"Listen to that rhythm," shouts Jean-Baptiste Mondino over the pounding techno beat. "That's incredible!" As he quickly flicks into the next disc, his eyes are on the computer screen where a cloned male model is shown seated in a cheesy hotel room. "The legs are too short!" "The chair's or the model's?" asks his assistant. "Both!" A few moments later all appendages are long and sleekly proportioned.
If Mondino's video clips for the likes of Madonna, Bjork and Neneh Cherry are rightfully the stuff of pop legend, his fashion photography is often even more controversial. Sharp-edged and colour saturated, Mondino's graphically composed images are offbeat, sexy and subversive. But behind their seductive surface gloss lies another layer which is variously ironic, funny, or even sinister. He's like an end-of-millennium Guy Bourdin, snapping fashion at 140 bpm.

But if Bourdin's brand of erotically charged surrealism notoriously kept models posed for hours to get the desired effect, Mondino uses the latest in computer technology to attain his aesthetic aims. Lately, his attention has turned to ideas of body manipulations, replication and cloning. A recent series showed the same girl 8 times over, hugging and frolicking with herself. Then there was the series of 'mutilations' Mondino digitally performed on some of the world's highest-paid beautiful faces. Imagine Shalom with a black eye, Nadja's throat slit, or Amber having lost all her hair. You will have to imagine since all the girls - except Kristen McMenamy who was shown covered with scars - vetoed publication.

Fading from techno to a softer ambiance sound, Mondino begins to explain...

The idea was simply to counter the notion of supermodels. Honestly, we see them everywhere, and something has to be done about it. Because I couldn't do the project I had in mind (the mutilations) I went for the idea of super models, increasing the girls' thighs, shrinking their heads. The potential of the new technology is more than to just make people look better, it also allows you to do the inverse.
In a sense, I wanted to do these images as a response to the graphic, violent images we increasingly see around us. Like all the images from the OJ Simpson trial we've been fed for months. There is always a social point of view mixed in with the photographs. I'm not interested in the technique for its own sake, but for what it allows you to do. On a personal level, it's the same as if you decide you don't like your lips, or your stomach or your skin, to get rid of these 'problems' you have some manipulation done on your own body. Or you go to the gym.

So the computer is just one more way of manipulating the body?

Yeah, just like most of the Hollywood actors that we know have all been retouched!
In the 30s and 40s, they were already retouching photography, but today we are getting closer and closer to reality, to the actual body. So the whole idea, for me, is to in some way reflect what's going on in a broader social context.

We always have new technology, but what's interesting about this new technology is that we have gone much further, much faster. That is very disturbing, and I like that, because we have a tendency to progress so slowly. We quickly get used to new things, assimilate them, but this new technology is going to push things to the limit. These are the last years of conventional photography.

Are the photo editors and art directors ready to accept this?

People are still very reluctant. There are those who still think that images should not be manipulated, that photographers should be making very pure 'realistic' imagery.
Human nature doesn't accept change easily. Change is very disturbing. That's why some people don't like fashion, they are disturbed by it because it's something that changes, that moves, all the time. So, for them, it's easier to stick to the past. Especially in our culture. The European culture is the worst, because the past has such a strong influence on us.

After basing yourself in L.A. for some time, you have moved back to Paris. That must seem strange.

I've moved back to Paris because I am doing fewer music videos, and therefore don't need to be in LA. I'm back into fashion photography much more, and so the choice was New York or Paris. But, either way, it's obvious that this new technology has broken those old geographic ties. The information is going to be different - you're connected directly with the world. People talk about Europe, but for me, Europe is a seventies concept. Today it's a global thing.
In the Seventies we declared war on our parents, our families, that was the only option. But today, living without this idea of 'family' - because we didn't create a new one - is dangerous. That's why the idea of the tribe is important. Things are going so fast, but the only way to conceive of the next millennium is as a mixture of technology and tribalism. This is what fashion is about now - the piercing, the scarification mixed with high technology.
It's the same in music. Jungle music is a mixture of tribalism and technology. As a response to the changes in the world, we have to go back to a tribal way of being together. We're always trying to bend between these two tendencies - the techno and the tribal.

Are you happy to be back in fashion photography?

Oh yeah. Fashion and music are the two most influential things for me. Especially fashion, because fashion is meant to die every 3 months. This doesn't allow you to dwell on it too long. It's a dying process, and this forces you to always move on to the next step.
It's the same with music. It's the fastest expression of what is going on, and I like that. People don't realise that this music is changing every week - the beat, the treatment...it's all changing. So if you miss that phase, you're lost. You hear people say 'oh, they all sound the same', but that's like my father when he was trying to hear the difference between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Things are so different, but you have to get used to these differences.

The music we listen to is also a sign of belonging to a particular group, or tribe.

I love music that is like perfume sprayed into a room. Music that's just there. When you feel like you want to express a certain mood, you put on some techno, then some ambiance or maybe some house music. We don't even know who's making this music, it's just djs mixing. There are no references.

What's also interesting with this music is the loss of the star...

I know! That's what I love about it. That's also why I'm not doing music video any more. I had some great successes with them, because I was using the video to try to express what the song, the artist, was trying to say. But now the only thing I can do with music video is play looped sequences, the same way they do with this kind of music. They're still calling me to push an artist, but I love the idea that there are no more heroes. That's the massive difference between now and a couple of years ago.

Except, ironically, in fashion, where the top models are incredible heroes.

Yeah but, you know, we have gone from war heroes, to movie stars, to pop stars, to models. If models are heroes, they are the 80s expression of heroics. In the next phase, we will be our own heroes! Believe me, the next generation is not much into the model-hero look. Sure, the people who read Harpers and Vogue still are. But the new generation don't read these magazines, and they don't dress like this, and I don't think they take these girls as role models.

Are your new cloning projects anti-hero gestures? Once someone can be reproduced ad infinitum there is no longer any individual hero.

Yeah, probably. But there's a first degree attraction to it, without thinking too much about it. It's afterwards that you start to give it more meaning.
One used to be the most important number. Egocentric. And now it's no longer one. This idea of physically bearing individual difference is going to disappear. It's like Malcolm McLaren used to say to me, we came from a generation where everything could be seen on the street - the way people behaved, the hair, the clothes - but today you no longer see the change. You can look normal - on the surface - today because you can be in such a different world by simply staying at home with the technology. On the surface, people think that nothing is happening. All these new revolutionary things going on with young people today are not apparent. The media are lost because when they need to refer to how young people dress, or what kind of music they listen to, they don't know what to say. It's almost like, when the Berlin wall fell, there were no more heroes. There is no obvious revolutionary, and the commentators are lost.

Are you optimistic about these changes?

Oh, very optimistic. I think we have to go on, no matter what. And sometimes you go with something that upsets your way of thinking about things, how you behave. What is interesting to me is the evolution going on in my mind. Interactivity, 3D, different ways of communicating: these are the things of the future.


Photographs Copyright © Jean-Baptiste Mondino.



Copyright © 1996, Lumiere. All Rights Reserved.