The Black and White Photographer at the Deauville American Film Festival
Fire-chat with Stéphane Kossmann, Photographer
Stéphane Kossmann could have been an American football player. He was built for it. Yet, he became an artist instead. Tall and almost bold, his looks are unmissable. His true strength is not his physical force, but his unique, sharp eye at people and objects, which he captures through the lenses of his Nikon camera. A selection of his work is currently exhibited in Deauville at the 2019 45th American Film Festival.
Kristen Stewart—the actress who performs the role of Jean Seberg in the eponymous upcoming movie and to whom the Deauville Festival will pay a special tribute, but also Catherine Deneuve—President of the Jury, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, and of course Michael Douglas—who romanced in Deauville in 1996 his wife Katherine Zeta-Jones—are all among the actors and actresses whose candid looks have been captured by Kossmann.
For more than three decades, the French-born photographer has roamed the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival and photographed at the American Film Festival of Deauville on 20 different occasions, creating an unprecedented series of black and white candid portraits of celebrities.
His work, influenced by the painters Rembrandt and Mark Rothko, and the photographer Albert Watson, plays with light in tandem with the lines and forms of the human body, and therefore, it merges the characteristics of photography with those of painting. Celebrated this year in Deauville, it is on the Cannes Film Festival red carpet that Kossmann actually developed its unique and artistic style of photographing celebrities.
When did you attend your first Cannes Film Festival?
It was in 1987. Yves Montand was the President of the jury, which awarded the Palme d’Or to Maurice Pialat’s movie Under the Sun of Satan, a choice that led to protests and a rare confrontation between the room and the director.
Your first time as a photographer?
I did not have an accreditation then to work at the Festival. I was just a fan and a passerby. I would wait for hours outside of hotels and at the bottom of the red carpet to have a glimpse of the movie stars. I told myself I would never go back to Cannes. But two years after, my friend and mentor, photographer Peter Knapp, commissioned me a series of photographs for a French magazine.
Your first portraits?
I photographed Spike Lee in his room and would go to after parties with Jim Jarmush.
My photographs represent a vivid instant. Actresses and actors cannot look at the camera; there is no “red” carpet situation—I shoot in black and white after all—and I frame the subjects very closely on their faces.
And you always returned to Cannes?
I did. Sometimes for several magazines, and in a few cases, without any commissioned work but always with an accreditation. I soon started to work for the sponsors of the Festival: car companies, jewelers and champagne while I kept developing my personal work, which did not interest neither the magazines nor the newspapers. I was taking black and white photographs of stars who would not look straight at the camera.
Yes. My photographs represent a vivid instant. Actresses and actors cannot look at the camera; there is no “red” carpet situation—I shoot in black and white after all—and I frame the subjects very closely on their faces.
But where do you take the pictures exactly?
I am an observer, a hunter for what could happen on the carpet and steps of the Palais des Festivals. All that happens there would be seemingly impossible to recreate in a studio shoot. Knowing that climbing the steps of the Palais des Festival and competing in Cannes are the ultimate consecrations for a movie star, there are myriads of visible emotions to capture. Whether it is a tension, a laughter, tears, astonishment, bewilderment, this is what I am looking for when I photograph celebrities at a festival.
The Cannes Festival welcomes hundreds of photographers and televisions. How do you distinguish yourself from them?
I was lucky somehow to not belong to the media world, but to the fashion and advertisement industries. The way I looked at people was different from my peer photographers. At first, I wanted to do like them. I wanted my subjects to look at my camera; I wanted their attention. These were the pictures that the magazines would buy.
But one day, one picture changed everything. This was the year of the epic movie La Reine Margot, directed by Patrice Chéreau, in 1994?
Exactly. The actress, Isabelle Adjani along with her co-star Daniel Auteuil and the director of the film are in front of me, but I can only have their profiles. Adjani’s white face was at that instant attracting so much of the light that, without any hesitation, I took the photograph. When I saw the result a long time after, I knew that this was what I wanted to create at the Festival.
Did Isabelle Adjani see the photograph?
She did thanks to a friend who introduced me to her. A few days before she became President of the Jury for the 50thFestival in 1997, she kindly thanked me for being in my first book.
The book, Black & White Carpet, published thanks to your mentor Peter Knapp?
I had spent 15 years behind the ropes in Cannes; I started to accumulate enough pictures to bring them together. So, I told Peter about my idea, and he helped me select the art that would become Black & White Carpet.
I want the embrace, the excitement, the doubts, the intimacy, the friendship, the doubts, the confidence, the certainties or the hesitations.
Is it this book that also allowed you to move ‘inside’ the famous ropes that protect the talents from the photographers?
With this book, the car company Renault asked me to be their photographer. The job came along with an exclusive positioning for a photographer in Cannes: to stand at the bottom of the famous steps, on—and not, next to—the red carpet. I was lost at first. But I then realized my privilege and opportunity.
What did change?
I would wait for my colleagues to scream the stars’ names and photograph them, posing, before I would raise my camera and look for that authentic, candid, packed with emotions shot. I want the embrace, the excitement, the doubts, the intimacy, the friendship, the doubts, the confidence, the certainties or the hesitations. The best analogy I found is the one of a champagne cork when it pops out: the sound, the bubbles, and the never-the-same reaction of the wine.
How many Festivals?
To this date, 32 in Cannes with, on average, 20 red carpets per Festival – and 20 American Film Festivals in Deauville.
And if you had to remember one moment?
The year Julia Roberts attended Cannes for the first time. She was one of the most recognizable movie stars, a giant, a super-star. When she stepped out of the car and looked at the steps ahead of her, she slowed down, moved, and knew that for an instant, she was almost vulnerable.
About Stéphane Kossmann at the American Film Festival in Deauville, France
Stéphane Kossmann in Deauville at the 45thAmerican Film Festival from September 6thto 15th, 2019 (Hotel Barrière Le Normandy (Cour Normande).
Born in Tours, France, Stéphane Kossmann studied the art of photography at the Shoreline Community College in Seattle.
Kossmann is the author of Black & White Carpet; Observations sur les marches de Cannes (Observations on the Steps at Cannes); and We met in Cannes.
His photographs have been exhibited in galleries and at film festivals, including the American Film Festival in Deauville, France (2007 and 2019); the French Institute Alliance Française in New York (2014); the FNAC gallery in Madrid, Spain (2006); the European Month of Photography in Paris, France (2006); the Edward Mitterrand Gallery in Switzerland (2004), and the Geneva International Film Festival in Switzerland (1996).
Kossmann lives between Pierrevert in France, where he has developed his studio and a Festival and New York City.
He is represented by Mourlot Editions : www.mourloteditions.com
For more information: www.stephanekossmann.com