Olivier Zahm Only Takes Nudes of Girls He ‘Really Trusts’

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Photo: Courtesy of Purple

Olivier Zahm is the editor-in-chief of Purple, the kind of French fashion magazine your dad picks up off your nightstand to ask where all the clothes are. And Zahm’s first book of photographs, OZ Diary, out Tuesday from Rizzoli, dispenses with the pretense of fashion altogether. His cosmopolitan 500-page photo diary seems to contain a decade’s variations on the story of how Zahm got laid. Nocturnal snapshots of artist friends, graffiti, and decadent interiors are punctuated with mooning asses, ultralight bondage, and dozens of anonymous torsos with small breasts and tidy pubic hair, identified only by the location of their conquest: Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York, Paris.

Influenced by 1970s erotica, surrounded by famous friends, and shielded by thick aviator glasses, Zahm’s photographic persona shares DNA with his frequent collaborator Terry Richardson. But where Richardson’s porn aesthetic now looks cynical in light of sexual harassment allegations, Zahm’s nudes are mostly guilty of a retro sort of naïveté. Printed in black-and-white — but mostly white flesh on white hotel comforters — they seem earnestly to aspire to the sensuality of Impressionist sculptor Auguste Rodin’s "The Kiss," a photo of which opens OZ Diary.

Zahm was still blissed-out from a monthlong vacation in Italy and Greece when I visited him at Purple's warped New York loft Wednesday. Soft-spoken in English, he became animated only when he paused to FaceTime his 2-year-old son and girlfriend-muse Natacha Ramsay-Levi in Paris. Working his way through two bottles of green Juice Press juice, Zahm explained how he avoids becoming a "caricature of a playboy."

In his introduction, GQ Style Guy Glenn O’Brien calls you the hero of this book, because you’re not just an observer of these scenes, you’re an instigator of them. How do you create moments worth documenting?
The digital camera gives you this possibility. You don’t have to look through the camera, you don’t have the camera on your eyes. You can have it in your hand, so then you’re with the person, and the camera isn’t between you and the model.

Being part of the action, you can’t fake it. This is why I really need to like the person I shoot. I need to love her, or I need to be excited by her. If I don’t feel something for the model — it can be a man, sometimes — I’m lost. I need something that I really embrace, because if I don’t then I don’t know what to photograph.

Some photographers are more voyeurs and more manipulative, using people like objects — put your arm here, arch your back, open a little bit more this leg. I don’t do that. I wouldn’t know how. I‘m looking for an emotion, trying to capture an interaction. This interaction is really the most precious thing for me, but it’s also not a formula. Sometimes I’m attracted by this girl or this actress and I want to shoot her and I end up in front of an empty person. I get three or four shots and I’m exhausted.

Photo: Courtesy of Purple

But you do know how to get women to open up. Why do you think you’re so good at that?
It’s all about the game between a man and a woman. If you’re openly and clearly a man who loves women — without any fear — then there are two kinds of women: a woman who doesn’t like this attitude or this kind of man, and the ones who like to play. Who are in a way flattered, who like the game of seduction. To play the game of seduction, you need two. You can’t do it alone. If you do, you’ll be a ridiculous caricature of a playboy. But it’s an open game: Either you play with me or you don’t play. If you play, we can do pictures and be friends. If you think, for any reason, you don’t want this kind of game — you think it’s ridiculous, you think it’s stupid — of course we don’t play. You don’t play poker because you want money; you play because you like poker.

How do you make sure models are playing because they like to play, and avoid a Terry Richardson situation, where models feel coerced?
It’s a lottery. You never know what people will say later. They get crazy and unpredictable. People can say whatever they want, to have attention or to create a buzz around them, you know? You always take a risk, because you never know what the model will say or even imagine. Some people imagine things because they are disappointed. They come to you and they say, Let’s do pictures, and they imagine they will be a star. Then two years later, realize they did this picture and they’re not a star and get angry.

My solution — though it’s never been a strategy — is that I only shoot girls that I really trust and I really love and are really my friends, so there’s no risk of shooting someone crazy, you know? It’s super-risky to shoot a young Russian model.

Photo: Courtesy of Purple

Normally we talk about photographers having the power. You’re a big name in the industry: The concern is that models might feel like they have to play to get ahead.
I don’t get it when you say the photographer has the power over the girls. It’s not like that. I don’t have any power. It’s like playing with a kid. You can’t force a kid to enjoy the game. Either he enjoys the game or he doesn’t. If you’re good at creating the game, he’ll enjoy the game. You can’t force someone, it’s really impossible. It’s the opposite. Photography is the essence of freedom between two people. If you are a photographer, you try to capture a certain emotion and the person in front of you will give you something to photograph. If the person is empty or too young to do this or that, first, it will be a bad picture, for sure. Second, this girl shouldn’t be in front of photographers because she can’t give anything.

Why are some of the women in the book unnamed?
I did the first layout for the book, then I asked for authorization from all of the models to use the photographs. It’s a big deal, authorization. It’s become very serious. It was like working for the state. I had to cut about half of the photos when it came to nudity, even just portraits. Sometimes they said, Okay, if you don’t see my face and there’s no name.

People deny what they used to be. They’re involved in a new job and a new family life and they don’t want people seeing who they are and what they were doing before. Plus, you know, a lot of people take drugs and then one day they stop. I had to cut so many girls and boys — but girls especially — from this book, who were, like, so free and excited to shoot naked with me. But I really respect the fact that I never publish a picture that they haven’t agreed on, that’s systematic. Even though I’m really sad because I have some great pictures that I couldn’t publish.

Photo: Courtesy of Purple

You open the book with Rilke: “The artist’s experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual that the two phenomena are really just different forms of the same longing and bliss.” Has photographing your friends and lovers changed your intimate relationships?
Photography gives you a different access to people. You meet people on a different level of reality. It’s a bubble outside of normal everyday life. You create a moment that’s just specifically for the photography. This is very intriguing, actually. It’s like going on a vacation with friends, a very specific moment that is rare and very precious. It gives me access to some people and some intimacy that I wouldn’t normally have.

I’m still under the pressure of fashion in the sense that I go for good bodies. I’m in this fashion world, so the girls, the models I’m shooting are coming from this world. Models, musicians, PR girls, actresses, stylists. I would love to go for and be able to shoot a girl who is a bit fat, or a bit not necessarily beautiful. It’s really exciting. Sometimes I have the opposite tendency, to shoot a really fat girl, but not fat in a fashion way, like really. I would be very happy to be able to cast girls that come from a regular job, from a shop, but I would be too shy to do that.