Helena Christensen, Vogue Italia, 1993 © MICHEL COMTE / I-Management

Swiss-born photographer, Michel Comte, whose photographs of stars and fashion models are the epitome of glamour, is also the author of images of compelling humanity amongst the ravages of war. The major exhibition orchestrated by Zurich’s Museum of design is an event not to be missed with sumptuous and sometimes naked divas in stark contrast to images that display the aftermath of conflicts. But with photos of war alongside beauty, Comte is not out to shock, he aims to develop awareness.

Michel Comte is the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung (museum of design) in Zurich until 3 January 2009. In a fitting tribute to one of Switzerland’s best known artists, the show offers a panorama of striking pictures, many of which we have already enjoyed before, often with little idea of the author’s identity.

Penelope Cruz, Premiere Magazine, 2001 © MICHEL COMTE / I-Management

“What else?” asks a bemused George Clooney in the Nespresso campaign. Comte captures the actor clowning around during the shooting session, inserting coffee capsules into his eye sockets, like monocles. Pictures like these say a lot about the sittings.

A horizontal Scarlett Johansson draped in a cobra, rose petals on Sylvester Stallone’s eyelids, Miles Davis lost in musical reverie and Carla Bruni twisted in naked innocence before she became the first lady of France are but a few of the iconic stills that have made Comte famous.

Iggy Pop, Isabella Rosselini, Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve, amongst many others, reveal a startling vulnerability in Comte’s portraits. No wonder stars adore him.

Catherine Deneuve, Pomellato, 1996 © MICHEL COMTE / I-Management

Revealing too is the gallery of nudes that adorn an entire wall, but in a different way. The poses of erotic abandon of naked women in their sexual prime could easily have been considered too carnal and cheap. Instead, they are unbearably beautiful.
“I don’t at all consider myself to be an artist. I am a maker of photographs and films and have never gone looking for recognition,” Michel Comte said at the opening of his show. He sounded amazingly sincere.

Miles Davis, Per Lui, 1989 © MICHEL COMTE / I-Management

Sincerity is the illuminating quality of Comte’s work, a quality that perhaps points to his Swiss origins. Born in 1954 to a family from the Jura, he was brought up in Zurich, moved to Paris on an assignment for Karl Lagerfeld, then on to New York when he worked for Vogue. He now resides in Los Angeles.

Comte is currently one of the darlings of the photography catwalk, but part of his heart lies elsewhere. On assignments for the Red Cross and Terre des Hommes (a Swiss charitable foundation), to places like Cambodia, Sudan, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, he brings back photographs on the harrowing brutality of war.

Afghanistan, 1994 © MICHEL COMTE / I-Management

A number of the images on display in the show focus on children with missing limbs. He observed operations taking place in makeshift clinics housed in containers in Kaboul, only to discover two years later that an orthopaedic hospital with 400 beds had sprung up in the interim. He calls his trips a source of “great motivation”.

In 2004, Comte started the Michel Comte Water Foundation in cooperation with the Swiss federal institute for environmental science and technology, dedicated to providing clean water to poor populations thanks to an ingenious water purification system: a plastic bottle that is exposed to sunlight for several hours.

Comte admits to always “living on the edge”. “If I no longer have a sense of risk I immediately move on,” he says.
The exhibition in Zurich is an opportunity to discover that glossy pictures can come with a soul. Michel Comte is the man behind the lens that captures the essence of fame, but can also remind us of infamy.

Living up to its reputation of Switzerland’s premier design and visual communication museum, the venue has programmed an elaborate display that is astonishingly effective. We are so submerged by Comte’s pictures that we forget that they are photographs.

With 20,000 visitor in less than a month, the show has already clocked up one of the most successful records of attendance in the history of the museum.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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