Fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier died Thursday at the age of 78.
The French-born creative captured legions of models and celebrities through the years including Princess Diana, who tapped him as her personal photographer in 1989.
Demarchelier’s death was confirmed on his Instagram account. He was believed to have died in St. Barths of cancer, according to a photographer friend, who requested anonymity.
Without question, the lensman made a career out of making already ultra-photogenic people look even better, and the same went for just about everything else he photographed. “I like the beauty of life, the beauty of people, animals, everything,” he told WWD in 2007.
Known to move swiftly, Demarchelier admittedly worked very fast. “When you work very fast, you surprise people. You catch them in a good expression,” he once said.
Demarchelier started his career in Paris at the age of 20, relocating from Le Havre. After a few jobs as an assistant photographer — including one with Henri Cartier-Bresson — he landed one with the prized lensman Hans Feurer and segued into fashion photography.
Nine years later, in 1975, he opened his first U.S. studio. In the decades that followed, his work appeared in just about every fashion magazine Stateside and abroad.
Demarchelier served as the lead photographer for Harper’s Bazaar for years before switching camps to rival Condé Nast, where he had an exclusive arrangement. There he covered the waterfront, shooting for Vogue, Teen Vogue, Vanity Fair and Allure.
His work, more specifically one of his covers for Vogue in 1989, caught the attention of Princess Diana, who lined him up as her personal photographer. That alliance made him the first non-British photographer to be hired by the royal family.
Along with editorial assignments featuring celebrities and models, Demarchelier did advertising shoots for Chanel, Target, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Revlon, Lancôme, Gap, Louis Vuitton and more. His dexterity was evident in his film and Broadway campaigns and album covers for Madonna, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, among others. Helming photography for the famed Pirelli calendar for a stretch from 2005 to 2008, Demarchelier photographed Kate Moss, Jennifer Lopez and Sophia Loren.
In 2007, he was honored as an Officier de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres by the French minister of culture in recognition of his accomplishments. The following year Demarchelier’s work was featured in a retrospective at le Petit Palais in Paris. He published his first book, “Fashion Photography: Patrick Demarchelier,” in 1989 and others followed, including “Dior Couture Patrick Demarchelier,” which showcased his images of models wearing Dior pieces dating back to 1947. At a Rizzoli-hosted book party in Paris for the latter in 2013, his one question for the many friends and fans was, “Do you think it’s good? Then I’m happy.”
Apparently, even the acclaimed Demarchelier liked a splash of praise from time to time, explaining at that time, “It’s still nice to hear that you’re doing credit to a master.”
His photography was so synonymous with fashion that Meryl Streep’s fashion magazine editor character Miranda Priestly referenced him by name in the 2006 flick “The Devil Wears Prada.” He also made a cameo in the 2008 film version of “Sex and the City,” shooting Sarah Jessica Parker as “Carrie Bradshaw” for Vogue, and was featured in the 2003 season of “America’s Next Top Model.”
Known to vary the thickness of his French accent to suit his purposes, the photographer also wielded a sharp sense of humor. His professional style involved making the least demands, and offering piggyback assignments to save clients’ money. His work was by instinct, to a large extent. Demarchelier told WWD: “A good picture is a moment, you catch the moment. I’m an instinctual photographer.”
Air Mail founder and coeditor Graydon Carter, who previously commandeered Vanity Fair for years, described Demarchelier as “a singular photographer and a funny and spirited colleague. At the same time, he spoke in an English/French conspiratorial mumble, and I probably understood a quarter of what he said.”
Despite his vast portfolio and dealings with some of the world’s most famous personalities, Demarchelier wasn’t one to cast a long glance back over his storied career. “My best work is the work coming up next. I don’t like to look at the past. I like to focus on today’s work and tomorrow’s work,” he said to WWD in 2016.
“Incredibly nimble, really fast and flexible,” Demarchelier made photography look easy, according to Linda Wells, brand consultant and Air Mail’s beauty and wellness columnist. “If something wasn’t working, he could be set up in the studio, and decide, ‘Let’s go out on the roof and shoot it there.’ That’s not really common,” she said.
That agility meant that he could handle a huge shoot in a day or even in half a day, said Wells, who worked with him through her former role as editor-in-chief of Allure. “He liked to catch people by surprise. By doing that, he created a much more real expression. His pictures weren’t stiff and pose-y. They felt alive. You didn’t feel that you were getting something very artificial. That’s one of the reasons why he was so good at celebrity [photography.] You felt the person in the image.”
Demarchelier might be underestimated because he could do anything and made everything look so easy, Wells said. “And he wasn’t a snob about who he photographed. Some photographers wouldn’t want to shoot someone, who was in a TV show, because they thought that was beneath them. Now TV is equal but it wasn’t back in the day.”
Whether someone was an unknown celebrity or hadn’t quite risen to superstardom was not something that he cared about at all, Wells said. “He just loved shooting and loved the work. And he wanted to make people look their best. It was such a happy confluence. He wasn’t trying to make a museum-quality photograph. He was just trying to do something that was beautiful and bring out the person in the picture.”
His omnipresence on the fashion scene diminished somewhat after several models accused Demarchelier of sexual misconduct in 2018. He denied the allegations and any wrongdoing. The New York-based creative was always onto the next project. Retirement was not something he envisioned, explaining once, “I will die working.”
Having represented Demarchelier in New York for about 25 years, Etheleen Staley, cofounder of the Staley-Wise Gallery, described his legacy as “a civilized person, a great photographer and a good father.” Admiring one of his huge photos of two models wearing elaborate strapless John Galliano-designed Dior gowns near elaborate topiary hedges that hangs on her office wall, and another of a woman in a fanciful blue dress standing in The Sculpture Garden in the Musée Rodin, Staley said: “Of all the pictures [that we have,] these are the ones that we put in our office.”
The gallerist said: “He had an eye and a sense of style. He captured the zeitgeist, but they’re more art. I hope he goes down as a great photographer. He should be honored for his photography.”
Another photographer Antoine Verglas called Demarchelier “a legend, mentor and idol.” Having spent time with Demarchelier failing in St. Barths, Verglas said he got to know the human being behind the camera and the flashbulbs. “It’s a sad day. Fashion photography has lost one of its most brilliant maestros and prolific artists of the past five decades.” Verglas said.
Michael Reinhardt recalled Friday starting out in fashion photography in Paris alongside Demarchelier in the late 1960s and how they became fast friends. Obsessed with fashion photography, they spent hours leaving through fashion magazines, appraising, “and more often than not attempting to copy” the pictures they found there, he said. Working on portfolio images, the two men assisted eachother, shared equipment “they could barely afford, loaned eachother money when they were broke, “which was frequently the case,” and obsessively discussed fashion photography, Reinhardt said.
Over time, they both traveled to New York to try their luck in fashion “Models and editors loved joining forces with him and we’re able to do their best work under the circumstances in which Patrick worked.” Reinhardt said. “The ostensible ease with which he was apparently able to take the most beautiful images was in large part responsible for the relaxed beauty and elegance his images were known for.”
Gilles Bensimon also started his career in Paris with Demarchelier. “He was always smart. He had a vision of the business and the work especially at Vogue.” Bensimon said.
How Demarchelier should be remembered is a difficult question, he said. Aside from memories of him as a photographer behind the camera, Bensimon said, “For me, what was important was his personality. He had total knowledge. When he would start to work, he was excited.”
Demarchelier also offered Arthur Elgort a helping hand early in his career. In the early 1970s, they shared the same agency in Paris. Elgort noted in an Instagram post Friday how on his first visit he had no money and nowhere to stay. Demarchelier “was so kind” to let Elgort and his then-girlfriend Bonnie Pfeifer stay at his apartment. “We had a terrific time.” said Elgort, who described Demarchelier as “a wonderful guy and phenomenal photographer.”
This fall Camera Work Gallery in Berlin will unveil an exhibition of Demarchelier that was being planned prior to his death. The gallery has represented him in Germany since 2014. Thirty seven of the 42 works that will be presented this fall will be shown for the first time globally.
Demarchelier is survived by his wife Mia and three sons Gustaf, Arthur and Victor.