At first glance they look like paparazzi shots, snatched close-ups of the international glamour crowd partying heartily. In reality, however, they’re intimate portraits of the photographer’s close pals, many of them iconic figures in the worlds of rock, fashion, business and art.
Frenchman Jean “Johnny” Pigozzi is probably the most connected photographer you’ve never heard of, a fixture at A-list parties in Hollywood, New York, Cannes and London, but rarely pictured himself.
The entrepreneur, art collector, environmentalist and philanthropist counts Mick Jagger as one of his best buddies, hung out regularly with Apple chief Steve Jobs and was a friend of the artist Andy Warhol.
Such stellar credentials mean Pigozzi is invited to the swishest parties and social gatherings; he reciprocates with an annual bash at his mansion in the South of France, for which invitations are much sought after. A particularly poignant picture from one such gathering, significantly more downbeat than most of the collection, shows a frail Jobs.
“When I took this picture he didn’t look so good, but I had no idea he was going to pass away the year after,” says Pigozzi. “He was a very good friend of mine. It’s a special picture and a sad picture, because he’s on his iPhone, he looks tired and his hands are very slim.
“I rarely leave my house without a camera – the trick is to have a small camera, you can’t lug big cameras around, they’re scary. When I put my socks on in the morning, I also put my camera in my pocket.”
Pigozzi is not – and would never claim to be – a technically or artistically gifted snapper. The strength of the images lies in their intimacy; the subjects are clearly comfortable being photographed by the discreet shutterbug, knowing that he’d never countenance pressing the button on a scene that could be embarrassing.
Although an equal in financial terms to his celebrity mates – Pigozzi inherited wealth from his industrialist father and has invested astutely – he’s clearly in awe of those blessed with creative genes. “The people I really respect are those who start the morning with an empty piece of paper and can draw a bridge, or write a song,” he says. “People like Picasso, or Mick Jagger, or a great architect; people like Le Corbusier. Nobody tells them what to do. Take someone like Lady Gaga. She reinvents herself every day, you never see a picture of her dressed the same way; before that there was someone like Madonna or Prince.
“Another was Andy Warhol, I met him in the early 1970s when I was studying at Harvard. He was incredibly nice to young people, he taught me a lot about snapshot photography.”
Those photographs were recently on display in Beijing, carefully curated by movie director Alexi Tan, who secured an exhibition slot at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Like most first-time viewers, Tan was amazed at the breadth of Pigozzi’s collection, documenting more than three decades of hobnobbing with the beau monde. “He manages to access all these private moments, which lead to captivating images,” says Tan.
Thanks to Tan’s connections, the opening night brought together movie stars, models and socialites, all dressed to the nines for the red-carpet event. On that – or any other occasion – Pigozzi stands out from the crowd, partially because he eschews designer gear, but mostly because he’s a big bloke with the hulking presence of a Tony Soprano, minus the menace.
In fact Pigozzi, 62, comes across as thoughtful, gentle and fiercely intelligent, with a staggering range of interests that reflect a peripatetic, globe-trotting life and a social circle that ranges from billionaires to bohemians.
Among his many entrepreneurial ventures is a men’s clothing line, LimoLand, with an emphasis is on bold colours and jazzy patterns, appealing to those who “Live to Create”. The prints also have hints of the life the creator leads – luxury yachts and private jets are depicted on some shirts, making them more Hawaii 5-0 than high fashion.
Modern art has also had some influence on the designs and pattterns, in particular the more striking contemporary work coming out of Africa. Pigozzi has plenty of items to choose from when seeking inspiration for his collections – he has more than 12,000 pieces, ranging from conventional paintings to video art, and which form the world’s largest collection of modern African art.
The seeds of passion for emerging African art were sown when Pigozzi attended a show in Paris and was blown away by the energy of the work. A request to buy the entire collection of 40 works was rebuffed by the museum; undettered, Pigozzi simply hired the curator, with a brief to track down the best work coming out of the continent.
“What captivated me was it was an area nobody was interested in,” says Pigozzi, “and the second thing is none of these artists went to traditional art school, so it all came from their imagination rather than tradition. I had a rule that the artists had to be alive, had to be black and had to live in Africa, so no diaspora. I stuck to that. And I think the rules were good.
“People told me that everything after 1900 is rubbish and I told them they could think what they wanted. I was vindicated. For years they told me I was an idiot, but now all the museums want to put on exhibitions from the collection. There are a lot of great artists.”
A range of the art is on display at Pigozzi’s mansion in the south of France, where celebrities pop in to stay during the summer months, particularly during the Cannes film festival. Another sought-after gig is to stay at the stunning eco-friendly bamboo home Pigozzi had built in a Panama jungle, a property that also houses a large collection of art.
This is a man who knows a thing or two about being a successful host: he’s been swanning around with the stars for a quarter of a century, quietly snapping away at parties and receptions, whether it’s the Vanity Fair shindig to celebrate the Oscars, or Hollywood mogul Barry Diller’s annual gathering where megastars such as Jack Nicholson are likely to drop by.
“People think you have to have expensive wine, caviar and food,” says Pigozzi, “but the most important thing is the mix of people, 60 percent girls and 40 percent men – that’s one trick. The other trick is to find attractive and fun people and mix them; if you only have a party with doctors it doesn’t work, but if you put doctors, comedians, architects, models and photographers together, that’s fun. You have to know how to introduce people.
“My parties are never seated. In America they put the husband next to the wife – I think wives in America are so nervous of losing their husbands, they think he might meet some hot chick! I give my annual party the first Saturday of the Cannes film festival. Usually people are pushing a movie but I’m pushing nothing. I just want to see my friends.”