Beau Monde: The power and glory of Paris-Match

It's hard to imagine now, of course, but there was a time when the lives of film stars, artists, musicians and models were not picked over in public; a more innocent age, when celebrity was celebrated and long lenses had yet to be invented. Nowhere was the glamour of the day more visible than in the pages of Paris-Match. And as the legendary magazine opens its archives, John Lichfield celebrates a true French revolutionary
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On 23 March 1949, a new magazine - and a new type of magazine - was published in France. The front cover, a position later virtually sub-let to Brigitte Bardot and Princess Diana, carried a picture of Winston Churchill.

Inside, there was a photograph of a near riot in China, taken by a man who would become known as one of the greatest of all photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were also images of film stars, actors and singers.

Paris Match, broadly based on the US publication Life magazine, went on to live longer than Life itself. It became the global reference for a kind of magazine that has never succeeded in Britain, a visually led news magazine with strong reportage from the world's trouble spots and page after page of photographs of celebrities.

These were not paparazzi pictures, not in the early days at any rate. (The tone would change dramatically following a circulation collapse in the 1970s.) In its early, most succesful years, Paris Match became known for its beautifully composed photographs of actors, painters, musicians and singers, who allowed the magazine unparallelled access and artistic freedom - just because it was Match.

Ninety nine of the best celebrity photographs from the Match archives - from 1949 to the present day - are on display in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris this summer. Some - like a splendid "trick" shot of Rudolph Nureyev jumping over the Paris Opéra to celebrate his "freedom" from the Soviet Union - have become classics. Others have never been published.

The exhibition - in a high-brow museum dedicated to the Italian Renaissance, which has never had a photo exhibition before - is a delight. There is a stunning picture of Ray Charles by Jacques Lange (one of the greatest of Match photographers). Although a colour picture, it plays with the idea of black and white, the colour of the piano keys and the colour of the clothes of a blind, black man. There is also a sad and beautiful close-up by Willy Rizzo of Marilyn Monroe, leaning her face on her forearm like a small girl.

Another image that has become famous is the photograph by Walter Carone (another Match great) of the painter Henri Matisse lying on his deathbed, painting on the wall with a long brush or stick.

There are equally memorable photographs of Brigitte Bardot (of course), Charlie Chaplin, Grace Kelly, Sharon Stone, The Beatles, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Maria Callas, Christian Dior, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali.

There are still many fine photographs in Paris Match today, but rarely anything like these. The magazine has fallen victim to - and has itself partly created - the modern world of celebrity-hugging and celebrity-bugging. Most pictures of stars in "people" magazines these days are intrusive, paparazzi snatch shots or cloying, agent-approved snaps of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Gilles Martin-Chauffier, a senior editor at Match, admits that the exhibtion, "Artistes et Stars par les photographes de Paris Match", is partly a tribute to a lost, golden age.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, stars would play along with magazine photographers. Now stars live outside the normal world. Agents intervene like a pebble in your shoe," said Martin-Chauffier, who captioned the pictures in the exhibition.

"It would be almost impossible today to publish these photographs, which have no tidying up, often no make-up. Any photo session with a star today is pre-controlled from A to Z. If you tried to mount a similar exhibition 50 years from now, the pictures would be much less natural."

There is another side to that story, however. Paparazzi-style celeb jourbalism existed in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was nothing like as aggressive as it became from the 1970s onwards. The stars and their agents would say that candid photo-shoots, or open access for photographers, were destroyed by the modern obsession with pumping up, then puncturing, celebrity egos.

Paris Match, although the not the worst offender, played its part. From the beginning, Match was not just a celebrity mag but a hard-nosed reporter of wars and revolutions, floods and earthquakes. The quality of the pictures was matched by the quality of its reportage and writing. In the last couple of years, the magazine has attempted, with some success, to recapture its reputation as a breaker of stories and an eye-witness of disasters.

However, for a long period in the 1980s and 1990s, Match seeemed more concerned with events in Monaco than in Africa or the Middle East. Oddly enough, the same man presided over both Match's golden age and its plunge downmarket in the 1970s and 1980s.

Roger Thérond was a senior editor at Match from the beginning and its de facto boss, except for a break between 1962 and 1999. He once described himself as a "predator of visual emotion".

Thérond, who died in 2000, aged 76, was a legendary judge of what made a great photograph. No less a man than Henri Cartier-Bresson said of him that "he had an unbeatable eye".

Thérond presided over Match in the 1960s. It was also he who decided to give the magazine a new intrusive obsession with minor royals and celebs in the decades that followed.

From a peak of circulation at 1,800,000 in 1958, Match had sunk to only 400,000 by the mid-1970s. Thérond, who had quarrelled with the old owners of the magazine, was brought back by the Filipacchi Group when it bought the title in 1976.

He pushed the circulation back over 1,000,000 (it has since sunk to about 700,000) by accepting the new, more abrasive style of celeb reporting that was already succesful in Italy (but not yet in Britain). Accused of lowering the tone of the magazine, Thérond said simply: "Times have changed."

He finally gave up his job as director-general of Match in 1999. He was replaced - against his advice - by Alain Genestar, a respected editor and great writer, but not a man known for his "unbeatable eye" for a winning photograph,

Genestar gave Match a more serious tone, returning to the tradition of "grand reportage" from the world's trouble spots. But with the greatest of ironies, he fell victim last month to his decision to publish one of the greatest "people" scoops in recent French journalism.

In the summer of last year, Match published a photograph of Cécilia Sarkozy, wife of the rising star of French politics, Nicolas Sarkozy, with another man. Nicolas Sarkozy was furious. He is a close friend of Arnaud Lagardère, the tycoon who owns Match. Lagardère was, therefore, also furious.

Although publishing such pictures has become the stock-in-trade of Match, Lagardère shoved Genestar out of his job last month "for taking the magazine in an unauthorised new direction". Match journalists went on strike at this hypocrisry and hung black flags outside their offices, but to no avail.

All of this has provided an unfortunate counterpoint to the wonderful Match photo exhibition. As Roger Thérond would undoubtedly have said: "Times have changed".

'Artistes et Stars par les photographes de Paris-Match', 10am-6pm daily until 10 September at the Musée Jacquemart André, 158 boulevard Haussmann, Paris (in the 17th arrondissement, not far from the Champs-Elysées)