The Ultimate Renaissance Man: Christophe Gstalder

This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series: Bert's Eye View

We have few opportunities in our lives to meet people who are bigger than life.  And, they are often not aware of the intensity and brilliance of their talents.  This would be my buddy Christophe GstalderHe enjoys a simple and rich life.  He can adapt to a suite at Le Meurice in Paris as easily as living in a rancho with the Boruca Indians in the southern jungles of Costa Rica.  This is difficult to express—but let’s imagine reality as a curtain.  Then, let’s say that certain people have the ability to peek under that curtain and see another reality.  This relates a bit to quantum theory in that it has been proven through very controlled experiments that the same photon can be present at exactly the same time in two locations and that human DNA does influence energy matter. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it explains a lot about art, music, medical breakthroughs, physics, engineering, architecture, blah, blah, blah.  But, the fact is that all of these things began as a thought and a fantasy, and became a tangible expression and a reality through people of above average talents.   Okay, I’m done with that.  So here’s the thing:  Christophe is just plain cool. He  peeks under the curtain and creates what he sees. He splits his time between Paris, Aix en Provence, Costa Rica, and traveling the rest of the world . He speaks 3 languages fluently, but prides himself in being able to tell people to fuck off in 12 languages. His travels have taken him all over the world—literally, including living with primitive tribes in South and Central America.  He’s one of those people who can blend in anywhere from the most exclusive clubs in the world to the poorest slums, and is so different and fascinating that he never gets knocked over the head.  People want to see what he’ll do next.

Q:  Christophe, you had quite an interesting childhood.  I have to say you blow the Dos Equis guy away.  He is not “the most interesting man in the world.”  So what’s the story of your youth?

A:  I grew up in France, Greece, Tunisia and Libya until 18 years old. My father used to work for a petroleum company (ELF … now TOTAL) . Then after 18, I had the Bohemian Gypsy Virus and lived all around the world.  Milan, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney, and on to Amazonia Brazil on my boat, drifting from tribe to tribe on Rio Xingu (Kayapo) or Rio Araguaia (Carajas) … Maraba (the Sierra Pelada Gold mines), with 5 years in Brazil as my base and still flying back to LA … NYC, or Paris—wherever the next project the clients wanted me to go.

In his teens (the ‘70’s)—enhanced by martial arts (Judo), and a somewhat inconclusive year in the Medical University of Toulouse in France, he was rocked by travel and a passion for Formula One motorsports.

Q: Tell us about your F1 days.  That had to be a total rush …

A:  Doubt had no place.  Let’s go for adrenaline and racing cars … I always thought it to be true that racing car drivers had the most beautiful women in the world, even though that was not my motivation. Overall, I think … that philosophy for most things in our world should be … Why Not?  After qualifying in French Winfield Drivers School, I became a Test Pilot for the Renault Elf F3000 Team …  A true 200 mph life brutally stopped by a serious accident in the race at 20 years old … Passion, adventure, and travel were not dry … who has not dreamed of leaving the last of his dreams to ‘the poet with soles of wind …’ with oneself as the architect of his own destiny.

This took him to New York, leading into a career as an international fashion photographer for ELLE, MARIE CLAIRE , GLAMOUR, COSMOPOLITAN, German VOGUE, French VOGUE,  and HARPERS BAZAAR UK. Christophe was my original connection to Julie Anderson, Editor-In-Chief and co-founder of Feminine Collective MagazineChristophe met Julie the first time during a shoot for French Elle. I met Julie much later through Christophe.

Q:   Christophe—how about Julie?

A:  About Julie, beautiful Julie … I felt kind of in love the first minute we met! Then through the days working together and catching her breathing emotion, I was totally in Love.  Of course, they are all beautiful models, but it’s rare to fall in love. I was already with a wonderful girlfriend, and she probably was with someone too … so it was just a platonic sort of loving , those which never go wrong and still carry your spirit when you look back at the time, the pictures , and the mood you were in that day, the energy that person gave you … shared. But seduction is a beautiful sense of life!

Q:   She is remarkable—aesthetically and intellectually.  I’m curious, who was the biggest pain in the ass you had to deal with in fashion shoots?

A:  Biggest pain in the ass model … ask them who was the biggest pain in the ass photographer … the one who tells you that I was … she probably was the biggest pain in the ass. You need good connection between the model, creative director and photographer.  I must say, it happens sometimes, when the client has the last word and you are not connected with that beauty. I must have sent home a couple straight from the job. I think they were jealous of the other girls, it happens sometimes, when you have to shoot with 2 or 3 models on a same job. Hair pulling between girls, a stupid one is enough to kill good team work. Then you have to send her home, —change, especially when it is  on a few consecutive days job and a lot to shoot—impossible to deal with, personally, creatively and for the whole team to work. Everyone has to put his moody days out, his judgment too and be professional. Naomi Campbell has been known as a pain in the ass sometimes, never was with me. Late, yes she was. I would wait, and she had no dogs to paint in blue and neither had to drink a pack of beer before shooting! (more on that later). But you better be fast and let her go. Mike Tyson was her boyfriend at the time! I certainly did not want him to get upset seeing her coming back late from our job!  Just joking !  Iman, Cindy Crawford, Paulina Porizkova, Christy Turlington,  Julie Anderson, and Linda Evangelista were Finest 90’s I would say ! … So gorgeous, funny and professional, only great shots could come out. They just gave it to you but right, we are not into ‘name dropping interview’ piece !

Christophe is world-renowned for his portraiture.  He catches an almost spooky essence.  Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken,  Naomi Campbell, Shakira, Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Marcello Mastroianni, Nicholas Cage, Bruce Springsteen, Lauren Bacall—to name a few.

Q:  Your portraits are really amazing. Deep, simple and complex at the same time.  You are somehow able to catch that millisecond that makes the difference between good and killer.  I saw this first-hand in Costa Rica.  It was kind of fascinating to watch. You were seeing things intuitively.  It seemed like you and the camera were one.  How did you develop this talent?

A:  Mankind is hooked to his memory. It offers to him a thousand ways of personal and collective history. For the love of the written language in visual memory, I chose to use photography as a means of expression. I try to never deviate from elegance in my art and my vision of life, and clearly support proximity without violating the human being, but only to reveal his soul. When a disaster occurs, people often choose to take the family photo album, save it as one of your most valuable assets.

I never took a picture … It was always given to me.”

Q:  Who was the most challenging subject, and who was the coolest?

A:  Christopher Walken hates to have his picture taken. He is one of those who has to decide when … longest Chablis/Cabernet photo shoot ever! I had to spend 2 weeks on the film set of Homeboy (with Mickey Rourke, and music by Eric Clapton), living in a hotel room on the same floor, waiting for him to call me and give me the green light … The day his acting time on the film was over, 5 minutes before he had to leave his room and catch a plane, Bye-Bye everyone! … He called me.  I was in my room aware of the situation and kind of stressed! Still waiting… ’till the last minute … I ran to his suite and took that one portrait of him on a polaroid instant development film, using natural light from the window, controlling the feeling with shading using the curtain slightly closed, and positioned him. It took 3 minutes max … I showed him right away the result on Polapan film. Finally, after 2 weeks, a smile out as approval for the publication of that picture and said as he was leaving his room … ‘Your name is Christophe the Magician! … I guess !!!’ … I was 29. Besides being the special photographer of ‘Mister Walken,’ I had a great feeling running in me, the achievement … never give up!”

“A normal party-night out in Paris with your top model girlfriend might seem boring until 80’s sex symbol actor Mickey Rourke decides to come and sit next to her at the bar of famous club Les Bains Douche in Paris … Very correct man indeed, after presenting himself, start playing his 9 1/2 Weeks charm operator on her… and within a minute, pretending he has to go, very discreetly placing in her hand his phone number, invites her for brunch next day at the Raphael Hotel where he is living during his stay in the French capital… on publicity tour of Europe for Michael Cimino film The Year of the Dragon.  After a good laugh at the incredible scene Maria stops him, presenting me as her boyfriend and declines the invitation … which did not seem to stop Mickey  in his plan … suddenly all his attention went to me, inviting me to come with her. And seeing me surprised, he insisted on the fact I should come too. He was happy to meet us both!!! Ah! Ah!  Time is set for Sunday Brunch, Mickey and his shining look, get back to the center of his attention, Maria … when she burst out laughing! … looking at me and him, back to me, back to him … to finally declare she had to fly back to New York, to work the next Monday, where we lived at the time, so she wouldn’t be able to make it anyway!!! Which was true…  I looked at Mickey, we were all laughing to tears!… with my always good repartee, against the lucky charm he was definitely putting on her, I said to him that I had to finish an assignment in Paris the following week and was  staying longer in Paris, so sorry for You Mickey, but there will be just you and me at the Brunch !… Please to meet you Mister Rourke !… I did not guess your name at first … After all his show, impossible for him to set back on the invitation he threw! .. I finally went to have brunch with Mickey at the Raphael Hotel the next day, Maria flew early morning back to NYC. We definitely had a great laugh about that whole situation over a good Merlot…

Three weeks later, back in the states, he called at the house in New York asking me to be his personal photographer on the Allan Parker film Angel Heart with Lisa Bonet & Robert De Niro, starting in New Orleans.  I never had taken pictures with a movie star at the time. I was just starting in the fashion business, truly unknown on the scene… and as Richard Branson says

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, Say yes, and learn how to do it later”

I jumped in the plane—Hello New Orleans—my M6 Leica in my hand, a few rolls of Black & White film, and to make a long story short, I became Mickey Rourke’ s personal photographer during the following 7 years of his most famous infamous ride! … A book should come out some day, being on the road with Mister Rourke, from one set to the other for 7 years,  riding Harleys and burning out our nights in VIP rooms around the world.  Yes indeed, there are a few funny stories to share and amazing unpublished photographs taken through his movie star life, and his everyday life with his brother Joey. Mickey is one of the most charismatic actors I have ever met, a big-hearted person. Working with him revealed my photographic talent to the world of fame and opened the Hollywood doors for me. I started then to work with many actors– Christopher Walken, Robert de Niro, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Matt Dillon, Mastroiani, Sophia Loren ..; etc ..; but I already told you it was not a name-dropping interview Bert wanted!”

Our man, Christophe is a gifted music video director as well, shooting for SONY, EMI Records, Warner Brothers, Virgin Records, and Universal. Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, and numerous French artists…..Most recently,  Gerard Manset, It’s called Il Voyage en Solitaire Tout Autor de la Terre.  It has not been released yet but for a sneak peek.

Q:  Christophe—if you have those kind of names, it would be a shame not to drop them … What’s your most memorable video shoot?

A:  “Enrique Iglesias … arrived 5 hours late on the film set of the Music Video “Bailamos” (Europe version) that I was directing in Miami, with his white caniche (poodle) dog, without any excuses for being late except he played late on his nintendo box and had to have his rest (while a 20 people crew was waiting for him, on a consequently fucked up schedule!)… He asked the assistant of production to go and get a big pack of beers and blue color hair dye… drank the pack of beers, sharing with his caniche who ended up pissed as well and blue colored from head to toes by his sweet companion Enrique … Endless shooting! … Mister Dickrique Iglesias!”

At this point I choke and beer shoots out of my nose. Part of it is the French accent…Dickrique—Hah!

Q:  Christophe, I think we should do a Part II about the crazy friends in Costa Rica and about your times with the Amazonian and Boruca Tribes.  What do you think?

A:  Why Not?

The words of a great philosopher …

Later,   Bert








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Bert Woodson

Bert Woodson currently lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Cortez, with his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Colt, and Colt’s kitty Woof. (Yes, he named him.)

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