By Léo Azambuja
A painter uses brushes and paint to create masterpieces. A musician paints with notes. A photographer paints with light. Photographer Gilles Larrain has used all of it and more to get what he is after — the true essence of the people he portrays.
“If I do the portrait of you, what’s the purpose of that? It’s because I want to know the truth behind you. So I’m going to extract that from you, your personality, the essence of who you are,” said the photographer who built a career spanning more than five decades shooting some of the most famous men and women on Earth.
Gilles’ wife, edgy artist and clothes designer Louda Larrain, said her husband “provokes and seduces” his subjects; not in a sexual way, but in a way to bring out their true personality. The more the person is reluctant, the more Gilles finds the shooting interesting, she said.
Some of Gilles’ clients included Miles Davis, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Salvador Dali, the Gypsy Kings, Joe Cocker, Billie Joel, Roberto Rossellini, Sting, His Holiness Lungtok Tenpa‘i Nyima Rinpoche, Stanley Turrentine, Jane Seymour, Karen Allen, Norman Mailer and the list goes on.
Many who came to his photography studio in SoHo, New York became a close friend. After all, the man who kicked millionaire prima donnas out of his studio and told the great late Miles Davis to “go get your trumpet” so they could jam together also spoke the truth. So when celebrities and movie stars stood in front of his lens, truth always came out.
About six years ago, Gilles sold his property in SoHo, packed all his belongings and moved to Kaua‘i with Louda. Gilles had been to Kaua‘i in mid-1970s for a shooting assignment and fell in love with the beauty of the island. So when he left New York in 2013 to move to Kaua‘i permanently, their friends doubted they would stay here for long.
“Everybody said, ‘You’re going to be back in two years, one year, six months. You are a New Yorker,’” Gilles said.
They stayed, but their friends had a strong case. After all, Gilles had moved to SoHo “when there was no SoHo,” he said. He was deeply rooted in the early days of the neighborhood that would become an enclave for artists and pop-culture icons of the 1970s. Musicians like Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix would record at a studio across the street from Gilles home. Artists such as Andy Warhol would meet at a bar called Max’s Kansas City.
“It was a fantastic time in New York. It’s not like that anymore, things have changed,” he said of the 1970s. “As a group of artists, we were responsible for SoHo.”
Gilles and Louda now live in upper Kapahi; their home surrounded by green lush and at a walking distance to a gorgeous waterfall. But moving to Kaua‘i didn’t mean retirement. Gilles has a photography studio on the bottom floor of his home. In the last couple years, some 400 people, mostly Kaua‘i residents, have posed for him for a collaborative project he is developing with Louda, titled “The Birth of Fashion Revisited.” The results are unique; life-size portraits of people mostly as they arrived on this world, covered only by organic outfits fashioned with foliage and flowers.
With a substantial amount of portraits for the project already done, Gilles and Louda are now concentrating more in the logistics of putting together an exhibit and publishing a book. The work is not done, but Gilles said he is being more selective at this point.
But selective, he said, is something he has been his whole life. When an “arrogant and pushy” bank CEO came to his SoHo studio and did whatever pleased her, he told her to “get out” and not waste his and her time anymore. He still didn’t lose the job — she called him the next day to apologize, and they finished the shooting.
And then there was that one time when Miles Davis, one of the most influential jazz players of the 20th century, walked into his studio saying he had only five minutes for a photoshoot. Davis’ five fingers up in the air only reinforced his crunch time. Unshaken, Gilles calmly offered Davis wine and spicy tapas, which the greatest man who ever blew the trumpet promptly accepted. When they started talking, Gilles outed his passion for the flamenco guitar. “Go get your guitar,” Davis said. Gilles just replied, “Go get your trumpet.” Six hours later, Davis left the studio. They jammed together, they got the shots, and most important, they forged a friendship for life.
Gilles was born in Vietnam to a French-Vietnamese mother and a Chilean father with deep roots in the Basque Country. Because his father was a diplomat, they moved around a lot while he was growing up. He studied at New York University, and then moved to France to study architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He would soon become disillusioned with architecture after seeing the final product of his work being dictated by politics and money.
Inspired by the freedom to create whatever he wanted, Gilles switched careers to photography. He credits much of his eye for photography on his formative years as an architect. In his younger years, he also delved into sculpture and painting, and held a series of exhibits from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s. The world may have lost a great architect, but gained an amazingly talented photographer.
“I do what I love and I love what I do. Put those two things together, life is a success,” Gilles said.