When admiring art, many of us dream of the lives behind the pieces: glamorous, tortured, a life of creation. Even before this current age of voyeurism, not only did artists’ work draw the public eye, so did their lives. At the crossroads of this stands photographer François Meyer—a longtime collector, enthusiast and documentarian of those making it. Meyer himself is a curious, meticulous artist, and other artists are his muses. And with his first-ever book, “Portrait D’Artistes” he offers a peek into the worlds of many beloved creators. In fact, there are over 120 portraits within the large-format tome, shot over the past 40 years (with a 20-year hiatus in the mix). Portraits include the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Sachs, Catherine Opie and so many more.
Meyer was exposed to art at a very early age. His father was also an avid collector but it was color—first and foremost—that moved Meyer as a child. “I loved art since I was born and my father saw in me not only a son, but someone who responded to his passion. I would visit galleries and museums with my father,” he shares with CH. “When I turned 17, I was a student in a German school in Switzerland—I was a bad boy—but I was happy there. My dad asked me what I want to do. I told him photography.”
Meyer studied at a photo school named for the early photographer Frédéric Boissonnas, under the tutelage of another famous Swiss photographer at the time. While there, he began interning. “We did a lot of photographic reproductions of major artists. Max Ernst was my first. Then, I met the curator of the Geneva Museum. We went to Brazil to do his book on Baroque art. I was 19. He gave me his Hasselblads and I shot 6,000 pictures over four months.” Upon returning, his professor and father both told him to pursue his passion and by 21 years old, Meyer had moved to NYC.
There, Meyer met and befriended famed gallery owner Leo Castelli, who opened doors for him and many other artists. Through passion, curiosity and likability, Meyer crossed paths with many great artists and when a piece moved him, he would seek out its maker. “Roy Lichtenstein was a great buddy,” he notes. Meyer shot for Architectural Digest and other publications, spent time in Warhol’s factory and became close with those circling it. And then, he stopped.
In order to make money, Meyer returned to Switzerland and settled in Lausanne to start a business with his siblings. His desire to photograph never disappeared, but he describes a singular direction toward building his own future that drew him away from taking pictures professionally. All the while, however, he continued to collect art. “I started collecting photographs at 18, including Cartier Bresson,” he says. In collecting, he learned many lessons. “In 1982, I saw three Basquiats in Chicago and wanted to buy them but didn’t have the money. My father told me never go into debt to purchase a painting. I remember those paintings exactly as they were. I missed Basquiat. I never regret anything, though. There are always opportunities. You may miss Basquiat, but you will always find another.”
In 2011, Meyer picked up a camera again, this time digital, and once again began seeking out artists and documenting. “Portraits D’Artistes” is the product of both periods in his life—the earlier works with access to those now famous, and now photos propelled by interest and desire and the urge to know who is doing what. At the core of Meyer’s work is personal passion. “Collecting is a process for individualists,” he says. “It’s not a want to posses. It’s discovering.” And this parallel’s photography.
One second before and one second after a photo is different than that snap. A photo isn’t a memory, it’s an expression of such a small instant and one second later everything is different.
Meyer has a very good memory, visually, and even with names and dates. As for how photography coincides with this, he doesn’t believe a photo is a replacement for memory. He shares, “One second before and one second after a photo is different than that snap. A photo isn’t a memory, it’s an expression of such a small instant and one second later everything is different.” The moments he captures in “Portraits D’Artistes” are one-of-a-kind, granted by creators to another creator. There’s intimacy and familiarity—it’s a collection of instances of a lens well used. And while the subject is fascinating, Meyer is as well. “I think I have both sides,” he says. “I think I’m an artist and a documentarian of artists, but most important, this is all about people.”
Images by Cool Hunting