Gilles Bensimon On Photographing Everyone from Yasmin Le Bon to Karlie Kloss

by Paige Reddinger

Fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon has spent the last 47 years documenting the planet’s most gorgeous creatures, carving out one of the industry’s most storied careers along the way. From his first gig at French Elle in 1967, to his years at the helm of American ELLE, to his late-career renaissance in the pages of Vogue Paris, it’s been one hell of a sexy ride. Here, the maestro (and a few of his favorite muses) look back at the magic they made together.

How did you get started in the business?
My plan was to do nothing when I was a kid. I wanted to be with my grandmother and spend time in Venice, the South of France, and Gstaad and never work. When I was a kid, the people when they got older would dress in dark blue or in grey and they would all go to work. At this time, Paris was not as fancy as it is now and all the buildings were grey. I thought getting old meant I had to be like these people and my grandmother had never worked in her life. The lifestyle she had was great. I was not the best student. I was probably also dyslexic. I went to art school…after going to many schools, but I got lucky when I was very young and started working for French ELLE.

How did you begin working at French ELLE?
I did lots of little jobs. It was a weekly, so they always had something to do. I would shoot two pages or four pages for each issue, but at this time there were no assistants. Even the models didn’t have hair and makeup. Sometimes they even brought their own shoes. I stayed there and worked for some other magazines and did many things. I was shooting a lot of ad campaigns too.

What was next?
I moved to New York and they were starting American ELLE. Regis [Pagniez] contacted me and asked me to work with him and I agreed. We lived in the same building for years and we worked together so much. I had great luck working with Regis. He was not only the director of the magazine, but he was also the art director, which was not very common. We worked very well together for many years. We would have breakfast together, lunch together, and dinner together. I don’t think my ex-wife Elle Macpherson accepted that very well. I think it was painful for her that we never went out or did anything fun.

What was it like trying to establish ELLE in the U.S.?
We were successful from the first issue. That’s why it was very frightening at many points, because we were so successful and there was nobody at the magazine. There was no fashion editor, really, or that many people to work with. So we got in the habit of doing everything ourselves. I’m not sure if it was politically correct, business-wise, but it was working very well. I’m not so sure people liked us that much. It was a French magazine doing so well in America. Also, the other magazines began to have to change because of us, even the people of Condé Nast, because we cared so much about the paper, the printing, and the cover. I don’t think we were very welcome. Now it’s funny, because everyone says, “It was an iconic magazine. It was so great.” But during that time, they never told us that. Even the people from The New York Times were not that nice to us.

At what point did you become the creative director?
After the magazine began to grow, Regis retired and I became the creative director and after that I became the editorial director.

How long did you work with Regis Pagniez before you took over?
It was probably about 15 years. I must say Regis did the biggest part with me. When he wasn’t there anymore I found myself very lonely at many points, because we used to talk about everything and we would always agree on the best thing. When you’re by yourself, you realize that it’s not that easy. It was not a great time for me, I must say.

What was the reaction when you became editorial director?
People were not so happy, because they said that I’m not an editor, I’m not an American, and I’m not a woman. And I was by myself, but I found an art director and I tried to put together a fashion team, but it was not easy. I’m not sure I was really capable to do it. I was successful, but I would not do it again.

Why do you think you weren’t capable?
I thought everyone was telling me the truth, but they weren’t. Everybody was ambitious and everybody wanted to get something. I probably was not ambitious enough. They also thought I was arrogant, and I was arrogant, but the magazine was doing well and we survived. But it was not a happy ending.

Do you remember the first cover you ever did for American ELLE?
It was Yasmin Le Bon for the September issue in 1985. After Yasmin, it was Elle Macpherson. But the cover was so different from everything else that was being done. The funny thing is that no one even copied us at first, because they were so unsure about it. During this time, it was always a close up of a blonde smiling and sometimes the same girl would get five covers in a row. The great era of Harper’s Bazaar was gone at the time. Vogue was very basic, but they changed after. Anna Wintour made a big difference.

You’ve shot more covers than any other photographer. What is the essence of the “it” factor with models?
I recently worked with Karlie Kloss and with a girl like that it’s always about the decision they made to work hard. It’s about the amount of work they are capable of giving you. It’s not just about the look. They are much more involved in the process of shooting. For example, I was with Karlie in the mountains in France and there were a lot of pictures to be done and she had never skied before. But we did 18 great pictures working all day, because she never gave up and it was a very demanding shoot. Then I shot Abbey Lee Kershaw for Australian Vogue for their April issue and she’s not a great model, she’s actually known for being an actress. There’s a lot of absolutely great looking girls that never do anything.  It’s about talent, simply put.

Can you tell before you shoot someone if they’ll have that “it” factor?
Not until I shoot them. We did a story last year with Edita, another model I love, on a boat for French Vogue and everybody was sick. In three hours, we did fantastic shots and everyone was laid down. We had so much success with that shoot and a lot of people copied that story. She was the right girl at the right time and she worked very, very hard. It was fantastic.

Who do you love working for right now?
French Vogue. It’s amazing, because I never thought I would work for Vogue, because I was so much of an ELLE person. But the people of ELLE magazine don’t like me that much for many reasons. It’s like an ex-wife.

Did you start working for the international editions of Vogue right after ELLE?
No, things were very difficult for a time. I was punished. People thought I had too much power at ELLE and they are perhaps right. The other day I was talking with an editor of a magazine and we were talking about somebody who is shooting everything for this magazine and the editor said that it is too much power for this person and I said to this woman, “Probably, I had too much power when I was at ELLE.” I did all the covers, because I was convinced I was the only one capable to do the right cover. I’m not sure I was right. During that conversation with this editor it was the first time that I agreed about that. You discover things about yourself as time passes.

How do you think the business has changed for you?
Now people are afraid of the internet, but I think magazines will still exist. They will have to change, obviously. Advertisers have a lot more power now. ELLE was a great magazine, because it had a history of great fashion directors. It was like a school. That doesn’t exist anymore. At Vogue, obviously it still exists. Anna Wintour is a great example. I never worked with Anna, so that’s why it is easy to say that, but she is the one capable to control the fashion, style, opinion, and the whole magazine. Even if people don’t like her, you must have a lot of respect for her.

Do you think American publishing is different from European publishing?
Not really. But if you put all of the covers together right now they would all look the same. They follow the same people and the same ideas. Before, you used to be able to recognize a magazine by its cover. Vogue was really Vogue, ELLE was really ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar was really Harper’s Bazaar, every magazine was different. Glamour was different, Mademoiselle was different.

What are your hobbies outside of work?
I love to read. I have so many books I don’t have space anymore. I also love to draw. I just do drawings for myself. It takes me about two weeks to do each drawing. I like to surf, but I’m not that good. Laird Hamilton made me a surfboard. I also love to travel. I just arrived in New York from Paris and tomorrow I go to Greece. It’s for work, but I love it. I have to work, because I divorced American style. You could call it Chapter 11, but my cousin says it’s really my Chapter 12!

What is your favorite place you’ve ever shot?
The next one.

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