Arts: Mr Comte: a man of many parts

He's snapped Hillary, Sly and Demi. But there's more than just gloss in this photographer's portfolio.
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Writing about Michel Comte poses several problems. The first is exactly how to classify him. After all, what do you call a photographer who one day takes portraits of Hollywood stars for Vanity Fair, American Vogue and Interview, the next day he's working on an art project with Cindy Sherman, then he's rushing off to war zones such as Bosnia and Iraq on assignment for the International Red Cross? "Eclectic" is probably the best word.

The second snag is pinning him down on any topic for more than a few seconds. "It's very difficult to get five sentences on the same subject," says one of his publishers, Lothar Schirmer. "And you have no idea whether what he says is the truth or not." Indeed, working out exactly what is fact and what is fiction can prove rather tricky. "I read that your father made you go to trade school at the age of 18 so that you'd understand there was more to life than art," I tell him during our interview. "That's not true at all!" comes the rather virulent reply. "Well, that's what it says on your own website," I retort, slightly bemused.

Two things, however, are for sure. The first is the publication, later this month, by Schirmer-Mosel of Comte's very first monograph. Entitled Michel Comte, Twenty Years, it is composed mainly of celebrity portraits with a handful of his war reportage work and the images from a film-stills project on which he collaborated with Sherman. The book was an incredible four years in the making. "Every six months, he brought us 50 or 100 new photographs and said, `Incorporate them'," explains Schirmer. "In the end, we had to say `Stop!'"

The other certainty is the opening, tomorrow evening, at London's Hamiltons Gallery of his very first solo exhibition in the UK. On show once again are mainly portraits. There is Sharon Stone playing the seductress under white bedsheets, a naked Sting, a very sinister-looking Jeremy Irons wearing a monocle, Sylvester Stallone with rose petals on his eyelids and, the world's most famous ear-muncher, Mike Tyson, only here he's kissing a dove on the beak.

Comte does not seem keen to talk in detail about either project. He prefers to tell you how he is curating the estate of Charlie Chaplin, which includes 50,000 images of the late actor. Comte has been archiving them for the past three years and is currently working on a book called The Unseen Chaplin. As if that was not enough, he is also closely involved in the organisation of a huge charity auction for the International Red Cross in Paris and New York next December. Then, there are five other books in the pipeline, including a volume of his war photography called People and Places With No Name, to be published on 8 January.

His war images tend to be intimate portraits of the victims of conflict. "Those who have seen them have asked how is it possible that I get so close to people in extreme war situations," he declares.

His first experience of war was in Afghanistan when he helped to raise money for a Red Cross hospital in Kabul. "It was very, very violent. We really were under fire all the time," he says. "It was rather like [the film] Blade Runner. You have people dressed in rags and then the most sophisticated electronic weapons." Later, he travelled through Iraq. "It really is a really frightening place. I saw so many people dying of malnutrition." You begin to wonder how Comte manages to fit everything into a day. "He seems to be a terrible workaholic, but you never see him work," says Schirmer.

"I only sleep about four or five hours a night," says Comte. "By the time it's 8am, I've been working for three hours." He still finds time for a family life (he has two young sons who live near him in Manhattan).

Comte was born into a wealthy family in Zurich in 1954. His grandfather was one of the founders of SwissAir, his father had a newspaper business. He discovered photography through Vogue and a National Geographic-like publication called Du. Photo-journalists such as Gottard Schuh, Weegee and Paul Outerbridge impressed him early on. "Weegee is still one of my favourite photographers," he says. "A lot of my reportage photography is close to his."

He initially made his living by setting up an art restoration business, which took him to Paris. There, he met the wife of Emanuel Ungaro in 1979. The conversation turned to the botched photos of the house's latest advertising campaign and Comte was suggested for the re-shoot. His photos made their way to French Vogue and were spotted by Karl Lagerfeld, who immediately hired Comte for a Chloe campaign.

He had achieved success, but apparently not satisfaction. "I was doing a lot of beauty work," he says. But 1986 proved a turning point. He travelled to Tibet, where he discovered his love for reportage. On his return, Italian Vogue commissioned his first major portrait work - a portfolio of Miles Davis.

He has since mainly concentrated on portraiture. "His strength lies in portraits of very difficult people," says Schirmer. "There is a sense of fun in his pictures, as well as a kind of privateness. They are also not too posed." They do, however, pose questions and often show a familiar face in a different light. Among his best images are Macaulay Culkin looking as if he's wearing an Andy Warhol wig; Juliette Binoche with Jackie O sunglasses on her nose; and Demi Moore with tears running down her face. When Stallone turned up for a shoot at the Ritz in Paris, Comte told him: "First take off all your clothes, then we can start." For a recent portrait of Hillary Clinton, he had the furniture rearranged at the White House and replaced the curtains. "There could be a lot there, but there's such a big machinery that protects her image," he says.

The increasing control that publicists and stars want to have over their pictures has, he laments, forced him to cut back on his portrait work. "I'm working with people who are less controlling," he says. He loves working with Sophia Loren. "Nothing could ever bother her," he says. What bothers Comte is increasing media manipulation. He says a lot of big picture agencies are being controlled by governments who intercept the satellite images being sent from war zones.

Yet he holds out hope. Next spring will see the launch of a new magazine, For, on which he is working in partnership with the publishers of trendy fashion monthly Dutch Through it, he hopes to raise consciousness of the strife in countries the media often ignores. "I think I have a little bit of responsibility... if all the people who have a camera and are good pull together, I think it could make a change."

Hamiltons Gallery, London, 0171-499 9493