Senior figures from all over the world have business reasons (and perhaps pleasure too) to visit the French Riviera, in particular Monaco and festivals in Cannes. One of the interesting aspects about being an editorial photographer in the South of France is meeting some of the noteworthy characters that pop in and out. A few weeks ago, I was asked to take a portrait of a businessman in a hotel room. But not just any businessman, and not just any hotel.
a mysterious rendez-vous
The phone rang when I was in the middle of moving house. “Are you in the South of France today?” I put down the box of books I was manouevering into the van. “I know it is rather last minute. We don’t have a photographer’s authorisation to shoot yet and I can’t give you any contact details for the subject, but we’re thrilled to learn that he has just agreed to sit for a portrait for us. Can you be at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco at 7 pm tonight?”
The lack of authorisation didn’t concern me too much – I figured if anyone could get clearance to shoot in Monaco at the last minute, Forbes Magazine stood a running chance (see my post about photographer permits in Monaco). But the arrangement seemed mysterious (“he doesn’t want anyone to reach him or his PA“), and I knew the photographer’s brief, requiring a setting for the portrait in tune with the ‘tough-times-today’ editorial tone, would present a challenge in ‘l’Hotel de Paris, where plush wood-panelling, glittering chandeliers and Louis XIV style is omnipresent.
I left my boxes in others’ capable hands and my assistant Kira and I headed to Monaco. We set up the lighting to lend a slightly moody edge to the room and bring out the heaviness of the old wood-panelling, rather than paying it homage. 7 pm came and went, and we sat down to wait. Senior figures rarely arrive for photoshoots on time, but I was anxious this time, given the tenuous arrangements and lack of contact numbers for my subject or his ‘people’.
I needn’t have worried. Some time the right side of 8 pm, I heard the door open softly behind me, felt a change in the air and I knew that Jim Clifton had arrived. Chairman and CEO of Gallup (the U.S.’s leading opinion poll brand), Jim is a heavyweight. As he slipped quietly into the room, there were no PR agents, security guards or assistants in tow. Jim clearly didn’t need the kind of entourage that often creates the noticeable presence of a prominent figure. This man, rumoured to play golf with ex-presidents and be worth 3-figure millions, oozes gravitas all by himself.
I had been promised that Mr Clifton “photographs well“. With his opulent yet discreet dark suit, an instinctive sense of where the light was and his profound composure, I wasn’t disappointed.
Jim wasn’t a man of smalltalk though, as Kira discovered when she breezily asked him what brought him on holiday in the South of France. His unyielding reply of “I never go on holiday”, and his later comment “I don’t wear casual clothes. They don’t suit me” showed his scant regard for the concept of a work-life balance. However, these statements seemed reasonable and perfectly healthy coming from this ultra-smart, powerful mover in the upper echelons of American business and political circles.
I was impressed to notice too that the Gallup king really does pay attention to public opinion…or at least mine, as I complained under my breath about the tasteless carpet. He seemed only half joking when he replied “You don’t like the carpets? I can have a word with my friend about changing them“. Apparently, there are few limits to this gentleman’s influence.
The shoot was quickly over, after just a few frames, and Jim floated out of the room as quietly as he had entered. As we headed back towards Nice, I caught Kira looking kind of dreamily back towards Monaco in the rearview mirror . “I think that’s what you call a silver fox” she mused…