“I’ve been very lucky all my life to work with very interesting people,” says Michel Haddi with verve. As Milan’s 29 Arts In Progress Gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary, the French-Algerian photographer commemorates 40 years of his own extraordinarily prolific career with a retrospective exhibition titled Michel Haddi: Beyond Fashion. That’s just the start though. Over a total of six months, Michel Haddi’s 40th anniversary showcase will unfold across two consecutive exhibitions, the first from October 19 to December 22, 2023, and the second kicking off in the new year from January 16 to March 16, 2024.
Tonight – Thursday, November 16 – the visionary is staging an Artist Talk at the gallery alongside contemporary art advisor Tiziana Castelluzzo to discuss, not just the exhibition, but Haddi’s “unexpected journey from the orphanage to Vogue” as well.
Haddi has the whole who’s who of famous faces in his archive, from actors to supermodels, musicians to artists and other cultural icons, even ordinary people. Since he first found himself behind a camera, he’s done an incredible amount of work for the best in the business of fashion, all of it iconic and of the most famous people on the planet in intimate settings.
From left: Cameron Diaz, Vogue Homme Magazine Venice Beach, California, 1993. Marisa Berenson, More magazine, Paris, 2005.
Translated literally from the Semitic language, Haddi means “the one who sees behind the one who is”. And Haddi, the one who wields the camera, has found himself lauded for his ability to “see past the celebrity” and capture the raw, unadulterated, faulty humanity of his subjects. He “sees” beyond the facade. He taps into their true nature. “It’s not something that I want to do,” he admits, however. “I’ll give you an example: I’ve been training in the martial arts for the past 35 years; this morning I went to my boxing gym where I train four times a week with an ex-champion, and by doing so, I went into a trance. Some people like to smoke weed or take drugs but for me, I love to train because it takes me to another place. [In that sense], I’m able to see things in a different way, because I’ve been doing that for so long…if I photograph you, for instance, just by chatting with you, I’m listening to your voice, but at the same time I see your name, and already I’m starting, without knowing it, to build a story [about you]. And that’s it!”
It’s not all that surprising though; Haddi didn’t come from privilege. Born the son of a French soldier he never knew and an Algerian Muslim mother in 1956, he fought for his successes, and frankly, he did so against all odds. Throughout his turbulent childhood, Haddi hopped between foster homes until he was six and eventually, he settled at an orphanage in Paris and lived there until early adulthood. Perhaps it’s because of this that his way of looking at the world, and his subjects is so special. “I have the gift of knowing what is going to be next – don’t ask me why, but I’m able to feel and to know,” he adds. “For example, there is this British actress, Florence Pugh, and a few years ago, I saw her in The Little Drummer Girl which is a reprisal of a movie with Diane Keaton. When I saw her, I said, “That girl is going to be a big star” and guess what? She is!”
What attracts him to a subject, is their capacity to be candid. “When I started, I was extremely happy to shoot whatever the magazines were asking me to; I was just happy to photograph. Even now, I still have a candid attitude. To make my point, in Los Angeles last year I did a whole two weeks shooting with new stars, all kids – one was the daughter of Eddie Murphy – but all of them had something magical, so I put a bet on them. They are fabulous looking, they are very nice, they have a story to tell, but, besides that, I let myself go with the flow. I’ve done that all my life. People call me up – magazines, agencies…– and they say ‘we want you to work with that one and that one’ and I say “Okay”. I believe that you have to give these people a chance.”
From left: Yasmin Le Bon, British Vogue Magazine, London, 1991. Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz & Gamilah Shabazz Interview Magazine, New York, 1992.
Michel Haddi: Beyond Fashion is a compilation of the most exemplary photos taken over the course of his career, many of which were shot in LA where the now London-based photographer had lived and worked for a number of years. High octane portraits of Gwyneth Paltrow, Liza Minnelli, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. Glamorous greyscale pictures of Linda Evangelista, Stephanie Seymour, Yasmin Le Bon and Veruschka, Jennifer Lopez and Angelina Jolie.
One of his favourites is an image depicting Cameron Diaz wearing little more than a white baby tee with “Our Pussys Our Choice” plastered across her chest and a pair of plain black knickers. “This was before the time when women started to have more of a voice,” he recalls. “I always remember Cameron, with her joie de vivre, her laughter and certainly above all, her strength. I’ve always been around very powerful women. I love powerful, sarcastic women with a dry sense of humour. I like women that take no shit from no one. For me, women… you girls have balls, serious balls, you know why? It’s very simple. You’re able to give birth, which a guy can’t and never will be. As a man, I don’t think I would make it. You girls have balls of fire, and that’s why I love you all and that’s why, when Cameron came, it was absolutely fabulous. I have always loved when women are on top – I mean in the figurative way, not the sexual way, when I say to be on top! – I mean most of the women I have met, have more balls than many men do.”
Adding to this, he refers to a seductive photo of Veruschka von Lehndorff smoking a cigarette in a YSL jacket. “This is the best example [of what I mean] because, as she smokes, she looks at you right in the eyes and you have to accept it or you better take the highway.”
For this showcase in particular, a selection of beautiful black and white imagery with a very simplistic, intimate vibe are the focus. “Don’t ask me why, but in all fairness, it’s a team effort, and they wanted to show my black and white [photos],” he says. “Even if I’ve done a lot of colour, photographing a woman in black and white gives that photograph a seal of approval. If in your room, you have a very big print in black and white of a woman, you will agree that the image is more stunning than if it were in colour. Think about it – if you look at Helmut Newton and [Peter] Lindbergh, [Richard] Avedon, Irving Penn… when it comes to black and white [photos], there is something magic that comes out of them.”
From left: Naomi Campbell, British Vogue, Paris, 1989. Linda Evangelista, Party Milan, Vanity Fair Italia, 2010.
Recalling major moments in his prolific career – many of which are included in the showcase – Haddi speaks of his sessions with David Bowie, Uma Thurman, Faye Dunaway, Marisa Berenson (the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli), the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, Denzel Washington, Twiggy and more. His stories swirl: “Uma Thurman was sweet and so beautiful; extremely elegant… But she was married, so I couldn’t play with my charm,” he laughs. “Linda Evangelista was my neighbour at my second apartment in Paris. She was living underneath me and she was working so hard to make it –she was working a lot with Lindbergh and Steven [Meisel]. This picture [included in the exhibition] was during a party in Milan for Vanity Fair and the way she was, with her eyes open and her mouth like that, it’s like a diva – a true blue Italian diva, and I love it.” Even, “Veruschka was my friend; we used to hang out in New York, in Paris, in London, and I was very, very close to her. Once, I told her a story from when I was a young man. I was a night porter in a hotel in Paris and that night Wim Wenders with Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper came in because they were shooting The American Friend. Wim was a strange guy, but he was a fabulous filmmaker, so I used to watch all of his movies. Then Wings of Desire came out and I thought ‘I cannot believe it – the story is fabulous, the movie is fabulous’. Veruschka burst out laughing [when I told her] and I said, ‘What about, if you have a pair of wings and a bag in a parking lot, and you just come out to do your shopping, like a normal woman, but put the wing under your arm when you do’. I tried to bring something very normal to a creation that’s not normal at all.”
Haddi defines the highlights of his career not as ephemeral moments of achievement, awards or financial gains, but stories rooted in true experience. “To be there at the right time and in the right place wherever I am; those are the highlights. In Berlin in November 1989, during the fall of the wall, or in Yemen in the mountains doing a 40-page spread with an actress. On top of the mountains with the Mujahideens or working with Tupac… I have so many snippets and stories about it all,” he says, adding, “Maybe in the future it could be interesting to pull them all together in a book.”
Rare video of Gwyneth Paltrow wearing Prada, directed and shot by Michel Haddi in 1994, Venice Beach. Michel Haddi/ Courtesy of 29 Arts in Progress Gallery.
Speaking of books, he debuted a Kate Moss photobook in May followed by a Tupac tome in October as part of his ‘The Legend’ book series and in April 2024, Haddi has an in-colour photobook that plays on the eroticism of exotic flowers, shot by himself, designed by Roberto de Pozzo and entitled Les Fleurs Du Mal, coming out. He’s also working on collating a Tupac retrospective to show in the US for next year, that’ll feature 25 four metre by three metre prints, together with “some new shoots, campaigns and films and a 27-minute film titled 7 Days (the pilot that his film producers Blackball TV and Lorenzo Cefils are putting together for a TV channel) that will be shot in Milan.
It’s been 40 years since Haddi stepped onto the scene; 40 fantastic years, defined by fashion-forward friendships, globetrotting and beautiful moments frozen in time. I ask him what he might change about it all if he had the power to go back, and his response is absolute: “I suppose, maybe I should have said yes to everything, thank you, I am much obliged, and woah amazing… by now I would have five huge houses, three Dodge Vipers, three wives with alimonies, 20 to 50 million dollars in the bank and be riddled with diabetes. In short, I’d be on top of the world,” he jokes. “I would and will NEVER change, not even one bit. If I had to replay the whole film. I would be the same, keeping my same values in love, family, my photography, the entire spiel. I am very lucky; I went around the world to shoot for the best magazines and with great people and I am still working and will be till the end. The bottom line is, I will die on a shoot when I’m 101-years-old or boxing at the gym.. hahaha… What a glorious death and way to go!”
Georgia May Jagger, Gala Magazine, Paris, 2017
Top Image: Kate Moss for British GQ, New York, 1991. The first phase of ‘Michel Haddi: Beyond Fashion’ opened to the public on October 19 at the gallery in Via San Vittore 13 in Milan and will remain open until December 22. Photography by Michel Haddi courtesy of 29 Arts In Progress. Join 29 Arts In Progress gallery for an in-conversation between legendary fashion and portrait photographer Michel Haddi and contemporary art advisor Tiziana Castelluzzo – Artist Talk Michel Haddi: the unexpected journey from the orphanage to Vogue – on the occasion of the photographer’s new solo exhibition “Beyond Fashion” in Milan at 29 Arts In Progress IN PROGRESS gallery Via San Vittore 13, Milano, within Photo Vogue Festival 2023 on Thursday, 16 November 2023 at 18:30. RSVP: email@example.com.