Byline: Kimberly Cutter
LOS ANGELES — Michel Comte might be best known as a fashion photographer for magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair and W, but lately he’s shown a serious talent for philanthropy, too. On Tuesday, Comte — along with Geraldine Chaplin and Arthur Cohn — will host back-to-back high-glam benefit parties at the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles to raise money for his awareness campaign, People and Places with No Name, and he’s enlisted everyone from legendary auctioneer Simon de Pury to magician David Blaine to diva Lauren Hill to help out.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s enthusiasm for this event,” says Comte of the benefits, which are being held in association with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Red Cross, to aid victims of the war in Afghanistan and of forgotten conflicts in Ethiopia and Angola. The event was originally scheduled to take place in Paris last November, but after Sept. 11, Comte decided to postpone it and move the location to Los Angeles. “L.A. just seemed to make sense,” says the 48-year-old photographer from poolside at the Bel-Air Hotel — his base camp for the next few months. “I knew everyone would be here for the Oscars, and I liked the idea of holding the one event during the week where people can actually give something back. Lauren Hill, for example, is somebody who usually turns down everything, but once I got on the phone with her, it took her exactly 40 seconds to say yes.”
Comte had similar luck with de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, who will conduct the evening’s first event — a live auction of art works by the likes of Irving Penn, Vanessa Beecroft, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. Immediately following the auction, Comte — along with Dutch magazine’s Sandor Lubbe and L.A. glamour girls Tatiana von Furstenburg, Amelia Fleetwood, Jacqui Getty and Liz Goldwyn — will host a benefit performance (with proceeds also going to the Red Cross) featuring Hill and Blaine, and a dance party to celebrate the launch of his new magazine, For. The magazine, which Comte created along with his friend Lubbe, will be published quarterly and distributed internationally. “For is sort of a cross between Dutch and the New Yorker,” says Comte, who conceived the idea several years ago, when Lubbe announced that he was considering launching another publication. “I said, ‘Why don’t you do something that makes sense?”‘ says Comte, who will donate a quarter of the revenue generated by For to several different philanthropic organizations. “And he loved the idea. It’s an incredibly idealistic project. No one who is involved with For even has a contract — everyone who is involved is completely earnest about it.”
Such earnestness isn’t surprising considering the unabashedly earnest nature of the magazine’s content. Each issue of For will focus on a different global theme. (Issue number one’s theme is Africa, and planned future themes include safe sex and water.) Seemingly weighty topics for a fashion photographer, but Comte — who has been documenting the Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kenya since 1986 and published an acclaimed collection of his photographs from these trips entitled “People and Places with No Name” in November 2000 — seems unconcerned with the apparent contradiction between his two passions. “Once I became aware of the atrocities that go on during wartime that are not disclosed to us in America, I felt I had to make the rest of the world see what has gone on,” he says. “In the beginning, of course, I didn’t tell anybody at the Red Cross who I was,” chuckles Comte, who was under contract with both Chanel and Vanity Fair in 1986 when he “woke up one morning and got on a plane for Kabul, Afghanistan.”
And though Comte says it’s important to him to keep the work that he does in the fashion world separate from his work with the Red Cross, he acknowledges that his high-powered connections come in handy when it comes to fund-raising.
“Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel and Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani are always the first to participate,” says Comte, who has been collecting original art, photography and jewelry from his famous friends over the last year-and-a-half for the auction. For example, when Vanessa Beecroft wanted to create a photograph of 30 African-European women to donate for the Red Cross auction, Sozzani helped Comte track down models who were willing to work for three days at a fraction of their normal rate (many went so far as to donate their time). “Once they understood what the work would be benefiting, the women were very motivated and generous,” says Beecroft.
Remarkable as Comte’s philanthropic work might be, however, he insists that there is no danger of his abandoning his fashion photography any time soon. “I love it so why not do it?” says Comte. “I think it’s very important to do anything in life that you feel passionately about.”