Rock'n'roll chic

As a show of his striking photos of musical legends opens in London, Pierre Terrasson recalls some crazy shoots and crazier sitters.
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The Independent Online

Louche, provocative, oozing attitude - the image is quintessential Serge Gainsbourg, the poet, singer-songwriter, actor and director, husband of Jane Birkin and father of Charlotte, who, since the Sixties, made a habit of scandalising French polite society. Even the photographs of himself tacked on to the wall behind him are a witty nod to his notorious image-consciousness and self-publicising tendencies.

But this was just one side of the complicated character affectionately known as "Gainsbarre", according to the man who took the iconic photograph, Pierre Terrasson. His relationship with Gainsbourg began with a photography assignment for the 1979 reggae-inspired album Aux armes et caetera (Gainsbourg's first No 1, after two decades of trying), and lasted over a decade, until the star's death in 1991. Having photographed dozens of musical legends (the theme of the exhibition of the photographer's work that opens tomorrow in London), Terrasson remembers Gainsbourg with a special fondness, in particular, his generosity:

"During one of the last sessions before he died, Serge noticed that my assistant had two teeth missing and asked him why he didn't get them fixed," Terrasson recalls. "He replied that he couldn't afford to, at which point Serge wrote out a cheque for the 10,000 francs it would cost. My assistant photographed the cheque before he paid it in, but the signature was probably worth more than the sum itself!"

And his wicked sense of humour: "He loved to provoke - he used to go around with handcuffs in his pocket, and would have the same handcuffed pose of himself shot by different photographers, without them realising what he was up to.

"But there was nothing dismissive or inaccessible about Serge. He was an all-round artist, a musician and painter, a director and actor, and a photographer, too. We'd talk about painting, and he'd play Chopin on the piano while looking over the latest photographs that I'd taken of him."

Pierre Terrasson started taking photographs at 15, and continued to do so while studying painting at the prestigious Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, followed by a year working as an art restorer in Switzerland. It was the offer of a workshop back in Aubervilliers, in the northern suburbs of the French capital, that prompted Terrasson to choose photography over painting. He loved its "spontaneity" and "integration into a city", saying, "I doubt whether I would have chosen it had I lived in the countryside".

His love of the urban is also what initially attracted Terrasson to the world of rock'n'roll. "I liked the attitude," he says, somewhat wistfully. "Musicians of that era had something to say, whether it was a political or social engagement, or otherwise. I had the same attitude and so had this feeling of belonging in that world, of being part of a family." Did he live the rock'n'roll lifestyle himself? Well, he has plenty of stories of crazy photo shoots followed by wild Parisian parties, but, he says, punning on his first name, "I like to think of my life in the sense of 'une pierre qui roule' [a rock that rolls]!".

Although Terrasson rebuffs any suggestion of a trademark style - "there are two people involved, the photographer and the subject, and it's a case of respecting both" - his photographs are certainly distinctive. Whether a night shot of Annie Lennox in a field of cows, or a black-and-white image of Tom Waits against a wall, they are all low-key and take the subject "out of context", as Terrasson puts it.

Now 54, Terrasson is sticking to traditional photographic methods, shunning digital photography and retouching, for silver film and a Hasselblad camera (that he still repairs himself) because, "I like to see the true picture, errors and all". He is disillusioned by the increasingly commercial nature of the music industry, in which "marketing people have replaced music fans", and slick, doctored imagery is everything. "Now, to get away from all that commercialism, I'm more interested in seeking out new, unknown French rappers, for example"

Terrasson is also returning to his fine-art beginnings and taking up painting again. "I don't think photography is a major art form any longer. Serge used to say as much about music.

"But I'm glad to be doing this show in England; it's easier than in France because the English have never been conformist."

'Légendes de la Musique, an exhibition of photographs by Pierre Terrasson', is at Talisman, 79-91 New King's Road, London SW6 (020-7731 4686;, from tomorrow to 15 October