Saturday, January 31, 2009

The haunting of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

michel comte/I-management via designboom

Memo to all those who happily pose nude for photographers, whether that be for the glory of art, a paying gig – or even as a favour for a mate for charity. In March last year a nude photograph of France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, caused a stir when it came up for auction at Christie’s New York. Following a whirlwind of publicity, the photograph was sold in April for US$91,000 - 20 times the figure that was originally anticipated by Christies. And while some of the proceeds reportedly went to a worthy cause - the Swiss charity Sodis, which organises clean drinking water for developing nations – the Christie’s auction was not the end of the story. Beyond the fact that the image lives on in private hands, in December a French court awarded Bruni-Sarkozy 40,000 euros damages against a fashion chain in the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion. The Pardon chain had cheekily used the unauthorised image on a bag - an action which it was determined had caused Bruni-Sarkozy "moral and economic damage". Well the Bruni brouhaha may be about to crank up again, with the news of yet another nude Bruni-Sarkozy portrait by the same Swiss photographer, Michel Comte. This one is due to be exhibited at Düsseldorf gallery Kultur und Wirtschaft from February 1 to May 10, as part of 30 year retrospective of Comte's work.

The new image depicts Bruni-Sarkozy topless, glancing downwards, with her face partially obscured by her hair.

According to a caption on DesignBoom, the shot was taken as part of a Safe Sex campaign in 1993 (the same year as the Christie's shot) - at a time when of course Bruni-Sarkozy was working as a high fashion model.

No images are for sale and according to a gallery representative with whom frockwriter spoke this afternoon, the Bruni-Sarkozy image is not in the gallery's official press material, which includes a dozen examples of Comte's work.

The spokesman confirmed that there had been no consultation with Bruni-Sarkozy, but added:

"We don’t expect any problems. If she makes any problems, we deinstall it. But we would not take it too seriously. For us it's one image out of 303".

Given however the publicity blitz sparked by the Christie's auction and the La Reunion bag saga, you have to wonder just how the Sarkozys, and notably Sarkozy's political party, might feel about the prospect of having the First Bosoms on display in Germany for three months.

With every new nude Carla story to emerge, the Opposition must of course be clapping its hands. Because Sarkozy's administration is starting to look a little like an issue of RALPH magazine.

At the time of the Christie’s flareup, Comte told Swiss newspaper Le Matin that the original shot was taken during a photo session for Vogue Italia.

Comte added that he had “thousands” of other shots of Bruni, taken in the decade in which they worked together. Comte also claimed that although The Sun newspaper in Britain had offered him more than a million pounds for a photograph of an unspecified celebrity, they are not for sale.

Comte told Le Matin:

"I have other nude photographs of Carla far more explicit, but I would never sell them... I'm not in it for the money. That's my principle."

Given the plethora of topless images - and increasingly, full-frontal nudity - in mainstream fashion imagery, presumably the models involved and their respective agencies must shoulder responsibility for any longterm impact that those images may have on the models' respective future careers.

Notably, of course, with the internet, via which nothing can really ever be considered "niche" again.

But this matter does raise an important question about consent issues.

If Bruni-Sarkozy posed for the shot in 1993 as a “favour” for a charity, that is one thing.

But what happened to the photographs afterwards?

Comte told Le Matin that he had “no idea” how the image wound up at auction.

Noted Comte:
"I must have given it to someone as a gift."

A further potential complication in the Bruni case may well be posed by the fact that in 2005, Comte sold his entire archive to a company called I-Management, which is based, mysteriously, in the British Virgin Islands.

The transaction, for an undisclosed sum, comprised all of Comte's works up until the end of 2007, including copyrights.

Reportedly, Sodis wound up benefitting from the Christie's sale only after Comte eventually persuaded Christie's to donate the funds to charity.

And Sodis only became the beneficary after the funds were rebutted by the original intended recipient, a Cambodian childrens medical care group, because the donation was deemed to be culturally insensitive.

According to the Cambodian group's director, the Swiss paediatrician Beat Richner, the funds were rejected on the grounds that:

"Accepting money obtained from exploitation of the female body would be perceived as an insult".


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