Jean-Marie Périer’s Sleepless Nights

Photographer, filmmaker, writer, friend to the stars, and eternal dandy, this baggage-free traveler in love with America has a talent for telling stories from behind the scenes – such as in Mes nuits blanches, his latest book. At the age of 84, he looks back over an intense, improvised life split between Paris and Los Angeles.
Jean-Marie Périer with Françoise Hardy, his one-time partner, 1960. © Giovanni Coruzzi/Bridgeman Images

“You’re going on tour with Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie for the paper.” Jean-Marie Périer couldn’t believe it. He was 17 and his boss had just given him a Leica and instructions to pick up the American artists at the airport in Nice. “I can tell you, with my baby face, I stood out like a sore thumb,” he says. Regardless, he took the musician to the sea and photographed him in his swimming trunks on the beach at Juan-les-Pins, blowing bubbles with his trumpet in the blue Mediterranean water. “That’s how I made the cover of Jazz Magazine for the first time!”

In 1956, the young Fred Astaire fan who became a photographer “by chance and luck” was on the cusp of a career that would take him from the palace hotels of Paris to the dusty roads of the American West. These adventures revealed his sensitive creative style, as well as an astonishing ability to tell the story of the world, its cultures, and its leading figures – without ever envying them, as he is quick to point out. “Backstage at Rolling Stones concerts, journalists, photographers, and fans all had long hair and dressed like Mick [ Jagger], Keith [Richards], or Brian [ Jones]. I wore a tie. I was trying to play it more like Cecil Beaton, the Queen of England’s incredible photographer.”

Dizzy Gillespie in Juan-les-Pins, 1956. © Jean-Marie Périer

Three father figures are partly why this astonishing journey first began. The photographer’s biological father is none other than jazz star and beloved French crooner Henri Salvador. Jean-Marie Périer only learned who he was in his teenage years. Meanwhile, his stepfather, François Périer, was a theater and film legend. He provided the young man with affection and culture, before a third “father,” Daniel Filipacchi, an eccentric press magnate with a passion for jazz, magazines, and America, took him under his wing. When Jean-Marie Périer was 16, Filipacchi made him his assistant and then the top photographer for his best-selling publications, Jazz Magazine, Paris Match, Salut les copains, Mademoiselle Age tendre, and Lui, the French version of Playboy.

Photographer to the Stars

A journalist at The Wall Street Journal had written a mocking piece on Johnny Hallyday, describing the French singer as a pale imitation of Elvis Presley who “couldn’t fill a phone booth in Pacific Palisades,” a chic neighborhood in Los Angeles. In France, however, this was a time of radical change, accelerated social transformation, and scandal. The country was entering the modern era and, in their own way, French teenagers – nicknamed yéyés – were part of the avant-garde, using electric guitar chords to expand and deconstruct representations of the old world.

The French rock star exemplified this perfectly. Jean-Marie Périer had a unique knack for winning the trust of this “youth idol” and his acolytes – France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Jacques Dutronc, and Françoise Hardy, his one-time partner – by making them look their best. “I was the same age as them, and they knew I had good intentions,” says the photographer. Johnny Hallyday has a special place in this pantheon. In 1966, in the style of Rebel Without a Cause, Jean-Marie Périer photographed him at the wheel of a Ferrari California, which the star crashed just a few hours after buying. “He went straight ahead, and that was that. We both believed that the only unreasonable thing in life was being reasonable.”

The Rolling Stones in their private Boeing, 1972. © Jean-Marie Périer
Johnny Hallyday at the wheel of his Ferrari California, 1966. © Jean-Marie Périer

His images tell the story of a France unchained, emerging from the dark ages of the post-war period to jump feet-first into the Swinging Sixties. They also depict English and American bands bursting onto the French scene. At the George V, Jean- Marie Périer invited Brigitte Bardot to join the Beatles in their hotel suite, leaving them speechless in front of “the sexiest woman in the world.” This was when he took one of his most famous shots: the “Fab Four,” lighting their cigarettes together in the dark. The French photographer had earned his pass into the exclusive counterculture club. He was soon rubbing shoulders with the hottest bands of the moment, visiting packed stadiums, photographing frenzied groupies, and attending wild parties.

A Dream of America

From an early age, Jean-Marie Périer also photographed the American jazz stars performing at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Antibes Jazz Festival, including Miles Davis, “the greatest,” Count Basie, “the jazz band godfather,” Duke Ellington seated at his piano, and Ella Fitzgerald, whose flirting petrified him. He then developed a passion for rock icons, whom he discovered after returning from military service in Algeria. He snapped Gene Vincent, Bob Dylan, David Crosby, James Brown, Nico, and Chuck Berry, “the father of rock ‘n’ roll,” with whom he traveled across the American South in a Ford Thunderbird in 1965.

Chuck Berry at the wheel of his Ford Thunderbird in Mississippi, 1965. © Jean-Marie Périer
Sylvie Vartan in New York City, 1962. © Jean-Marie Périer

Just like his boss and mentor, Daniel Filipacchi, Jean-Marie Périer worshiped the mythical America he first discovered in movies filmed in CinemaScope, a land of wide-open spaces, roads stretching to the horizon, and the triumphant youth embodied by the trio James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley. In 1980, preferring the real thing over the French imitation, the photographer flew to Los Angeles, where his producer introduced him to Hollywood. He ended up staying there for ten years. First based at Château Marmont, then in a large house with a swimming pool on Mulholland Drive, “a stone’s throw from Jack Nicholson and Charlton Heston,” he shot nearly 600 commercials for Coca-Cola, Camel, and Ford. He even directed a young Benicio del Toro in a spot for a Swedish jeans brand!

The French photographer went from strength to strength. He began driving a Cadillac, was granted a green card, and earned heaps of money, but still had no major films to his name. What’s more, he was filled with a deep sense of loneliness. “I’d been tricked by movies, the American dream, and my job,” he says. “After finishing a shoot, life is very different. You’re on your own.” Separated from his loved ones by the nine-hour time difference, and fed up with “the obsession with success at any cost,” he left the United States and returned to his first profession. “I’m really glad I decided to live the rest of my life in France. As Patrick Modiano wrote: ‘There comes a time when your heart’s no longer in it!’”

Back to Paris, Reunited with Photography

His sister, Anne-Marie, was head of Elle magazine, the flagship publication by the Hachette Filipacchi group. The assignment had changed; rock gods were out, fashion icons were in. Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel, Azzedine Alaïa, Thierry Mugler, and Jean Paul Gaultier were now the stars of the day. Funnily enough, they had all met him 20 years earlier, and were part of his circle of friends. He photographed their creations and models, as well as the “next generation of actresses,” such as Laetitia Casta, Isabelle Carré, Sandrine Kiberlain, and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. This latter celebrity and future director walked into his studio “wrapped in a dress the editors had picked for her. She hated the look; it didn’t suit her at all. She was like a deer frozen in front of a hunter!”

Thierry Mugler and Jerry Hall in New York City, 2008. © Jean-Marie Périer

Once again, Jean-Marie Périer grew tired of the glitz, glamour, and sleepless nights, and longed for something different, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. In the late 1990s, older and wiser, he retired to a small town in the Aveyron département, where he opened a photo gallery, exhibited his collection of old cameras, and took up writing. In books and on Instagram, he has shared stories of the 1960s, his memories, and his life behind the scenes. He also collected testimonies from teenagers kicked out of their homes after coming out to their parents, which were published in his 2010 book Casse-toi, and directed a public health campaign for which he invented the slogan: La drogue, c’est de la merde! (“Drugs are shit!”)

Far from the showbiz cliques, Jean-Marie Périer is now working on his “definitive” book. This time it will be a novel, instead of another photo book. “I’m probably the best-known photographer in France, but this fame annoys me,” he says, having previously been convinced that he would die before the age of 30. “People only know me through one period of my life, when I shot the French pop and rock idols of the 1960s-1970s. But I’ve had four or five other lives and have long since given up photography!”

Mes nuits blanches
by Jean-Marie Périer, Calmann-Lévy, 2023.

Article published in the March 2024 of France-Amérique.