Through His Eyes

Orbituary | He shot many photographs for magazine covers of the ’80s and ’90s. But later he was shot down with allegations of shocking sexual misconduct, tainting a legacy that included the “iconic” photographs of Princess Diana for British Vogue

Patrick Demarchelier photographed for Vogue in 2010 by his son Victor Demarchelier

Considered one of the greatest fashion photographers of his generation, Frenchman Patrick Demarchelier has died. It was reported that Mr Demarchelier passed away on March 31, on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy (popularly known as St. Barths), where he was known to have a house and where he conducted some of his beloved shoots. The cause of death was not officially announced but WWD, quoting a friend who asked not to be named, reported that it is cancer. News of his passing “rocked” the fashion world and was met with eager tributes on social media. Mr Demarchelier is survived by his wife Mia, his three sons, Gustaf, Arthur, Victor, and three grandchildren. He was 78.

Although born “near Paris” (according to most biographies—no exact location is known), Mr Demarchelier grew up in Le Havre, in the Normandy region of northwestern France with his mother and four brothers. Almost nothing is known about his dad, but his stepfather was instrumental in piquing the young man’s interest in photography. When he was 17, his stepfather gifted him with an Eastman Kodak camera, which led him to discover and learn film development and the retouching of negatives. He soon started photographing his friends, which led to work shooting weddings—like many lensmen—and, according to Vogue, passport photos. He would proudly declare that he was self-taught and that a career with a camera was never planned: “It came to me”.

Madonna photographed by Patrick Demarchelier in 1989. Photo: Vogue

At the age of 20, he moved to Paris and found work with the Swiss photographer Hans Feurer, who shot for Vogue, in 1983, lensed a Kenzo campaign featuring Iman. Mr Demarchelier remained in Paris for 12 years. In 1975, he moved to New York, reportedly to follow an unnamed girlfriend. It was in New York where he discovered fashion photography and was, in turn, discovered. Vogue covers soon followed, including one, in 1989, with Madonna, swimsuit clad, sitting in a pool looking rather unthreateningly Like a Virgin. But it was Mr Demarchelier’s work with Harper’s Bazaar that kick-started what was dubbed “the bidding war” of the early ’90s among magazines desperate to secure the best photographers.

Back in 1992, the late editor Liz Tilberis was lured across the pond from British Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar. She had worked regularly with Mr Demarchelier before. According to Alexandra Shulman in her book Inside Vogue, the photographer “decamped… to Harper’s Bazaar for a big contract” (Mr Demarchelier told WWD back then that the pay was very good). That meant Mr Demarchelier would shoot for no other fashion magazine. Until then, it was not known that photographers were offered contracts. Most worked on a part-time basis, and if any of them was favoured, could become the “featured” photographer, such as Irving Penn at Vogue, under the creative head, the Russian-born artist Alexander Liberman.

Linda Evangelista in 1992, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for Harper’s Bazaar. Photo: Harper’s Bazaar

Ms Tilberis’s appointment at Harper’s Bazaar ushered in an era of rivalry among British editors at American magazines, specifically Anna Wintour at Vogue. When she took up her post in the US in January of 1992, Ms Tilberis had assembled a formidable team, including the French art director Fabien Baron (who was much admired for his work at Italian Vogue) as the creative director and the famed New York publicist Paul Cavaco as fashion director. Mr Demarchelier’s coming onboard meant New York publishing was seeing a powerful trinity. And the photographer’s “contract” meant that he would not be welcomed at Vogue, especially since Ms Wintour was said to have had issued a warning to her regular team of contributors: Work for Harper’s Bazaar, and be banned from all Condé Nast titles, not just in the US, but worldwide. In her autobiography, No Time to Die, Ms Tilberis wrote, “Patrick had the whole thing planned: I should hire Fabien Baron.” She also quoted Mr Demarchelier saying, “If you get Fabien, I’ll think of coming with you.”

The move was not only a risky one for the photographer, it changed the course of Harper’s Bazaar’s re-launch trajectory. His debut cover for the magazine’s 1992 September issue was so different, spare, and striking, it would still be talked about today. Linda Evangelista, at the height of her career, had her hand up, her palm a gentle cup, and placed on the page to appear to knock off one of the ‘A’s of the masthead, a clever design touch by Mr Baron. But outside fashion, it was Mr Demarchelier’s portraits of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, that raised his public profile beyond what even the photographer himself could imagine. Princess Diana had admired his work, so much so that, in 1989, she reportedly called him personally to commissioned him to photograph her and sons, William and Harry. He became the first non-British official photographer for the British royal family.

With Princess Diana in 1991. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier

In time, his images of Princess Diana would be known as his “best”, even if only because he shot the most famous woman in the world then. Those snapshots, keenly seen and admired around the world, and described by Ms Tilberis, then editor-in-chief of British Vogue, as “eternally famous”, also paved the path of an unlikely friendship between the princess and the photographer. As the popular telling went: In 1989, the princess saw a copy of British Vogue when she came upon a shot of a model and a child, and liked it. Liz Tilberis provided more details in No Time to Die: “I wrote to her asking whether she’d consider being photographed with her sons and sent the letter over to Kensington Palace with the portfolios of three photographers.” The princess chose Mr Demarchelier because of the cover picture for British Vogue, on which the child was, in fact, his son. That first shoot, with mother and brood “frolicking in the hay barn” did not make the cover of the magazine as intended.

In a second session, Princess Di—still in a playful mood, but now wearing a tiara and a gown with a beaded bodice—was photographed “on the floor laughing with her head thrown back, the folds of the gown pooling around her”. Still, the photos from this sitting were not deemed by Buckingham Palace to be cover material enough (but one with a smile would be the most loved to this day). Instead and surprisingly, the far more informal photo of the princess—in a simple turtleneck, with chin resting on her right hand atop the left—that Mr Demarchelier captured graced the cover of the Christmas 1991 issue of British Vogue. The publicity that went with that was immense, to say the least. By now, Patrick Demarchelier was a huge name. He would continue to be Princess Diana’s portraitist until her death in 1997. In 2007, Mr Demarchelier was named an Officer of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government. In the following year, he was awarded the prestigious Lucie Award for achievements in fashion photography.

The Boston Globe article of 2018 that exposed sexual abuses experienced by models. Screen grab: The Boston Globe

Warning: objectionable language ahead

Those who had still not heard of his name despite his having photographed the most famous woman in the world would become acquainted with him through the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, when Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) demanded, “Get me Demarchelier!” and the quick reply from the more competent of her two assistants: “I’ve got Patrick!” But a damning 2018 report by the Massachusetts daily, The Boston Globe, quickly brought him down from his “superstar status”. In an editorial entitled “Modeling’s glamour hides web of abuse”, the paper quoted models accusing “at least 25 photographers, agents, stylists, casting directors, and other industry professionals” of sexual misconduct, even assault. Mr Demarchelier was among the men accused and one that The Cut called “the biggest bombshell on the list”. According to the Bostonian paper that first broke the news, he had “long preyed on young women”. One of his former assistants purportedly even wrote to Anna Wintour about his “relentless advances… beginning when she was a 19-year-old intern“. Other women spoke of “unwanted sexual advances, including thrusting a model’s hands onto her genitals and grabbing another model’s breasts”. With one teenaged model, Mr Demarchelier—offering to make her famous—allegedly asked her, “Can I lick your pussy?”

Unsurprisingly, he denied the accusations, telling The Boston Globe, “People lie and they tell stories. It’s ridiculous.” But these stories did not arouse enough ridicule for industry heavyweights to ignore the charges. By then, Mr Demarchelier was no longer contracted to Harper’s Bazaar. He was shooting for Vogue again, and other titles. In February 2018, Condé Nast issued a statement: “We have informed Patrick we will not be working with him for the foreseeable future”, four months after the company came up with a “Code of Conduct” in response to sexual misconduct levelled at another photographer, the American lensman Terry Richardson, with an accompanying message, “There are no excuses for this type of behavior; it is completely unacceptable“. Patrick Demarchelier, that “bear of a man”, as it turned out, was barely bearable to many models. It is regrettable that a photographer, who rose to the top with his unerring eye for the supremely elegant, would also go down with his vile penchant for the despicably indecent.

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