Fashion’s Naughtiest Photographer, Olivier Zahm
He is known for his edgy, often nude photos of girls out on the town and for documenting his late-night antics. In his new book, Olivier Zahm explores 10 years of his life and art.
For over two decades, Olivier Zahm has been the fashion world’s favorite “anti-fashion” guy—a superlative bestowed on him thanks to his underground publication, Purple, founded with Elein Fleiss in 1992. The magazine has since evolved into the high-brow, avant-garde tome, Purple Fashion, the kind of glossy that has a chic rawness that makes its readers every bit nostalgic for the pre-digital age.
That’s not to say Purple hasn’t kept with the times. Its online presence is just as substantial as the original print magazine, including real-time coverage of fashion, lifestyle, art, and cultural events. It also hosts one of Purple’s most ambitious (and controversial) components: Zahm’s Purple Diary, which started as a glimpse into the editor’s personal life and became an insider’s view into private events and late-night antics that often include fully nude women.
A similar aesthetic has been transferred to Zahm’s latest project, OZ Diary, a book that he described as “very emotional and very personal” during my visit to Purple’s Greenwich Village loft in New York City. The over-500-page tome feels every bit as raw (and explicit) as its digital counterpart, giving viewers a full frontal view of Zahm’s life over the past 10 years.
“I wanted to really be able to define what could be my own visual language,” Zahm tells The Daily Beast, “and this book means not only a lot to me as a personal memory but also a challenge at becoming an identified photographer.”
The mostly black-and-white moments from Zahm’s personal archive span the globe—New York, Paris, Tokyo, Cuba—and feature many of fashion’s favorite figures—Kate Moss, Charlotte Rampling, Carine Roitfeld, Scott Campbell, Olivier Theyskens—as well as a bevy of anonymous nude women and their perfectly groomed pubic hair (their location being the sole identification, per their request).
But, unlike fellow photographer Terry Richardson, whose sexually explicit photos have received harsh criticism (and been linked to multiple sexual assault allegations), Zahm has continued to work with very little disapproval. His distance from the models has allowed a feeling of playful voyeurism where Richardson’s inclusion of self becomes more overtly sexual. Plus, Zahm is very careful about who he shoots, choosing those he knows and trusts over fresh faced models.
“Terry and a lot of photographers—we started to shoot very spontaneously and very randomly in a period where, compared to today, sexuality was not a crime. It was a part of life,” Zahm says. “Today, there’s a sort of fear of sex [and nudity],” something Zahm definitely has no trepidation with—at least when it comes to women. The only nude man included in the book is himself.
He readily admits his embarrassment around nude men, which explains their absence from the publication. “It’s difficult to create this comfortable, natural feeling where a guy will give you access to his intimacy,” he says, speaking of the necessity of a mutual attraction to create a “playful and fun atmosphere.” As quickly as he admits this limitation, he swiftly accepts the challenge of conquering that fear, citing inspiring images of guys by Richardson, Jeremy Kost, and Ryan McGinley, who are all close friends.
“Look at Ryan McGinley’s pictures—and even [Terry’s] pictures. The girls and boys look so happy, so vibrant, so full of life when they accept to be shot naked,” he says. “I like to see and feel this freedom [in photographs]…People look at [nudity] like something transgressive or something risqué, but that’s totally a regression. We are not speaking about pornography; we are speaking about art and beautiful pictures.”
There’s no denying the beauty in the images. The subtly blurred subjects in black and white create a dreamy, uninhibited atmosphere: girls laying playfully exposed on beds in Paris, in claw-foot tubs at the Bowery Hotel, or crawling on furniture in Tokyo. They are balanced by dinners and select candid moments among friends and acquaintances—Chloë Sevigny, Cara Delevingne, and André Saraiva.
But Zahm’s life consists of more than just lavish parties and famous friends. Along with his 2-year-old son with longtime girlfriend, and frequent subject, Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Purple seems to be the air Zahm breathes.
“People don’t get him,” Caroline Gaimari, the magazine’s executive director, told The New York Times. “No one has written about how smart he is. I’m with him all the time. He’s at the office until four in the morning. There is no crazy orgy here; it’s him and the art team.”
He’s even beginning to shed his playboy persona, which is reflected in the more toned down photos on Purple Diary, and slowly pulling back his focus on fashion. “I am trying to go to less events and shows as possible,” he says of New York City Fashion Week, which was starting at the time of the interview. “I’m becoming really selective of the shows and events…I have to be really aware of what is interesting because…it’s too hectic these days.”
Right now, his next big task includes integrating ecological and environment issues as well as tech into the brand, opening up the art and fashion world to bigger questions. He also recently launched Purple Travel, which focuses on exploring the planet through travel experiences. After all, he seems to have experienced it all.
In producing OZ Diary, Zahm is doing more than documenting his life; he’s exposing a part of himself to the world as an artist rather than an editor. “It’s a mirror of myself—discovering my own style, my own subconscious, my own sexuality. It’s a personal investigation, and it’s the first time I’ve done this,” he says of working as an editor and art critic in the ’90s. “I was always working to promote or explain the work of other people. This is the first time I’m really naked in front of people, showing what I do myself.”
In seeing these photos, it’s apparent that Zahm has experienced the best nights (and days) we’ll never have. But as the artist is slowly leaving those experiences behind, OZ Diary allows us all a moment to pretend that we’ve lived them as well.