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Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001

Beauty can be ugly -- insouciant Frenchman

What makes a great photographer? An artist usually needs to have special skills or unique concepts, but a photographer in a well-lit studio with the right equipment and beautiful models can get by even without good timing if he uses enough film and then selects the best images.

What is it then that makes a good photographer? Perhaps it is the ability to be evasive or unconcerned about one's art. Marc Hispard, whose work is now showing at the Bunkamura Gallery, falls into this category.

Perhaps his insouciance rubbed off during a career photographing that notoriously shallow creature, the glamour model, for the fashion world. Asked perfectly reasonable questions such as why he shoots mainly in monochrome but sometimes switches to color, he is literally lost for words or drops meaningless paradoxes into the conversation, like, "Beauty can be really ugly and ugliness can be really beautiful."

One of the most interesting items at this exhibition is a triptych featuring Karen Mulder. Two hard, stiff, frowning, defensive shots of the German model frame a picture of a much more relaxed Karen that seems somehow suspended between them like a hammock between two pillars.

An obvious question is how he gets his subjects to relax and look natural, and whether he has any special techniques for this. Again he is less than forthcoming, leading one to suspect that perhaps the process is haphazard.

Since the 1980s, the French-born Hispard has been photographing models for top fashion houses like Christian Dior and Givenchy, and magazines like Vogue.

This of course means that his portfolio is crammed with plenty of famous models. The superstars on display are Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, and Kate Moss. However, these are disappointing. Naomi looks flippant, Claudia somewhat embarrassed in her fishnet tights, and Kate shows us that trademark vacuous look which did so much for Hello Kitty in this country.

Hispard seems much more in his element with less famous models and actors like the stunning portrait of Paul Gregorry caught in a beautiful, beatific light as he rests his head on his hand. Hispard becomes relatively eloquent when I ask him why this work is special for him: "I like the way he looks in this one -- tired, or dreaming."

The Bunkamura Gallery likes to feature photographers whose stock is rising overseas but who are still unknown in Japan. Hispard's strength and the reason the gallery selected his work is the great simplicity and naturalness of many of his photographs.

He likes to concentrate on basics, and claims he eliminates the superfluous, but this doesn't stop him from including cigarettes in his pictures. Perhaps this is his secret technique for relaxing his subjects. It certainly works in the impressive close up of Lou Doillon.

After nearly 20 years confined to the studio, Hispard has recently widened his focus. Included here are some charming pictures of animals from his recent trip to Africa. I ask him what appeal Africa has for him. He covers all the angles by blandly telling me "It's the people and the nature."

A great photographer is able to add something to a picture that isn't already there by emphasizing something that is. Faced with a photographer like Hispard, whose work is often hit or miss and who can't express a clear idea about what he is doing as an artist, it is hard to determine what this X-factor is. But, as he said when I asked him how he got his job photographing beautiful women: "Perhaps it is because I am lucky."

Photographs by Marc Hispard, until Feb. 4 at Bunkamura Gallery, (03) 3477-9174 in Shibuya. Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission free.

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