It was a particularly hot summer day in the South of France. My assistant replenished the glass of rosé, its colour having already darkened to an unacceptable orange after a couple of minutes in the sun. I was at Château Camparnaud, in the heart of Provence, doing an advertising shoot for a new brand of wine. One of the models, used to taking photographers’ directions, lifted her glass lightly and smiled, despite the uncomfortable heat. The other just gave me a moody, sidelong glance and refused to move. I was at a loss as to what to do or say. I don’t speak the language of llama.
Some years ago, a llama did seem to believe that I spoke its language. As portrait photographer, I’d been making pictures of an eccentric, ageing, Finnish billionaire with one of her many exotic pets – a cherished male llama. This llama had decided, during the portrait, that I had a certain woolly appeal, and my attempts to attract its gaze toward the lens had apparently been interpreted as come-hither signals. Our walk back from the barn across an enormous field left a memory I won’t easily erase. The giant, amorous llama circled and lunged at me every ten paces, foaming with aggressive excitement. His dotty mistress was both too weak to effectively hold his leash and too entranced by what was occurring to be an effective shield, exclaiming: “What perfume do you wear? I have never seen my darling boy react to a woman in this way before. How wonderful!!”
Luxury loafers and extravagant pets
Today, I tried to put this memory to the back of my mind and focus on the reason we were here: to sell wine. In a departure from time-honoured tradition, where a wine’s reputation is built over generations and is inseparable from its region, grape and domaine, Palais Constance is an entirely new brand, whose name is a palace that doesn’t even exist. Its owner is an affluent young influencer: the Gstaad Guy. His Instagram channel consists of selfie video clips where, in character as his two alter egos (overprivileged cousins Constance and Colton), he mocks the lives of the uber-rich. His humorous commentary, as he struts and cigar-smokes his way around Monaco, St Tropez and Belgravia -unashamedly drawing focus to products like the suede, Loro Piana loafers that he dons for his luxury brand partners- amuses his 280,000 followers, over 100 of whom are on the Forbes billionaire list themselves. The ridiculous, extravagant concept of keeping a llama as a pet, as well as the value of its wool for luxury clothing (or is that alpacas?), was behind the Gstaad Guy’s choice of animal to be associated with the branding of his own, launch product.
Influencers move in on the wine trade
Across the industry, a new generation is creating new wine brands by piggy-backing on existing ones. The château‘s owner explained to me (over a fine cuvé the night before) that his own rosé already sells under 4 different names (Palais Constance is one of them). Young influencers, with established markets of faithful followers, are breathing new life into his business. The wine may be French, but is generally sold outside France (I doubt the French will ignore centuries of tradition and knowledge to buy a new wine based on a photo in a millennial’s social feed any time soon). Once the very international Gstaad Guy starts slipping Palais Constance into his Instagram videos, then even if only 2% of his fans buy one bottle a year, that would still be the basis for a solid business. One can’t buy it just anywhere of course – partner bars and restaurants, from Monte Carlo to Milan, are chosen carefully to fit his exclusive brand. Yet in London, one can have a bottle delivered to the door, via home delivery app, Zapp – who hired me as photographer for this shoot.
Content creation fest
Apart from me, my assistant and Zapp’s marketing and art directors (who had flown down to Provence from London), the full team also included a video crew, models, a stylist, his assistant and the château‘s communciations boss – and we had a lot to shoot before the llamas arrived. In a never-ending spiral of content creation, video footage was taken of the photographer shooting the models, photos were taken of the videographer shooting the photographer, and the Gstaad guy alternated modelling and being in character as his alter egos to make selfie footage for social media. The bewildered owners of the château took pictures from their phones of us all as we worked, in the vineyards, by the pool, in the pool…
Trademark downturned mouth
Palais Constance’s lifestyle and product photography was to ooze an indulgent, outdoor, summer vibe. Yet the weather forecast had predicted a rainstorm that afternoon, which would stop all photography. My wish to begin shooting early, in the cool and soft light of the morning (to partly compensate for the desired sunset pictures which wouldn’t happen), had been thwarted by the 2-hour-late arrival from Marseille of both stylist and female model (my patience, when the latter complained about heat and harsh sun later, was limited). I wasn’t informed until after lunch, either, that Zapp couldn’t use any pictures in which the Gstaad guy, in character as Constance, pulled his trademark down-turned mouth face – which he’d been doing all morning, whenever a camera was pointed in his direction. My responses to the château owner then drawing me aside mid-shoot to ask for “a family portrait of me and my son, while you’re here“, and the Gstaad guy directing me to photograph his Lora Piana shoes (nothing to do with my commission), were somewhat clipped.
The silent art of photographing a llama
The llamas’ arrival, eagerly anticipated by the team, brought some peace to the proceedings. Their handlers made it clear that while the two animals had movie and modelling experience, any noise or sudden movements could frighten them and ruin any hopes of co-operation. The agreeable result was that everyone started talking in near-whispers. We hadn’t known beforehand quite what the llamas would be capable of (would they be able to climb the steps to reach the pool area? would they tolerate the use of a flash?), so I didn’t know exactly how I could photograph them until we began. What I did know was that I wasn’t going to hazard a smile at either of them.
The llamas were hard to move into place, and staying in one position or looking in a suggested direction, was not something they were prepared to do, despite the handlers’ encouragement. This made my photography tricky – especially meeting the requirement that a bottle of rosé wine had to be visible in every shot. I can confirm that a wine bottle looks proportionally very weird in front of, or next to, a llama, and a tight product shot of both would require very careful placement.
However, one of the llamas appeared to warm to the female model (in the regular, innocent manner that one might expect of a pet-human friendship, I was relieved to see). With a little coaxing, it walked quietly behind her by the pool for one set-up, and in between a row of vines for another, for our series of rather incongruous llama-and-rosé lifestyle photographs.
Perhaps these llamas were female, perhaps they’d been castrated – or maybe the llama of my previous experience had simply been exceptionally disturbed. In any case, these two remained docile and the day went a little way towards healing my mental llama scar. By the time the first drops of rain started falling, the animals were safely back in their stables and I had made several more photographs for the campaign. As we all rushed back to the château for cover, carrying all the kit and props, one thing was certain – we would have a good glass of rosé to end the day with.