Gilles Bensimon: In Bloom and Obsesed with Water
Published by L'Officiel St Barth
Dec 21, 2023
Edition N°9 - Winter 2023 - Summer 2024 (Pages 112-114)
Interview by Philippe Combres
Gilles Bensimon Flowers in Water #1542, 2012, (Edition of 3) Limited edition photograph (39.37 x 51.06 in / 100 x 129.70 cm)
Gilles Bensimon, a renowned figure in photography, has enjoyed a distinguished career. After solidifying his reputation at Elle in Paris in 1969, he made a bold move to the United States and became the International Creative Director for American Elle, reaching an astonishing 20 million readers worldwide.
For nearly three decades, Gilles Bensimon has captured captivating images that celebrate women of all ages in empowering ways. We spoke with the artist to discuss his recent obsession, his Flowers in Water series, a breathtaking fusion of colours, movement, and reflections, exhibited in Space Gallery St Barth in both Gustavia and Soho.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: So you are a regular visitor of St Barth. How long have you been coming to the island?
GILLES BENSIMON: A little over 20 years. I moved to the USA to participate in the creation of North American Elle. I mostly went to the Bahamas, and I discovered St Barth later. When I arrived, I discovered the magic of the people of the island. I made friends and found different interesting places. After a while, I started to take my family here for Christmas vacation. I have lots of people I know here, Larry Gagosian, all these people. I practically never go out, strangely, except when I was in my 40s in Paris. Some people who live here have never even seen the other side of the island; they’ve never been to the sea. For these people, life was difficult, and they still run the island.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Is there a moment when you think that the island of St Barth changed a bit?
GILLES BENSIMON: I was afraid that suddenly the place would become a resort destination. But I think the island changed for the better. The roads are better, the island is safe; you can leave your house unlocked here. When I saw all of St Tropez coming here and opening restaurants, I was worried. There is nowhere in the world that compares to St Barth, so I hope that people who come here respect the island and its beaches. I don’t know if I told you, but I think Laurie Lynn mentioned it, I was renting Rudolf Noureev’s house for three weeks. It was a shack. I told them to come, they told me, “Gilles, we're in Los Angeles, we could go anywhere,” and after three weeks, they came. They arrived, and Richard (Stark) fell in love. Before I was on a trip with him, I was shooting in Iceland. At this time, I was shooting in Iceland. And I was taking pictures of Jesse Jo when she was 14 or 15, with another girl. I said, I need a chaperone. I said "Richard you have to come Richard come as a chaperone". And he fell in love with Iceland as well. Iceland is so beautiful, untouched. People build tiny houses. I discover places in the best way. I never bought a house because before I got divorced, I built a house in the Hamptons, but after you divorce it’s a tsunami. But it’s ok, I have two daughters.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Let's talk about your work. You start your exhibition "In Bloom", with the Flower series. Tell me about that decision.
GILLES BENSIMON: I’ve always been obsessed with water, even in the fashion pictures I’ve done. I swim every day. I spend so much time in the water, some days four or five hours. And I’ve also always been passionate about flowers. I love gardens. So the combination just seemed natural for me. I started the work when my contract with Elle was ending. The contract was more than generous, and I was in the process of getting a divorce. Suddenly, nobody wanted to work with me because, as a photographer, when you find yourself at the head of the magazine, nobody likes that. I understood that, and I was not bitter. This was more than twenty years ago.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Do you think it was also about your images being heavily focused on the nudity of women?
GILLES BENSIMON: I think they decided my contract was too big. When you work for a magazine, ethically you can’t work for the clients of the magazine. I learned a lot then. After, I started with the flowers in water, and it took me three years. Every summer, I played around with these ideas. As time went on, I started to do shows in galleries. But I need a special swimming pool; I can never find the perfect swimming pool to shoot these images.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: What sort of swimming pool?
GILLES BENSIMON: It needs to be close to a place where I can get fine flowers, and you need this mix of sun and shadow, and also a deep pool but not too deep because I have to be in the pool to take the picture. And I need the time because at that point I spent two or three months doing it every day. Perhaps I’ll do another series One day. But I think it was done. You know when you’re done with something.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Can you tell us about the mythical meaning?
GILLES BENSIMON: This mays sound depressing, but everything is about death. I have an obsession with death. For me, it’s because I know that when you see death in movies, it’s so different from a painting representing this feeling of death. With music, it is different because if I listen to Pablo Casals, for example, the spirit is still there. The movies get old. Even if you love a movie, when you look at it again it’s not the same.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: When I was a kid, I gifted my mom flowers, and she told me not to cut them for her because they are dead, as a kid I couldn't understand what she meant.
GILLES BENSIMON: It’s that same idea. When you put those cut flowers in water, they are alive again. I could recreate something through this. And you know I destroy a lot of cameras; I spend hours taking the images. I can’t always find the flowers I want to use, but it’s still so magical. I have tried to recreate some of them, and I can’t do it. It's too bad I can’t show the images bigger.
"There is nowhere in the world that compares to St Barth."
- Gilles Bensimon
Gilles Bensimon Self Portrait, 2012
PHILIPPE COMBRES: You mean the size?
GILLES BENSIMON: Yes, because you use bigger images, images that cover the walls, it creates the feeling that the room is submerged in the water as well.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: So it's a question of the size of the wall?
GILLES BENSIMON: It's about size and proportion. For this current show I'm very happy with the outcome.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: It took a lot of time to have an exhibition of yours here in St Barth. Why did you wait so long?
GILLES BENSIMON: I never push myself. If people don't ask, I will not do something. I love when people see and like my passion, but I'm very bad at selling myself. Either I'm too pretentious or people don't like it. I have another big show coming up, an exhibition in Paris, with "Workonpapers" at Larock-Granoff. It starts in September. But I'm afraid it won't get much recognition.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Yeah. I think every artist is a bit afraid when they meet their audience.
Gilles Bensimon: Yes, people judge.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: The show will continue until August 25th, giving visitors the opportunity to access your beautiful creations. What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibition? How do you want it to impact them emotionally?
GILLES BENSIMON: I would like it if people became absorbed in the bigger images, and maybe some people even order them; the bigger images really give you a feeling. I don’t want to show more pictures of naked women. I’m not against nudity, but it makes me uncomfortable to take nude pictures. My whole life, I have been uncomfortable taking nude pictures.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: You mean now?
GILLES BENSIMON: All my life. When I worked for Maxim, we never showed anything. Our models always had something on. It’s not about voyeurism; it’s an image of a woman as an object, and I have daughters.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Have the times changed maybe?
GILLES BENSIMON: Whether they have or not, I’m not comfortable with it; there are plenty of other things to take images of. It’s funny because men are almost never naked, except in certain types of magazines.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: It seems that you are passionate about water and the ocean. Do you feel concerned about the alarming environmental issues and especially the protection of the ocean?
GILLES BENSIMON: I am obsessed with water. I mean, I do my part to pick up any plastics I see when I’m walking along the beach.
PHILIPPE COMBRES: Every winter, we do a charity gala raising money for environmental causes here in St Barth.
GILLES BENSIMON: I would be happy to donate to that.
Gilles Bensimon "Flowers in Water" Series
Space Gallery St Barth
Gilles Bensimon Flowers in Water #6095, 2012, (Edition of 6) Limited edition photograph (31.50 x 40.85 in / 80 x 103.75 cm)
Gilles Bensimon Flowers in Water #7644, 2012, (Edition of 3) Limited edition photograph (39.37 x 51.06 in / 100 x 129.70 cm)
Gilles Bensimon Flowers in Water #6663, 2012, (Edition of 3) Limited edition photograph (39.37 x 51.06 in / 100 x 129.70 cm)