Fluidity, Beauty, Passion and the Notes in Between
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Mathieu Bitton – Artist | Photographer | Filmmaker
I first met Mathieu Bitton at the screening of his new Documentary, “Looking Back on Love”. The film stirred so much within me. As a fan of Lenny Kravitz’s music, the film was told in a way that allowed for a narrative prose inviting us into a world raw and unpolished and it was extraordinarily impacting. As the lights lifted from the hazy dim, I readjusted in the wooden chair padded with story and ageless interpretation, and moments later, he appeared on stage. Having been unfamiliar with his work up until then (yes, I must have been living under a rock, I agree), I was intrigued by his witty reproach to the moderator who had interviewed him. Having steadied my feet that longed to dance, I walked out to the corridor once the interview ended and the lights went on. Dressed in a black leather jacket, white shirt, black scarf nestled carelessly across his neck, jeans – and my kryptonite – a newsie cap, he was standing at the theatre doors speaking to fans and press. Now an appreciator of the world he dared to share, I walk up to Mathieu, gave him my card and told him I would love to interview him. He agrees to the interview and so, over the course of several conversations spanning a week, I had the pleasure of getting a glimpse into the world and man that is Mathieu Bitton. As we spoke over the next several days, I learned more and more about his passions, inspiration, talent, and above all the soul that just spills out of him. He has been connected in some way to every one of my favorite musicians over the course of a lifetime; the ones that have influenced me as a writer: From Buddy Guy and Lenny Kravitz to Jane’s Addiction and Jimmy Cliff (and just about everyone in between). Mathieu is a storyteller. Whether through the lens of his camera, the designs of a CD Cover, the in-depth study of Blaxploitation, acting as art director inciting life back into a brand, or simply through the way he speaks and lives. Born in France, transplanted to the US as a teen, embracing a rather wonderful way of questioning nearly anything, he has a degree in Journalism from NYU, has traveled the world, exposes his truth through the lens of his camera – it’s no wonder I find his approach to everything he creates so undeniably alive.
A proclaimed musicologist, it’s transparent that from a young boy, his world was formed by the influence of that cadence looming inside of him by way of the notes carried to him through an album or a track or simply someone he saw perform. When he talks about music it’s like watching silk be carefully spun so delicately and profound, his words seem to dance around in unison with the beat exploding through his gestures. Music is his passion. Photography, a glimpse into his soul. Design, a careful dance of beauty. Film, a wakened breath now feeding on the possibility of time. While only now learning of the vivid creativity that bellows within him, I found a very unique tone in his voice that spoke eloquently through his newly (and very first) Photography Exhibition, “Travelogue”. There is a striking honesty that moves through every image and it’s apparent fearlessness really does incite a rather beautiful curiosity. With images of iconic entertainers like Bono, Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def, Sean Lennon, and Quincy Jones blended with nudes that show you the vulnerability, strangeness, fear, sensual prowess, and uncertainty in each of his subjects allow for a familiar raw and primal undertone. Also exhibited are these beautiful and simple moments in nature where the silence takes hold of you and all you can do is breathe it in. “Travelogue” is only a glimpse at the exquisite work Mathieu has created. There is one image in particular that spoke to me most. An image that wasn’t part of the exhibition but one that glanced into my soul, beckoned every wonderful inquiry laying dormant within; a photograph that tells the remarkable simplicity of an artist’s mind both peaceful and wildly free. That image is this:
“As the artist’s mind just fills itself with dark and light; Somehow the tangled branches, the darkened roots nestle effortlessly in the shadows, in the vacant space of the lush wall of green feeding the soul – it feeds until – the bird representative of the artist’s mind – calmly sits and observes, taking in the darkness, the shadows, the nurturing, the sweetness, the longing to just open it’s wings and feel the flutter of every stroke of every branch pushing it through the unrelenting swell of flight. It absorbs. It waits. It patiently thrives before it has to escape and find it’s voice again.” – DG
We all have moments where life pauses and allows us a small look into another part of life, a deeper purpose. It usually happens in the subtle moments that might go overlooked but if we’re lucky, our eyes steer us in the direction of recognizing someone or something that will have an effect on us creatively, soulfully, or just simply. My interview with Mathieu was certainly insightful and inspiring. He is a man that has multiple layers and like many artists, he has stories and pain, loss, and triumphs that allow him to see the world in a very quiet way in spite of the loudness to everything he creates. There is a beautiful prose to his creations. Having had deep conversations with him over the course of doing this interview and the review of his film “Looking Back on Love”; having seen his exhibition and having access to some of the photographs that he has done over his career, observing his fluidity and passion as he talks about music is one element to who he is. In addition to being an Artist, Photographer, Producer, Filmmaker, and lover of life, he has one side to him that doesn’t always get the spotlight – Mathieu is also a father to two sons. His love for his kids only accelerates the passion he has for everything he does – creatively, personally, and honestly. Sometimes amidst the rise and colorful bandwidth of success, it’s the basics that allow anyone who creates (especially in this industry) to find some solace and drive beyond the stardom. After getting to know Mathieu a bit, it’s clear that at the core of all he does is the love he has for his kids. It’s a unique side to him. Knowing what he has accomplished in his life, his artistic journey – it’s truly motivating and so worth sharing. Born to parents that are fashion designers, his life was colorful from the get-go. With a background of being born in France and spending his teenage years in California, his story began with mass influence of art and music and has only continued to evolve from there. While I asked quite a lot of questions, it’s the last one that tells the most about Mathieu. I want to thank him for the time he gave to me both as a writer and editor but moreso as someone who finds joy in being around others who see the pulse in everything around us. You will become a fan of his work, his art, and his ability to find the simple soul of everyone he works with. His passions are no doubt contagious. Enjoy the interview below.
ATOD – Dawn Garcia (DG): Steadying a camera in ones hand is really a very honest dance. When was the first time you picked up a camera and felt that rush?
Mathieu Bitton (MB): When I was in college once I went to do a photo reportage for journalism class. I was young and stupid and decided to shoot homeless guys and gangsters in Venice Beach. I guess when a bandanna-veiled L.A. Crip pointed a gun at me to get “the shot” I definitely felt my first rush. Sadly my professor never returned the photos and negatives. I got an A+.
DG: Do you remember the very first song you heard that transformed the way you viewed the world?[/question]
MB: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You” shocked and awed me. I realized madness could equal greatness. And that very often, the craziest artists were the best ones.
DG: There is so much passion and beauty in the way you photograph and I believe inspiration comes from a plethora of places. Music seems to have played a crucial role in the process – what song always stirs your soul and gets the inspiration floodgates to open?
MB: Jimmy Scott’s “Day By Day” blows my mind and changes my mood every time. For me, it’s the single greatest vocal performance of all time. I’ve played that for everyone I’m close to at crucial times in our lives. The sadness in his voice could not be faked.
DG: There is one image of a tree in your portfolio. It has tones of greens and browns but there is something wonderfully haunting about the image and the one bird perched so gracefully in the center of it. It is, to me, as if two worlds collided. Where were you when you took that image and when you look at it now, what stirs inside?
MB: I was in a farm in the Bahamas. I’m obsessed with nature and birds especially. When I look at it I can almost feel the moment all over again. Utter peace.
DG: With a career that has stemmed from the depths of curiosity, do you remember the 1st call you got to do a big job – and were you scared at all?
MB: Well the first big job to me was designing the “What It is…What It Was!” Book for Quentin Tarantino and Rolling Thunder Books/Miramax. I was already at a big job on fashion but that was never my passion. I was scared when I met Quentin because he was another mad man I was such a fan of. But it turned out great.
DG: What is your greatest fear?
MB: Failing at capturing the essence of an artist on a project. That would equal embarrassment.
DG: If you closed your eyed and imagined the perfect meal – the kind to sooth the soul – what would it be?
MB: Chirashi (sashimi on a seaweed sprinkled rice bowl) in Tokyo.
DG: If you could master playing any instrument, what would it be?
DG: I know you have a secret arsenal of more films to come. Do you think you will delve more into film and less into art direction?
MB: I think I will also art direct my films – even if I give someone else the credit.
DG: You shared with me a list you made years ago of goals you wanted to accomplish. Astounded you had completed so many of them, do you think it’s time to make a new list?
MB: I have made one with a close friend last year. Then sealed it up and stapled it shut. Next level stuff.
DG: We joked about my fascination with uni. I know you have traveled to Japan and like me, have been spoiled by really incredible sushi. What was your greatest sushi experience?
MB: Last year in Tokyo at a little place in shinjuku. You could never find this place unless you had my old friend Tetsuro taking you there.
DG: If you could go back in time to work with any artist in time, who would it be and why?
MB: Serge Gainsbourg. I met him when I was 11 but I would give anything to go back and photograph him and design an album cover. He’s the greatest ever for me. He did it all. He was THE man.
DG: You recently celebrated your first photography exhibition, “Travelogue”. How did the concept arise?
MB: I’ve been approached by various galleries over the past few years to do some shows but never felt ready. When I ran into this Gallery Owner at Art Basel last year she insisted I let her do a pop up show of my work. Obviously all these photos have been shot over the last few years of traveling so it seemed appropriate to call it a Travelogue.
DG: Speaking of your photography, you have a truly insatiable collection of nudes. Each image tells a story. What is the craziest thing you’ve done for a shoot in order to have your vision materialized?
MB: For sure the “Gonz Liberation” shot in my show shot in the middle of the night in Paris last year with legendary skater Mark Gonzales jumping over my friend Alexandra-who I insisted take off her clothes for the shot-in total darkness. It was the hardest shot ever to get in focus and his landing was quite tough.
DG: You mentioned to me that your dream is to go to Africa. To Kenya and possibly the Congo. What would be your ideal trip?
MB: I think it will happen by happenstance and therefore I don’t really have an ideal trip. Because life changes daily. I just don’t look that far ahead. I’ve shot in North Africa but would love to go to West and South Africa.
DG: If I handed you a plane ticket – and said, “You have one hour to pack to photograph 3 people in one location of your choosing”. Who would it be and where?
MB: Jack White, Nelson Mandela and Joni Mitchell in Tel Aviv.
DG: Favorite quote.
MB: “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
DG: Working with so many incredibly talented artists, musicians, photographers, and designers, what has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?
MB: Never compromise. Never miss a deadline. Always try harder than the previous time. And never doubt your artistic worth.
DG: If your life was painted in black and white with only one accent color, what color would you be?
DG: As a father of two boys, what is the one thing you hope most to pass on to them?
DG: “Round Midnight” or “Ships on the Ocean“?
MB: Round About Midnight (the whole album).
DG: Your favorite smell?
MB: The scent of a woman in love.
DG: A moment where you look back now and smile from your soul?
MB: The first time I shook Prince‘s hand.
DG: Being born in Paris, do you remember the first piece of European literature you read that opened your eyes to really experiencing something profound?
MB: “Les Fleurs Du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire. Discovered the pain one could feel from love.
DG: Realistically, I could ask another 50 question, but I’m going to end it with this: Imagine sitting on the sand. The water from the salty ocean brushing up against your feet, the waves penetrating the body of water before you. What do you see? Feel? Hope?
MB: I see a distant deserted ship. I feel hope. I hope to feel something incredibly real again.
DG: If you could have a soundtrack for your life in 12 songs, what would they be?
MB: April in Paris – Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald
My Aim is True – Elvis Costello
Falling in Love Again – Marvin Gaye
ALL of the images below are available for PURCHASE. Contact Mathieu at www.MathieuBitton.com
French-born Grammy Award nominated artist Mathieu Bitton, CEO/Art Director of Candy Tangerine, has designed over 650 CDs and is a world-renowned collector and authority on Black films. Recent projects include the Transformers franchise and Terminator Salvation soundtracks, many film posters, including Kevin MacDonald’s “Marley,” Jane’s Addcition’s “A Cabinet Of Curiosities” and Miles Davis “Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” boxed sets, and a new Lenny Kravitz CD. Clients have included Sting, Prince, Raphael Saadiq, Smokey Robinson, WAR, Stevie Wonder, Quentin Tarantino, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Jackson 5, Jakob Dylan, Augustana, Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte, Iggy Pop, Buddy Guy, Run-DMC, Barry White, and Dolly Parton. Bitton is the 2012 recipient of one of France’s highest honors, Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres (Knight of the order of arts & letters). His first feature documentary film “Looking Back On Love” about Lenny Kravitz will be released in 2013. He is working on a book of his photographs.
You can also read the Interview I did with Mathieu for his Film, “Looking Back on LOVE”