Olivier Zahm on His Book, Open Relationships, & Pornography Vs. Art


Olivier Zahm on His Book, Open Relationships, & Pornography Vs. Art


Olivier Zahm, the Parisian creator of the sexually-charged fashion bible Purple, has just published a 600-page tome with Rizzoli filled with his trademark photography. O.Z. Diarywhich is available now, is a collection of images taken over the span of a decade whose subjects are the stylish and free-spirited denizens who occupy Zahm’s rarified social circle. They lend a rare view into the underbelly of the fashion and art worlds, spanning from Paris to New York. Candids of Kate Moss, Juergen Teller, and Dash Snow are common fare alongside architectural lines and a lot of nude women. We went over to meet Zahm at Purple’s New York offices to discuss the book, photography, his favorite subjects, and what he’s learned from Terry Richardson.

You’ve been taking photos like these for some time. Why did you finally decide to make a book?
Rizzoli actually proposed it. I wasn’t sure that I could make a book with my pictures because I really respect photography. There are too many bad photo books. With a bad magazine, if you don’t like it, you can toss it. I always feel guilty throwing away a photo book and I have to do it at least once a week. So I made mine a very heavy one—it’s 600 pages—so that people feel very guilty throwing it away.

With such an extensive archive, how did you decide which photos to use?
It was difficult. I’ve taken photos every day for 10 years. I selected pictures that felt honest and personal and that expressed some of my style. Rizzoli wanted to call it O.Z. Diary, but it’s as much about my photography. I’m not just documenting my life; that would be totally self-centered. My life is not so interesting. I was also trying to define what my own style is as a photographer—who I am, how I am different.

Were you able to?
I hope so. You have to tell me. I’m still evolving, but it’s in this book for sure. My style is not easy to define. It’s what I think is beautiful. It’s classic and quite French too because it’s a bit romantic. It’s soft; it’s not hardcore. I didn’t include any crazy, rock and roll, sex, or drugs. My photography is always about the interaction of the person and the moment. There are so many photographers today. You have to have a strong identity to be recognized.

Who are your favorite people to photograph?
The boys and girls and friends and stylists and models and actors—people that I will have a personal connection with. Dash Snow, Andre, my girlfriend Natacha, Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller. It’s a way for me to establish an intimacy. It’s hard for me to photograph people who I don’t have a connection with, people that I don’t like. It happens sometimes, of course, but it’s more difficult. I’m not a voyeur. I don’t photograph someone like an object. I’m not passive. I’m really part of the picture. It’s an interaction. I don’t manipulate the girl. I don’t say, “Do this or that.” I’m into the moment. To have this freedom, I need to know the person or be comfortable with them.

Were there images that were more personal that you put in the book that you wouldn’t have put on the website?
It’s even worse. On the website, you can upload the picture the day of so people are still in the mood. But if you do a book and use pictures from years ago, people have changed and sometimes they don’t want a period of their life to come back. I couldn’t publish the book without permission for every image. There are so many I would have used if I hadn’t been asked not to. When people made it too complicated or wanted me to use another picture, I just did not include them. I want the people to be happy to be in the book. It’s important.

Growing up, your parents were very sexually free-spirited. Are they still together? Did this Dionysian lifestyle affect you?
They’ve been separated and had other lovers, but they are still together. It’s beautiful, actually. When I was a kid, I was always scared that they would split. You see your parents with other lovers and you fear they will go and leave you. But it didn’t happen. They showed me that you can be in love and have other partners from time to time without destroying your family life. It’s possible. It’s rare, but possible.

Is this how you live your life?
It’s a way I would love to live my life, but it’s not easy. The most precious and important thing is love and your family life. The rest is secondary. But I still believe we should be more open to other romances. Sexuality is a world in itself. There are so many possibilities in a sex life and they don’t always fit into the couple life. Unless if you have a very limited sexual imagination—or no imagination. If you think sexuality should be only for the couple, you have to say that masturbation is illegal. Your partner can masturbate, but only in front of you. I take it personally.

What’s your personal line between smut and fine art when taking nudes?
There is no connection at all. Pornography is curated and fabricated to make men come. That’s the only purpose. I haven’t seen any pornography made by women for women—maybe in the ’70s. When I take a nude photograph my purpose is very different. There’s of course some sexuality, but it’s not about sex. It’s about the soul, the generosity, the love and what that person can give you from inside of them. This is a gift. I’m really impressed sometimes because it’s not easy. It’s intimidating and so deep. It’s not considering the woman as an object for pleasure. It’s the opposite. I see nothing pornographic about my pictures.

Are you ever intimidated by your subjects when taking photos?
If the person is intimidating me, it’s a good sign. It means that I’m seduced by the person. The problem is when I’m bored. With professional models, sometimes they don’t give you anything. They’re too tired or complaining and checking their phones. That happens a lot. If you shoot with me, you don’t look at your phone—even for a professional reason. I’m very careful who I’m shooting with. I need to share this feeling and excitement. Because if not I am bored with taking the picture. I’m not professional in that sense. I don’t need to be. I do it for the pleasure. So if there’s no emotion there, why would I take a picture? It’s a joy. It’s like a ritual.

You’ve said before that your photos are on par with most of your contemporaries except for five. Who are they and what makes them better?
Oh, that was very pretentious of me. There are more than five. Juergen Teller and Terry are better than me. Steven Klein is much better. You can immediately recognize their pictures. They have more experience; I’ve only been shooting for 10 years. They’re also able to take a picture in the middle of a lot of constraint. I’m not so good when I have to work for a campaign and people ask me for so many things. A good photographer is able to turn any situation to his advantage. You have to listen to everyone and pretend you will follow what they all say. And at the same time, with your magic trick, make it yours. That’s not easy. This is where you recognize a good photographer: when everyone is happy. I’m learning about this magical trick.

How is that going?
I think photographers in the ’80s or ’70s were more free. They didn’t have these huge teams. I’m very old school in that way. I learn to keep the team very simple. I also never have the picture projected on the screen immediately. There’s enough to have it on the screen of the camera. I like spontaneity. And we’ll see; if it’s bad, it’s bad. If you manipulate too much or look too much on the computer at what you are doing, then it becomes an artificial fabrication. This is not what I like. I like to take the risk. It’s fun and it’s more sexy and natural.

What else have you learned from your contemporaries?
I’ve learned a lot, especially about the way to interact with the model. It’s always interesting to me to see every photographer’s own way of creating that intimacy. Juergen always starts speaking with the person and shows them his last book so they will understand what he does. Terry always jokes with the girl. You can’t shoot when the model or the person is not ready for you. If there’s no seduction or game, I create the situation. I enter this little bubble where everything can be different. It’s like entering this little spaceship. If we share this excitement, the picture will happen naturally.

When you first made Purple in 1992, you kept very much to yourself. A decade later, you have become a very visible personality. What happened?
In the ’90s I was part of a clandestine scene. It was about being invisible. We were trying to develop a world outside of the system. We wanted to collaborate, not push our own names. A selfie would have been the most stupid thing. But later, because of the digital age, it changed totally. In order to survive in a world where everyone is visible, you have to be more visible—or you really disappear. Everything is on the same level now. Regardless of the number of followers Lady Gaga and her fans have, their visibility is the same. It’s the same world. Before there were two worlds: the underground and the system. The underground was fighting the system. Today no one is fighting the system. When you realize that, you have to play the game to express what you want to say.

How did you come to this persona—the editor with the glasses, the leather jacket and the camera?
It was very organic. In 2000 I started taking photos and playing with my identity. I grew up as a teenager in the ’70s, so I’m very old school with my look. I never left that decade and my magazine is very much inspired by it as well. I made myself more visible to support the magazine, because I’m really, totally the face of it. Purple reflects my own taste and my own visions. When it started, there was a group of 10 people around me. At the end of the ’90s I was left alone. So I said, “Okay. It will be about me.” Or I’ll be the face of it. And that’s what happened. It was a strategy. It was also a way to survive.

Photography by Paige Silveria