‘Readers loved the ads as much as the editorial’

Back in the 1970s, Nicole Wisniak bankrolled her magazine Egoïste with pages of native advertising avant l’heure – advertorials taken to the level of art.

By Thomas Lenthal

Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine

Back in the 1970s, Nicole Wisniak bankrolled her magazine Egoïste with pages of native advertising avant l’heure – advertorials taken to the level of art.

Hiding in plain sight in each issue of Nicole Wisniak’s Egoïste magazine, in among the striking black-and-white imagery on its large unbound pages, is an innovation that is even more modern today than it was 40 years ago. When Wisniak was thinking of ways to finance her magazine, she decided that, rather than filling it with fashion and luxury brands’ latest advertising campaigns, she would instead create the advertising for them, using photographers she chose to shoot ‘advertising’ imagery that would appear only in the magazine. It was native advertising avant l’heure, advertorials taken to the level of art. Her idea of specially produced, single-use advertising proved attractive to both brands and photographers. Houses like Hermès, Chanel and Cartier signed up for ‘campaigns’ shot by photographers including Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Paolo Roversi, who could bring their visions to advertising freed of its usual commercial strictures. For System, Wisniak selected some of her favourite advertorial images from down the years, and sat down to discuss the birth of Egoïste, panther and camel wrangling, and trying to persuade Mick Jagger to leave the house.

I’d like to start off by talking about the world of Parisian advertising and press at the time you launched the magazine, in 1977.

Nicole Wisniak: At the time, I really didn’t think about it in these terms. I had no idea what the context was like and, to be honest, I didn’t really care. I had no business plan, of course, and no professional ambitions of any kind. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it: to launch a magazine almost by myself, one that only comes out when it’s ready, with barely more than 8,000 francs in my account – anyone would have discouraged me. But I am quite bold and unrealistic, so I just went for it without studying the market. I had just finished working on the Picasso inheritance and was looking for the opportunity to express my photographic and literary tastes. I had no idea what type of space I was going to occupy in the French media world.

So you didn’t say, ‘I think the French press is mediocre and I want to do something better’?

I was not that arrogant, and I certainly never thought that everything else was rubbish! I learned my job from my readers. The first issues of Egoïste were almost unreadable, but I nonetheless thought that there was a space for me to do something better.

You could have just felt as if nothing was really to your taste and so you wanted to make the magazine that you’d want to read.

No, never! I was interested in everything back then. Well, almost everything. I loved Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin’s pictures, which were featured in Francine Crescent’s Vogue at the time. I would have never considered doing something that would compete with them. I arrived in this media landscape with great humility; I had no conscious wish to revolutionize things. But I maybe had a certain individuality and freshness, thanks to my character, that pushed me to do it and talk about
the things that interested me.

You weren’t inspired by anything or anyone in particular at the time? You started off completely innocently?

Yes, I started with a blind confidence. Helmut Newton used to call me the ‘Tycoon’, which was probably ironic. I printed 4,000 copies of the first issue and 3,000 came back. I stored them in my parents’ basement and my mother paid the printer.

You mentioned working on the Picasso inheritance?

Yes, I had studied history and was in the team put together by Maurice Rheims. I organized more than 12,000 of Picasso’s drawings. Maurice had to appraise the whole collection and I was in charge of the early drawings, from when Picasso was 14-15, up to about 1932-33. So I held in my hands his studies for Les demoiselles d’Avignon. We organized them by periods, so Maurice could price them. We had to make sure they’d all been photographed by looking for each one in the Zervos [catalogue]. I stayed
there almost three years, and the most interesting thing I did was page layouts with some of Picasso’s drawings.

‘I printed 4,000 copies of the first issue and 3,000 came back. I stored them in my parents’ basement and my mother paid the printer.’

Nicole Wisniak
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine

And so one day you woke up and thought, ‘I’m going to publish a magazine’?

I had always loved photography and literature and I’ve always gotten on well with artists. I think it is because my brother is a musician. Every great relationship I’ve had with artists came from my deep admiration of my brother when I was little. I was 10 and he was 13 and he composed music by banging on glass bottles filled with water. He was so great. All my life, the relationship I’ve had with artists has just been a way to relive what I had with my brother. I was also very keen on offering the people I most admired a space where they could be totally free to express themselves. Because I believe that the greatest things always come from pleasure. And I knew that if I were able to combine my obsessions with theirs, we would make something different. I wanted to give them the space to showcase the images they couldn’t show in more traditional, commercial magazines. With Egoïste,
they had total freedom. I felt a bit like a free zone, because when Helmut couldn’t publish something in Vogue, he’d come and do it with me. He enjoyed showing Vogue what great things he could have done for them if they hadn’t restrained him. Whatever photographs couldn’t appear in more official publications ended up in Egoïste. We had a low circulation and no commercial constraints whatsoever. Egoïste’s identity was born of that freedom. I just wanted the artists I worked with to be happy, you know. Not to mention that I wasn’t paying them much. Later on, I married Philippe Grumbach, and he would always say, ‘If you do a magazine with a page for stamp collectors, a page for apple-pie lovers and a page for people interested in politics, then in the end none of the stamp lovers, the cake lovers or the voters will read your magazine’. Doing something that resembles you gives you a real chance to reach out to more people. But I wasn’t even aware of that back then. Today, I would never have the nerve I had then. For example, one day, I just called up Helmut Newton, whom I didn’t know, to ask him to shoot a picture for me. I had met his wife at the hairdresser’s and got his number.

So you made the magazine you would have liked to read.

Yes, in a way. But there were others.

Just like Spielberg when he claimed that he was making the movies he’d like to see. Not that there weren’t any good movies at the time. There were actually lots of great movies back then.

When I look at the first issues of Egoïste, I don’t think they’re that great. It’s only with the third or fourth issue that it started to look like something. The texts in the first two were insipid.

Did you know the people at Condé Nast?

Not personally. Helmut Newton’s wife told him that she had met this nice woman at the hairdresser’s who dreamed of working with him. And so I called up Newton and said I had an opportunity to photograph Mick Jagger. He said, ‘How much do you pay?’ I said, ‘800 francs’, and he replied: ‘OK then, it’s more than Condé Nast, so I’ll do it. Bring him over to my studio on this date.’ And, naive as I was, I never even thought of confirming the meeting with Jagger, so I showed up at his door on the given day and nobody answered, of course. I must have called him about 30 times from the phone box down the road, but he wouldn’t pick up. I was in tears when on the 35th call, he finally picked up and said, ‘You’re nuts, we never confirmed that meeting’. I begged him to come down because it was my first ever chance to work with Helmut Newton and if he didn’t come, I’d be in disgrace for life. So Jagger, who at the time was with the tall Texan model Jerry Hall, came along and Helmut photographed him. Newton then got me to pick the two pictures I wanted to use, asked me if I wanted to work with his wife, and then went on to sell all the other pictures to Paris Match. But it was
already so completely extraordinary for me to publish pictures by Helmut Newton that I didn’t care. Egoïste was unknown back them, so getting two photos by Helmut Newton was great.

That was in 1977?

Yes, the second issue. Those first few issues didn’t sell well at all because they were terribly placed in the newsstands, under the sellers’ feet. It only started to sell by issue four because we hired people to go out and sell it. Issue four sold out because they did such a good job at Les Halles, even though
Edgar Faure was on the cover. We printed 4,000 copies and sold 4,000.

How did you come up with the concept of ‘advertorials’ that later became the trademark of Egoïste?

The first person who told me I should do it every time was Emanuel Ungaro. I had done an advertorial for him with models in the Jardin du Luxembourg and he encouraged me to persevere in that direction. That’s how it started.

‘I just called up Helmut Newton, whom I didn’t know, to ask him to shoot for Egoïste. I had met his wife at the hairdresser’s and got his number.’

Nicole Wisniak
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine

And how did you then sell that concept to the advertisers? I guess you thought, ‘If I want to cover my costs, I’ll have to have ads’?

It was the only way to have a magazine that was an original creation from cover to cover. I wanted to create ads that were less commercial and product-centric.It happened gradually as I became more confident making them with every issue and advertisers said they liked them. They quickly understood that it was the right way to be in the magazine, that readers were giving the same attention to the advertising pages as the editorial ones.

So you didn’t have a hard time convincing them that it was a good concept?

Not at all! Quite the opposite, in fact. I was lucky enough to work with intelligent and cooperative communication directors who understood that it was a plus to show their brand through the eyes of an outsider. The photographers also understood that the more the magazine was one-of-a-kind, an original creation from A to Z, with nothing distorting it, the more their work was showcased. If you have 150 pages of advertising in a 250-page magazine, and they’re the same ads that you see in Le Point or L’Express or Vogue, then what’s the point? But all these advertorials are very difficult to make and take up so much time.

Let’s talk a bit about the creative direction and image production. Did you present your ideas to the brands or did you have carte blanche?

I’ve sometimes had carte blanche and sometimes I’ve told them what I have in mind. Over the years, they have all become friends. This magazine exists thanks to them and we wouldn’t have so much freedom if it weren’t for them. I am very thankful to have worked with people who’ve dared to play the game. I am absolutely not cynical about this aspect of Egoïste.

What about the photographers?

The photographers do it because they understand that it’s part of the magazine’s identity. Sure, it’s not always what they would prefer to be doing because when they shoot advertising, they are much better paid to do the same kind of work. For me, they shoot an image that can’t be used anywhere else, that’s only used that one time in the issue. I’ve only sold images to be used as advertising worldwide a few times, like the Cartier panther. But it’s very rare.

That image must have been very hard to shoot.

Yes, because we shot it for real; it wasn’t a montage or anything. We started at 6am on a Sunday morning to make sure we wouldn’t run into a policeman. I had a very clever assistant at the time who
‘forgot’ to fill in one line on the shooting authorisation and so we added the fact that we’d be walking around with a panther in the streets of Paris later on. But a panther is low to the ground and hides well behind cars. The photographer Jean Larivière was using remote-controlled equipment and did a great job. Another time with him, we shot a camel in front of the pyramid in the Louvre for Vuitton; we were driving around with a horse box at two in the morning. My husband who was the director of the Figaro at the time, came with me and told the police the horse box was full of accessories. They bought it. Crazy times. Most of the crazy things I’ve done in my life were because I had absolutely no idea that what I was doing wasn’t normal. Like having a panther in the street.

Was it innocence?

No, it was insouciance.

When did the advertorials actually start in Egoïste?

In the fifth issue. Before that there was traditional advertising. We had Chanel if I remember correctly. Cartier used to pay us in lighters. I remember that my parents had a safe at home that was filled with Cartier lighters. No one owns fancy lighters any more, by the way. I remember an advertorial we did for S.T. Dupont a while ago. The first page was a soldier’s hand lighting a dynamite stick with a Dupont lighter. The next spread was a picture of generals signing a peace treaty with Dupont pens and hugging. I really liked this idea of war and peace. I’m not sure it was very commercial, though.

Practically, how did it happen? You would call up the advertiser, they’d give you a number of pages and you’d go ahead and shoot?

Yes, we had a fixed production fee, plus the price of the advertising space.

Many advertisers have remained faithful to the magazine throughout the years, haven’t they?

I’ve always tried to keep them happy. So they have remained faithful.

‘If you have 150 pages of advertising in a 250-page magazine, and they’re the same ads that you see in L’Express or Vogue, then what’s the point?’

Nicole Wisniak
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine

What is your relationship with them today? Do you still have complete creative freedom?

Of course! It would be too awful to think that after 40 years of creative carte blanche, they would start to constrain me. In a way, Egoïste has always been based on their benevolence towards someone who has managed to make her story continue for over 40 years with complete artistic honesty and without large investors to back her up. They just knew I wouldn’t disappoint them. And they know I always put my whole heart into what I do. Obeying orders is just impossible for me; I can
only do what I love. I need to be free and proud of everything I do.

But there are a few traditional ad pages in Egoïste, aren’t there?

Almost none. Maybe two per issue. I’ve occasionally accepted one or two to bring in a bit more money just before locking an issue, but it’s very rare.

I’ve read somewhere that some advertisers have asked to buy the image rights from you to run their advertorial as advertising.

It has happened, yes.

And you refused to see the images used in another context?

Well, it depends. I used to think that those images had to stay in Egoïste, but nowadays, no image is exclusive anymore. Everyone steals everything and publishes it on Instagram, so it seems pointless to try to keep anything, really. If anyone wants to publish a whole issue of Egoïste on Instagram, I can’t do anything about it. There are no secrets anymore.

Newton shot a few advertorials for Egoïste, didn’t he?

Only one or two. Guy Bourdin did a few. Avedon didn’t do many. But Ellen von Unwerth and Paolo Roversi did a lot of them

What about Daniel Jouanneau?

Daniel shot a lot of editorials and advertorials for us. He worked a lot with Chanel; Jacques Helleu used to give him carte blanche for everything. Jacques really was marvellous – cynical, sensitive, kind and intelligent. One time, we made a whole fake magazine together for a Chanel watch. We fake-interviewed the watch, there was a text by Françoise Sagan about time, and even a fashion shoot by Guy Bourdin. But things didn’t go very well with Bourdin’s agent. I called him up to have the pictures and he said they were not ready. So I called Jacques to inform him that we’d be a bit late and he said: ‘Well, that’s strange because Guy’s agent’ – and girlfriend at the time – ‘just called to say she was coming to show me the pictures.’ They were trying to cut me out. I was furious. So I asked Jacques
if I could do the meeting with Martine instead of him and he said: ‘Yes, that’ll be utterly amusing.’ You should have seen Martine’s face when she walked into Jacques’ office and found me sitting behind the desk! That was Jacques – he was amazing.

So you were basically functioning like an advertising agency?

No, no. I only did it once for Chanel. They only printed 2,000 or 3,000 and it became a beautiful collector’s item, so it was worth it – but time-consuming! I would happily do it again in the right circumstances!

What about Paolo Roversi?

I love him! We’ve done so much great work together. He’s a poet. I get along with him very well because he is extremely literate. He studied cinema, I think; he’s very cultured and nice to hang out with. He somehow reminds me of Marcello Mastroianni in the way that he is very detached. He doesn’t give a damn; he is not ambitious. He is very professional, but also a wonderful human being and a faithful friend. He has an exquisite detachment that feels good in an industry where everyone thinks so highly of themselves and takes themselves so seriously.

‘We photographed a camel in front of the pyramid in the Louvre for Vuitton; we were driving around with it in a horse box at two in the morning.’

Nicole Wisniak
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine
Portfolio. Egoïste - © System Magazine

When and how did you meet Richard Avedon?

In 1985. We were already quite established; we had been around for eight years. Just as Helmut was the first real game changer for the magazine and opened so many doors for me, so Richard Avedon helped make Egoïste an institution and helped turn it into a reference. We got him thanks to my extreme perseverance; I wrote to him for six or seven years. At the time, I was the French correspondent for Vanity Fair and I met him in Paris as he was there for the collections. As I arrived in
the studio, he had just argued with the Vogue team and was looking for a car to drive him back to his hotel. I took the opportunity to ask him for an interview, but he said he hated them, because ‘the
written thing is not the spoken thing’. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I love Egoïste and buy it every month at the airport.’ I realized that he was thinking of the wrong magazine. Then he jumped out the car and
left me there. That night, I was having dinner with Helmut Newton and his wife June, and I told them about my massive fail. They said they were having dinner with Avedon the following week and would put in a good word for me. It turned out that he thought I was part of Condé Nast because I was
the Vanity Fair correspondent. While I was thinking that might help me, it was actually what was driving him away because he hated everyone who worked there. June explained to him that I had been doing this magazine on my own for years and he liked that idea. Then Helmut taunted him by saying that nobody knew him in Europe and that Helmut was the real star over here. The next day, I had a phone call at seven in the morning and it was Avedon. He told me that he would send me the first pictures of his story on the ‘American West’ for Egoïste and that he was OK for an interview. I said, petrified, that I would send someone, but he said, no, it had to be me. So we did the interview at
the Hôtel Montalembert. When I sent it to him a month later, he loved it, and we became extremely close. There is a lot of humour in Avedon’s work, but it also had strong political messages. He also explored mental illnesses, the thin line between beauty and madness, isolation, and so on. He was an intellectual as much as a visual artist. He was one of the most interesting, intelligent and articulate people I have ever met. He was absolutely driven by a strong desire for social and political justice.

What about Helmut?

Helmut was much more frivolous. He was a dandy. He would always pretend to be humble and say that what he was doing was a game. They were both beautiful, both only children, spoiled boys, adored by their mothers.

It felt like Helmut’s relationship to Judaism was far less strong than Avedon’s.

Well, no. Helmut felt extremely Jewish. He spoke about it less, it’s true, but he felt strongly Jewish, deep down.

Does Egoïste work the same way today?

Yes, except it’s easier today than it was at the beginning. It has become a huge, well-known machine that people like.

Tell me about the art direction of the magazine.

Well, I supervise it, but I am lucky to have worked on it with the best possible people throughout the years. First, there was Philippe Morillon who worked with me for years, up until about 15 years ago. Now, Éléonore Thérond, the daughter of Roger Thérond, works with me. They’ve been essential because I know nothing about the technical side of things. Philippe came up with the original layout; he did a great job. And now, I get along so well with Éléonore; she was educated by her father who had an incredible eye and great taste. She is wonderful and so gifted.

The idea of an unbound magazine was there from the very start?

Yes. I didn’t want the pages to tear and I also didn’t want to ruin the double-spread photographs. When we started to have lots of advertorials and the magazine got bigger, I still didn’t want to bind it, so I did it in two volumes, like the Bible.

Was black and white an economic or aesthetic choice?

A bit of both. Nowadays, whenever I shoot in colour, I always want to turn everything black and white. Colours are OK when you are Guy Bourdin or Bettina Rheims, who I’ve worked with since the beginning – both are absolute geniuses when it comes to using colours – but portraits are always much more stunning in black and white.

Tell me about the writers. You don’t work with journalists but with writers, as Sagan advised you to do.

Yes. And just like the photographers, they’ve all become friends. Once again, I always try to match people with subjects they find interesting. That’s how I work. I’m a kind of obsessive midwife.

And how come you never thought of doing an Egoïste book, or an anthology of the best bits?

I will one day. I have amazing archives, that’s for sure. It could even be an incredible exhibition. For the 10th issue, the Museum of Modern Art wanted to do an exhibition, but it felt too early at the time. Today, I have more stuff to show. But looking back on the past prevents you from moving forward, I think. Retrospectives are for dead people.

‘Cartier used to pay us in lighters. I remember that my parents had a safe at home that was filled with those Cartier lighters.’

Nicole Wisniak

Tell me about your rapport with images.

The first pictures that ever moved me deeply, I remember, were from a book that my parents had called The Rise and Fall of Nazism. I looked at it one night when I was 12 and stumbled across pictures of mass graves. It was the first time I was confronted with images that upset me so much that they kept me up for nights afterwards. I think that, later on, publishing the pictures I’ve published is linked to that. I’m so moved in front of some photographs, much more than paintings. Some painters have amazed me, of course, but nothing compared to what photography does to me. There is something about the reality of it, the fact that we are facing humanity in a much more present way.
Seeing a photograph of a beggar is not the same as looking at a Goya painting of one. The photograph puts me in front of a social reality that feels more real, is far worse and touches me more intensely. Cartier-Bresson used to say that photographers are obsessed by the idea that things can disappear. I have always had quite a pessimistic personality, like that line, ‘When I see a swimmer, I
see a drowned person’. The idea that things can disappear is frightening and I love to be able to photograph them, even just in my head, to make them last forever. Even if, nowadays, the photographic language has become less reliable because of Photoshop – you can fake anything – I am still receptive to images. Because they have a real power on your imagination. There is something
very exciting about making an image. Starting off with the same ingredients as everyone else, you are able to make something absolutely unique that will make people feel something. I love to make people laugh and dream.

Taken from System No. 12.