Mathieu Bitton takes photos of Lenny Kravitz and Lenny points the camera at the people surrounding him with eager fascination – fans and paparazzi. This is the concept of their photography co-project Ascension and Flash. After the premier in Vienna, the exhibitions are being shown at Vivacom Art Hall in Sofia until the 7th of May. The opening gathered a lot of photography enthusiasts and Lenny’s fans, who were all coming to take a look at his talent in photography, as well as meeting his personal photographer.
Mathieu Bitton is a person with a rich biography – a photographer, a graphic designer of album covers and film productions, a Grammy nomination about Jane’s Addiction’s box set A Cabinet of Curiosities. Whatever he takes up, though, everything comes from his passion for music.
Legendary celebrities have been in front of his camera – from Lenny Kravitz, Herbie Hancock and Mick Jagger to Jay Z, Bruno Mars, Lana Del Rey, Pharrell Williams, Lonnie Smith and many others. He has designed over 750 posters, album and book covers for some of the most famous icons of pop culture – Quentin Tarantino, James Brown, Prince, Taylor Swift, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, George Clinton & The P-Funk All-Stars, Iggy Pop, Dolly Parton and Lou Reed.
Bitton and Kravitz have been working together almost constantly since 2008, but they have been friends since childhood, when both of them happened to be in Los Angeles. “His photographs completely capture the essence of who and what I am at the moment, and he has the ability to bend atmosphere”, comments Lenny Kravitz.
You say that you are a product of passion. And everything starts from your passion for music?!
The combination between art and music. I grew up in Paris and almost every Sunday I wandered around the flea markets with my father, who was also a passionate collector. From an early age I was introduced to the world of art, and naturally so, as both my parents are artists. I was visiting exhibitions, absorbing the shapes of buildings, facades, fonts. Music also played a prominent role in my life, initially as an escape, a way to overcome my parents’ divorce. I have been collecting vinyl since the age of 9 and this has become a fixation for me. I started with David Bowie, Jay Hawkins, Cat Stevens, Prince and I found my French idol – Serge Gainsbourg. All these albums had a profound effect on me, together with music and design, images, photographs. And so, until I became an album designer myself.
“If they send me to a desert island on condition that I only take one record with me, this will undoubtedly be Histoire de Melody Nelson by Gainsbourg, my favourite record of all times.”
And music led you to photography?!
Yes, at first I started taking pictures of musicians I knew, my friends, and independent artists in Los Angeles. I managed a funk band when I was in college. I did my first shots and my first album cover for them. In time, I started doing this for different labels, I worked on photographs and design. This is how I got in contact with Lenny professionally, even though we had already known each other for quite a while. With him my work took on a much larger scale – photographs, package design, the entire product, posters, merchandising.
Bulgaria is the second country in Europe where you show your art project with Lenny. What was the feeling at the opening?!
I received a lot of love and attention in Sofia. I believe there were about 700 people at the opening. I would have expected that if Lenny had been here, as it happened at the premier in Vienna, but just for me…?! I was fascinated with the fact that my presence was enough to attract so many people. Lenny’s photographs and mine are presented in a very good way. Lenny loves Sofia, he told me that the crowd in his concert in 2009 was one of the coolest he remembers. To me, it is a very special occasion to be here and present both of us with this art project!
The closeness with Lenny Kravitz appears to give a very personal, intimate aspect to every shot. Is it important for you to be close with the object you are taking pictures of?
You always get the best if you are close with the object you are shooting. I am looking for slightly more surreal aspects, when I don’t know what exactly is going to happen, but I sense that the person in front of me acts naturally and feels comfortable. Lenny has been doing photo shoots professionally for more than 27 years now. But when we are doing it together, I feel that, rather, I document in pictures what is happening around him and wherever we are, I try to capture amazing and spontaneous images. And he doesn’t need to worry about what he is doing or the way he looks. He knows that I am going to take care of it, we have faith in each other and we understand each other well. We are like a family, brothers in a way. I think that the pictures show how close we are actually.
When did your shared passion for photography morph into a shared art project?
Lenny started taking pictures like this in 2008. He showed his works to our friend, the legendary French photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. He took a look at them and said: “This must be your first art show.” I created the design for the book for Flash. We organised an exhibition in Los Angeles, then in Paris. Afterwards, we went to the headquarters of Leica in Vienna, where we met Peter Coeln, the founder of OstLicht photo gallery, the manager of Leica Museum and a store for old and new cameras and equipment. And then Peter said, “I think that this show needs another point of view. Let me see your works, Mathieu.” I was not prepared for this. I replied that the concept of the project was about Lenny as a photographer, not as a rock star. But he managed to persuade us and I am very happy that things worked out this way. For years they kept asking me when I was going to show Lenny’s photos in an exhibition, but I always refused. First, because I didn’t want people to believe that this was everything I did, but on the other hand it seemed quite personal and at the same time it was difficult to put them together. I have photographed him from so many aspects, his life on and off stage. At the end of the day, I am happy that Peter provoked us into this endeavour. And here we are! I added a few new images especially for the audience in Sofia.
Why Ascension? How did the name of your exhibition come?
In the single to the album Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993) there was a song, called Ascension, which I liked a lot. And when we first started talking about this exhibition I dreamed that I was going to a show and I saw a huge sign which said LENNY KRAVITZ ASCENSION. I woke up and told myself – this is it, I have the title! Lenny found it cool, too. He has quite a spiritual personality, he is connected to religion, unlike me – I am a Jew. But in terms of personal experience, my work with Lenny is my personal ascension, having taken me to unimaginable heights, transforming me into a photographer. I got in contact with Leica thanks to him. Now, they even sponsor some of my work, they help me organise exhibitions, just like the one coming up in Los Angeles on the 8th of September. This is how I sensed that Ascension is the most natural title for my exhibition – the photographs themselves raise the spirit.
At the opening you mentioned that your favourite shot from the selection for the exhibition in Sofia is the one of Lenny in the studio, surrounded by cigarette smoke…
Sometimes when I am taking pictures of people I love capturing not their face, but rather some kind of detail – the hands, the shoes… I was looking at this shot of Lenny – an impossibly good-looking rock star, hidden behind a cloud of smoke and I thought that this is maybe the most mysterious of all chosen shots, also one of the most recent, taken with a Leica a few months ago. Perhaps this is why it still has such a great impact on me. The feeling of being able to capture such a shot, which probably wouldn’t work out otherwise, was very personal and intimate.
The camera is a photographer’s most important device. Lenny Kravitz uses the same Leica camera which his father used once and which he often examined with eager curiosity. How did you choose your camera?
This is the best camera, not just legendary, but also the most beautiful for me in terms of design. I had always dreamed of having a Leica, but I was never able to afford one. I am still using s Canon from time to time – at live concerts and some other occasions. While I was working with Leica on the book for Flash, a part of my reward was a monochrome camera, exactly the one which I wanted to have. Lenny created the design of the CORRESPONDENT Limited Edition, after Leica Flex, which his father used. And he quite surprised me when he gave me one of those as a present. Out of 125 cameras in this series, I own one of the only five which are engraved with a snake. I have another camera with me right now, but the lens is from this special camera that I am talking about. It looks like they like my work from Leica, too, when they spend money, time and equipment on me. I bought a few vintage Leica cameras from Peter as well – they have historical value. He is a true Leica expert and I’d love to become one, too.
We still haven’t seen the documentary about Lenny Kravitz Looking Back on Love because of restrictions in the distribution, but I have the luck to speak to the person who shot it. What would you share about the process of creating this project, which again is so personal for both of you?
This is a part of making another dream come true, the dream of doing something completely different with Lenny. I started shooting with a video camera in 2009 and back then I didn’t have a particular aim. We went to the Bahamas, where I was working on a special edition for the 20th anniversary of Let Love Rule, his first studio album. I had done a lot of similar projects for great musicians like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Miles Davis and I also wanted to do it for Lenny. I continued shooting video on the Bahamas. And so later, when we went on tour, Lenny was speaking to some friends and mentioned that he wanted to do a documentary about his new album Black and White America. He turned to me and asked if I could find a director and I answered that I would do it myself. In the course of three years I was filming everything – tours, work in the studio (Lenny Kravitz plays almost all musical instruments while recording in the studio) and guests who were coming there, such as Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, the legendary photographer Herman Leonard – an immense inspiration for me, personal moments of his family on the Bahamas. I am never going to forget his cousin, suffering from a serious illness and almost completely paralysed now, but truly happy back in those moments. This is the most personal thing I have ever done for him. The film is filled with both joy and sadness, it is thrilling and captures Lenny’s genuine personality. I was extremely scared while I was doing it. During the premier at the Grammy Museum I was cringing in my seat, convinced that everyone will laugh at me. But people were happy, crying and reacting emotionally. And I realised that it had touched them. The reviews were also quite good. Unfortunately, I know that as of now it is not available worldwide, they restricted the access for many countries like Bulgaria, Russia and all of South America.
A number of legendary musicians have been in front of your camera, most of whom are your personal idols. Who is still missing on this list?
Yes, this is what I am famous for, but I also love taking pictures of people in the street. Who is missing?! Keith Richards, Bob Dylan… the veterans, the genuine ones. I am not so attracted by the new wave, but I love working with Jack White. If I had to do something a bit different and extravagant with some of the younger generation, I would probably choose Rihanna. I am hoping to shoot with the Rolling Stones in September, but I haven’t been told where exactly yet. I was invited to go and do it in Cuba, but I couldn’t make it.
“I copied my first album cover from Blue Note Records and now I am officially working for them. This is so surreal!”
I know that you are a passionate collector. Do you have the feeling that photography is yet another way for you to collect and put your idols on your own personal altar, capturing history in the making?
To some extent – yes, design and photography for me are ways of sneaking into their history. This is why I love entire packages for box sets. I have created many of these for Miles Davis and Jane’s Addiction, Prince and many others that I love. I shoot a lot for Blue Note Records, my favourite jazz label in general. When I started working on album cover designs, the first cover I created was an exact copy after Blue note. And now I am officially working for them and my jazz idols. This is so surreal!
Does the fashion industry attract you as a photographer?
I have done quite a lot of fashion photography. Just before coming here I was working on a crazy photo shoot in Los Angeles for a Russian designer – Alena Konanova. I took photos for the French company Stella Forest. I recently did a photo shoot for a young French label, called Each X Other. As well as for the French legend Castelbajac. From Sofia I am flying to Paris and I am going to meet Castelbajac to discuss some new collaborations. I like fashion photography and I am doing more and more such projects. But music remains my true love.
Your next big dream?! An exhibition with images from the street, perhaps?
Why not! At the moment, I am working on a few projects about printed editions. The first of them gathers all my photographs of Lenny. I am thinking of an illustrated edition with posters of Black Orpheus, a French—Brazilian film production from 1959, an Oscar winner. I own over 500 posters of the so-called Blaxploitation films from the 70s, another passion of mine. I recently met Sidney Poitier and we had a chat about a book with posters of his films, I have hundreds of them. I am starting to compile an edition about Quentin Tarantino’s career. I have just taken up the design of a book about legendary photographer Moshe Brakha, as well as the cover for the new album of young singer Kandace Springs, who used to work with Prince a lot, but I am certain that she will achieve great success on her own, she is an amazing keyboardist. I am doing the design for a vinyl collection by James Brown. I am shooting another documentary with Lenny. I am always trying to be busy, I feel uncomfortable when I don’t work, I panic. I would love to make a movie one day, as a director.
Do you have a script?
I had a script about Dada – the art movement, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary now. This is another passion of mine, which makes me go crazy. A friend from Los Angeles wrote a script, but it appears that I was too busy and never got to it. Obviously, it is going to happen in due course, I haven’t given up. I think that one day I would make a film about my own life, I have such an extraordinary way in life that I often tell myself, “It is unbelievable that this is happening to me! What have I deserved it with?!” I ask myself this question every single day.
Your life is a dream for many. What is it like, living surrounded by so many celebrities? It seems like you are still not taking it for granted.
It is a dream for me, too. But with years, I learned not to put people on a pedestal, and this is the reason why these popular, respected people work with me and trust me. We are all people and we are here with a mission. Very few are the lucky ones, who have the opportunity to do exactly what they are passionate about and they should be grateful each and every single day about it. I believe that people who know me, regardless of the fact whether they are celebrities or not, know that I am a sincere person, but above all – grateful. When I meet someone like Sidney Poitier or Quincy Jones – so close to me right now, they know that I am not trying to be their friend just because they are famous, but they value my knowledge about their music and their story.
You say that each encounter with Quincy Jones is like a history lesson…
I am not religious, but my encounters with Quincy are like entering a temple. He is the most prolific producer of all times, it is enough to mention just Thriller by Michael Jackson and its unprecedented 100 million copies. This will never ever happen again, the world is different now. But Quincy is still as humble. I have no time for people with too big an ego. I am interested in learning from people.
But the show business is all about people with a strong ego. How do you overcome this?
That’s right, but the important people to me are those I want to work and be friends with at the same time. Someone like Quincy! He is the boss, do you get it…?! Even nowadays it is surreal for me to be a guest in his house, to have dinner together with him and speak about projects together.
What have you had on your playlist recently?
Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Prince, Billie Holiday, Bobby Womack, Caetano Veloso, Beatles… I have been listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone recently.
They finally gave him an Oscar, even though it was a bit overshadowed by all the hype, surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio and his award.
Quincy gave him the Oscar and it was such a thrilling moment! (smiles)
Interview: Albena Cheshmedzhieva
Photos: Mathieu Bitton