Michel Comte with a miniature of Black Erosion, 2019. Photograph by Alessandro Furchino Capria. Artwork © Michel Comte

Photographer Michel Comte: ‘I don’t go to wars any more; I work with ice and stone’

Michel Comte’s extraordinary career has taken in war reportage, art restoration and fashion photography. Here he talks about how landscape and nature, conflict and climate change have influenced the artworks he is now creating

My grandfather was an aviator. He and his co-pilot took the first aerial pictures of the Swiss glaciers. In those pictures the mountains are white, blanketed in snow and ice. Now those same mountains are black, because the snows are gone.

I have always been obsessed with nature. At our home in the countryside, there was a hill teeming with salamanders and carnivorous plants. The plants were tiny — I used to go looking for them with a magnifying glass and feed them flies.

But in a short space of time the plants vanished, and the salamanders became rare. May-bugs that once came by the thousand in spring dwindled almost to nothing. We didn’t know it then, but it was all the result of acid rain. 

A memory from that same time: my father had a beautiful camera — a Voigtländer. You could push in the lens so that its body became flat. I really wanted to own that camera, and one day my father said, ‘I will let you have it if you can make some good pictures with it.’

Michel Comte, Aialik Glacier, 2017. Photo © Michel Comte
Michel Comte, Aialik Glacier, 2017. Photo: © Michel Comte

So I shot trees and flowers in ways that made them look like dots — very Seurat and Pointillistic, and (I still think) rather stunning. He gave me the Voigtländer.

I did not know then that I wanted to be a photographer. That came later, after I saw Antonioni’s Blow-Up. But I had an aunt who possessed an enormous collection of Vogue  magazines. I recall that they seemed to be full of pictures of Marie Helvin.

When I was a little older I went to London and asked David Bailey for a job. But my father said, ‘No way. Go to school. Then, if you finish, you can do whatever the hell you want.’

Scarlett Johannson photographed by Michel Comte for Flaunt, 2016. Photo © Michel Comte
Scarlett Johannson photographed by Michel Comte for Flaunt, 2016. Photo: © Michel Comte

So I studied medicine for a while, but at the same time I was learning to restore paintings, working alongside a neighbour of ours who was a world-renowned restorer. After the famous fire at the gallery of Bruno Bischofberger — Warhol’s dealer — my neighbour got the job of restoring 2,000 damaged artworks. He asked me to help. I was then 23, and I specialised in Yves Klein. That cobalt blue gets everywhere: still today I find flecks of it in my books.

That period came to an end when I went to Paris and Karl Lagerfeld gave me a job. I became a fashion photographer, but I was never part of that world. On my first shoot for Vogue, I wore a suit and tie while everyone else was in cargo pants. They looked at me like I was an alien.

Michel Comte, Drift, 2020. Coldworking glass. 20 x 45 x 27 cm. Photo © Michel Comte and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne
Michel Comte, Drift, 2020. Coldworking glass. 20 x 45 x 27 cm. Photo: © Michel Comte and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

Later, I documented wars and was an outsider again, at least at first. As a photographer I don’t make a distinction between fashion and war, but I always ask myself: can I take this picture? Do I have permission? 

A while ago I was in a cab in New York, and the driver said, ‘Hey, Michel.’ I said, ‘Have we met?’ He replied, ‘You were the last thing I saw before my execution.’ 

It had happened in Bosnia. He was one man in a pile of bodies that I photographed — I found the picture afterwards. He survived, and years later there he was, driving a yellow cab.

I don’t go to wars any more; I work with ice and stone. I collect what I find beneath the retreating glaciers and I turn it into art. I make paintings from salt and dust; I take the sand and rocks, the toxic sludge from jet fuel, and I embed it in Murano glass or fix it in resin.

‘We humans are drawn to tragedy, yet when something merely beautiful happens we often ignore it’

Science is telling us that we are losing the ice masses much faster than anyone believed possible. I am certain that science is right, because I know the glaciers.

I see them receding year on year — tens or hundreds of metres, and enormous cascades of meltwater. It is shocking and tragic, but Cartier-Bresson once said that there is a poetry and a beauty in tragedy. We humans are drawn to tragedy, yet when something merely beautiful happens we often ignore it.

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I am presently planning a light installation for the Arctic. Next year, we will project the future of the ice onto the ice itself. I plan to invite people to come and watch — only in sailing boats, no motors allowed. It will be a kind of vigil for the vanishing ice.

I am not trying to preach to people, that is not the objective at all. The aim is just to provoke a discussion. If I can do that, I have achieved something. I remain an optimist; well, maybe I have become a realist.

Erosion I is at Galerie Urs Meile in Lucerne, Switzerland, until 29 January 2021

The Centre of the World, the first stage of a monumental land-art installation by Michel Comte, reaching beyond the border into Syria from the ancient Turkish city of Harran, is scheduled for 2021