Credit: Courtesy Michel Comte
Michel Comte was a renowned fashion photographer but he needed more
In the 1990s, Michel Comte was one of the fashion's most in-demand photographers, working regularly for magazines such as Vogue Italia and Vanity Fair, and shooting Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, and the decade's biggest celebrities.
Away from the high-gloss magazine editorials and his lucrative luxury campaigns, Comte kept himself grounded by taking on photo assignments for the International Red Cross (ICRC) in war-ravaged regions like Bosnia, Angola, Rwanda and Somalia. His work with the ICRC contributed to fundraising efforts to build an orthopedic hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, and helped raise awareness and money for victims of conflicts.
"I was never paid for any of these projects, but they gave me a sense of purpose and a needed distance from the celebrity world," Comte said.
Then 10 years ago, shortly after he met his wife, fashion editor and stylist Ayako Yoshida, Comte started to turn down the glamour assignments and set out to establish himself first and foremost as an artist.
"When we met, I felt a need for change. I'd had a dramatic eye accident and almost lost my vision," he said. Shortly after we started producing the experimental art film, 'The Girl from Nagasaki.'
"We worked together on the film, and I started focusing on my art work. I kept working for Franca (Sozzani, the late editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia), because we had a long history, but besides that I started to turn down assignments," he recalled. "I was never a fashion person even though I spent several decades in that world. I know it sounds very strange. But I felt a need to evolve. Now my focus is my artwork with very few collaborations."
The transition from star fashion photographer to artist wasn't a smooth one.
"It was an extremely difficult time to make a clear cut. Frankly, my name had a stigma in the art world: 'Michel Comte, fashion photographer.' The moment I said my name, they wanted to do another fashion retrospective, but I felt 'I'm not dead yet, and while I'm alive this is what I do now.'"
Recently, Comte's artistic practice has focused on causes that have long been close to his heart: The conservation and protection of the environment. As a youngster, he spent the winter months in the Alps of his native Switzerland, skiing every day before school; and in the summer he loved to run through forests early in the morning. These formative years led to an "extreme love of nature" and a keen eye for observation.
He has managed to transform this long-term love for the environment into a varied artistic practice using mixed-media painting, sculpture to video art and even land art.
In recent years, these works have been getting greater recognition. Since 2017, the artist has staged large-scale multimedia exhibitions related to climate change at the Milan Triennale museum, Beijing's Galerie Urs Meile and the MAXXI Museum in Rome, where he transformed the facade into a glacier using a 3D-mapping projection.
"Frankly, it's no longer about raising awareness, because I think people are aware of the impact of climate change. It's about taking action," Comte said. "Time and apathy are the biggest challenges we face in the race against climate change, and arts and culture possess a unique power to inspire and to shake things up. Visual arts are powerful tools to convey inconvenient truths."
One of his next projects will be another 3D-mapping video installation, this time on an Arctic ice wall to showcase how it's expected to melt over the next 15 years. "I can't be too precise about the exact location because the glacier walls are moving fast, and we will determine that exact location by early August," he explained. "It will be a light and sound installation over three kilometers of glacier. The horizon will change. It will be monumental."
Commissioned by the Wavelength Foundation, a private platform that empowers artists and other creatives to raise awareness about environmental issues, the installation cum climate vigil is planned for the early days of 2020. Comte is hoping to bring together "a few thousand people to experience the work together," but, to keep the carbon footprint of the project small, "everybody will have to sail there."
"With social media, we live in a world of second-hand experiences, and we think we have knowledge. But this knowledge we are acquiring is very superficial. I think it's very important people experience first-hand the effect of climate changes, Comte said. "We have to become participants in this, we can't just watch."