Far from a hobby, photography was as central to Karl Lagerfeld’s artistic output as his fashion designs.
An admirer of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Baron Adolph de Meyer, Lagerfeld started out as a collector. Among his favorite images was a Steichen photograph of dancer Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon — a shot that summarized his interest in classical antiquity, architecture and the movement of the body.
Lagerfeld’s output was eclectic, from an opulent, 18th-century fashion shoot and dreamy landscapes to minimal abstractions of nature and architecture. “I’m an illustrator with a camera,” Lagerfeld told WWD at the opening of a survey of his work at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2010.
Fascinated with techniques new and old, from resinotypes and Polaroid transfers to black-and-white images he hand-colored with Shu Uemura makeup, Lagerfeld experimented with images from blurry to crisp; some sepia-toned, others shimmering like caviar or slashed with vivid color.
The designer first picked up a camera in 1987 when, frustrated with the images done for press kits at Chanel, he followed the suggestion of the brand’s image director, Eric Pfrunder, that he do them himself. It wasn’t long before he was shooting fashion spreads for French Vogue.
In addition to public and private projects, he produced countless books, catalogues and advertising campaigns for the Chanel, Fendi and Lagerfeld brands, plus outside clients, including Dior Homme, Dom Pérignon, Adidas, Coca-Cola and Pirelli.
He did editorial shoots for scores of fashion magazines, including English and American Vogues, Harper’s Bazaar, Paris Match, V Magazine and Numéro. Late in his career, he started making films to accompany certain fashion shows, and he directed commercials for clients, including ice cream giant Magnum.
Lagerfeld’s early Chanel campaigns, featuring his muse Inès de la Fressange, were done with a single assistant, Bernward Sollich, who would remain with him for three decades even as the team grew to a full-time staff of six people, headquartered in Lagerfeld’s photo studio on the Rue de Lille in Paris.
“I have a big team,” Lagerfeld told Aperture magazine in 1991. “Often we are between 15 and 20 people; makeup artists, stylists, models, lighting people. I work with nearly all the people I started working with from the beginning. You can’t spend nights and days with people you don’t like or don’t know.”
His sitters, who ranged from Hollywood stars to European royalty, were often surprised that after such a build-up, the session itself was over in a few clicks.
At the opening of Chanel’s roving “Little Black Jacket” exhibition in Paris in 2012, French model Laetitia Casta noted that Lagerfeld shot one single picture of her. “I was pretty surprised, not being used to that, and finally I said, ‘Why not?’ It was a moment,” she recalled.
Among the other famous faces who sat for the coffee table book, styled by Carine Roitfeld, were Claudia Schiffer, Uma Thurman, Kanye West, Tilda Swinton, Jane Birkin, Sofia Coppola, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yoko Ono, Lauren Hutton, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Sarah Jessica Parker.
“The Little Black Jacket” was probably Lagerfeld’s most widely seen photographic oeuvre, embarking on a global tour in 2012 and 2013 with stops in cities including Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Taipei, Hong Kong, Moscow, Sydney, Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai and Seoul.
Obsessed with paper, Lagerfeld noted that it took four tons of black ink to produce 15,000 copies of the book, published by Steidl, which sold more than 100,000 units.
For the Paris leg of the exhibition, he transformed several photos into what he dubbed “Fire Engravings.” The process of transferring his images onto giant plates of glass involved screen-printing with acid, which eats away areas to later be screen-printed with color, then baking the sheets in an oven at 600 degrees.
The retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, titled “Parcours de travail” (“Work history”), ranged from an arty 1997 ode to Bauhaus icon Oskar Schlemmer to shots of model Baptiste Giabiconi, one depicting him as a muscle-flexing Ken next to a Barbie doll.
One room was devoted to stunning, large-scale images of Versailles, one of Lagerfeld’s favorite places to wander and photograph, emblematic of his love for France. “I could work there as a tour guide if there’s ever a strike,” he said jokingly.
His love of landscapes inspired some of his most personal work, including the 1997 tome “Ein Deutsches Haus.” It explored in loving detail the property he bought in his native city of Hamburg, the Neo-classical Villa Jako, named after the late Jacques de Bascher, his partner for close to two decades.
Lagerfeld was capable of dedicating entire tomes to his muses. Having discovered Brad Kroenig in 2003, he made him the subject of a four-volume book titled “Metamorphoses of an American,” published in 2008. In it, the U.S. model channeled characters including James Dean, Rudolph Valentino and Lieutenant Pinkerton from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.”
The relationship between the two men was so close that Lagerfeld became godfather to Kroenig’s son Hudson, who frequently appeared in his Chanel shows.
Lagerfeld’s love of photography fed into his personal myth, to the point that his namesake brand issued a capsule line, Karl the Photographer, for fall 2017. The collection of ready-to-wear and accessories featured Lagerfeld and his cat Choupette in self-portraits and playful graphics like photobooth picture reels and Polaroids.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lagerfeld’s visual vocabulary was his familiarity with photojournalism.
“I am interested in every type of photography. Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl,’ the photos of James Nachtwey, Stanley Greene, Laurent van der Stockt’s reportage on chemical weapons in Syria….It’s really terrific,” he told Polka magazine in 2013.
“The great photojournalists have produced images as famous, if not more famous, than fashion photographs. It’s what I call a kind of art of the unexpected. I admire them.”