cave, that looks like an old-fashioned photograph. It has sort of an eternal femininity. She has plastic rollers in her hair since she’s getting ready for a shoot. She’s looking in a mirror. That was in a plastic shower booth that was probably 60 by 60 centimeters. I’m glued to the wall, trying to be as flat as a sole. I saw the light in this plastic shower booth. It looks like something luxurious, while in reality, it was just something very modest.
DPP: Who are your visual inspirations?
Issermann: I was 17 or 18 the first time I saw a picture that really struck me. I was in MOMA in New York, and there was a photograph of a cauliflower leaf by Edward Weston. I thought it was incredible. If he could do such a beautiful picture with a cauliflower leaf that had been abandoned in a kitchen to make a soup or something, the possibilities were endless. The other day I went to an Irving Penn exhibition from the Met that’s now in Paris. I love his images of cigarette butts. Just to make those beautiful, it’s so strong.
DPP: He, of course, was also an amazing portraitist. What are some of your portraits that you’ve done that you particularly feel close to?
Issermann: I did a lot of portraits of Leonard Cohen. We were together for eight or nine years and friends to the very end. They were not usually organized photo sessions except for when we did videos. I didn’t say, “Let’s do a photo now. How are you going to dress?” I was taking the picture because I thought the moment looked incredible as it was. It was more about being in the intimacy of real life. They were exceptional moments with an exceptional man. They weren’t organized moments. We would be in Greece for the holidays, Paris, Montreal, New York or L.A.
I shot his first two music videos for the songs “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “First We Take Manhattan.” My photos were used for the covers of his book Stranger Music and his album “More Best of Leonard Cohen” and for the inside booklet of “I’m Your Man,” which he dedicated to me.
One of the last things I did with Leonard was 12 short video clips for his album “Old Ideas.” I did them all by myself with my iPhone 5. It wasn’t the iPhone we have now. It was Leonard’s idea, and he was very happy with the job.
DPP: You also did a controversial commercial with Bob Dylan.
Issermann: I did a commercial in Venice with Bob Dylan for Victoria’s Secret with Adriana Lima in underwear and angel wings. It was totally surreal. I was privileged to work with Darius Khondji, who is a great cameraman and DP. He’s done everything from Se7en to Midnight in Paris. He’s done most of my commercials working with big crews, very exciting. We’ve also done some videos with singers in France.
DPP: Why have you focused more on the still photograph than the moving picture?
Issermann: I love photography, but I probably feel closer to the world of cinema. If there was a director I had to pick as an influence, it would be [Michelangelo] Antonioni. I was so moved by his framing. His women. They hardly ever have handbags. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I do the same thing. They are a little bit overdressed. Their hair is a little bit too loose. They don’t have the right shoes. They’re not in the right place, or they are but it’s too early or too late. They are so mysterious. Something breaks in their lives, but you can’t comprehend what it is. All these Italian complex difficulties, like they have a secret for that. A women walks on the road or in the middle of a field, not lost but nothing to carry. There’s a kind of freedom and fragility at the same time, which is amazing.
But my first job with the designer Sonia Rykiel really changed my life. That put me on the fashion photography track rather than cinema. Suddenly, my photography got a lot of attention, and I started working with American Vogue with Alexander Liberman and doing a lot of images for brands like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. Whether I’m shooting stills or video, I love to frame. It’s difficult for me to reframe, to crop. If it’s a frame I don’t like, I won’t use the picture. I’m joking a bit, but I think I would prefer to die than to crop.