You may not be familiar with the name Mathieu Bitton but chances are that you’ve seen his work before. Mathieu is a modern day renaissance man. He is a photographer, art director, film maker, globe trotter and father. The Grammy nominated artist has had work featured in numerous magazines, album covers, music and movie posters, coffee table books, packaging, merchandise and of course photography exhibits. He is also a Leica Cameras ambassador and official tour photographer of Lenny Kravitz and has also been hanging out with Dave Chappelle quite a bit lately.
I have been following Mathieu’s work for the past few years so when I saw that Lenny Kravitz was billed to be one of the headliners at this year’s Bourbon and Beyond music festival in Louisville the very first thing I did was reach out to Mathieu to see if he would be coming along and willing to meet up.
Aaron Paschal: Thank you for taking time out to meet with me. I’ve been a fan of your work for quite some time so it’s great to be able to sit and chat with you.
You’ve been REALLY busy lately and you recently did the cover shoot for Lenny Kravitz’s new album “Raise Vibration.” What’s that experience been like for you?
Mathieu Bitton: It’s been really cool. I’ve been working with Lenny for right about a decade now and although I shot all of the inside photos and back cover for his “Black and White America” album he used an old childhood photo for the front cover so this is actually the first time having a front album cover with Lenny.
We did the shoot it in the Bahamas without even really thinking about the album. We were just hanging out on the beach and we were taking photos and playing around and then we looked at the back of the camera and were like, “that’s it, that’s the album cover!” I’ve found that that’s the way the best stuff happens, when things just fall into place. So it’s been pretty exciting to finally have a Lenny Kravitz album that’s been all of my photography and design from cover to cover.
AP: I can tell that you enjoy that process.
MB: Definitely. I’ve shot and designed a lot of album covers for other people so it was only right that I finally did one for Lenny. I’ve pretty much done all of his singles but this except for the last album, “that was another photographer” but all of the singles from “Black and White in America” and all of the deluxe editions were done by me.
AP: I see that you were listed in the credits on the last two Prince releases “Purple Rain Deluxe” and “Piano and a Microphone 1983.”
MB: Yes, helping out in these releases has been a dream come true. I knew Prince and had worked on a couple of his projects in the past. He was my favorite artist of all time and I’m still completely heartbroken about his passing so that’s a tough one. I hope that more of his amazing, unreleased music like this will eventually become available because there’s a lot to be heard.
AP: Are there any other album design projects that you have in the works?
MB: I also just designed 2-LP deluxe vinyl reissues of Lenny Kravitz’s first six albums, with more on the way, as well as several deluxe editions of “Raise Vibration.” Other new vinyl releases I’m excited about having designed are both of James Brown’s Classic Blaxploitation soundtracks “Black Caesar” and “Slaughter’s Big Rip Off,” the Willie Hutch soundtrack to the legendary Pam Grier films “Foxy Brown” and Roy Ayers - penned “Coffy” as well as the previously unreleased Velvet Underground 2LP “1969” and the related Nico album “Chelsea Girl.”
AP: You are ALWAYS on the grind. What keeps you going?
MB: I love what I do so that’s the only thing that keeps me from going insane. I am at the point now where I really need a break but I’m out photographing Lenny’s tour which is a relatively short tour that only runs a couple of weeks and then I’m supposed to go to Europe with Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart. Once that’s done I’m thinking I may get to spend a little time at home. So far this year I have not been able to spend more than two weeks there at once. Last year was similar too. I’m so grateful that I just look at things and see myself as the lucky one. Yeah, I’m out of shape and a little exhausted but I’ll find time to catch up.
AP: One thing that jumps out to me is the relationships that you seem to have with the celebrities and people that you work with. When I look on social media they don’t just “tag” you in the pictures but quite often they post pictures of you, or with you and it’s obvious that there’s a genuine level of respect and friendship. Can you talk about how important it is to establish those type of relationships?
MB: What sets photographers apart is being able to establish good, friendly relationships with the people that you work with. You want them to be comfortable with you. I see photographers make the same mistakes all the time and I’ve seen it here today where they will just walk up and start shooting. There’s no bridge, no preparation, there’s no making someone comfortable or even introducing yourself. This generation that we are in now with the selfies and photos every five seconds there’s no boundaries for capturing “moments.” So you need to actually respect the people that you’re shooting and at the same time with me I’ll speak for myself, “I have a lot of gratitude for just being there.” The fact that they trust me and the fact that they brought me somewhere and gave me access to photograph moments for them; I want to give them the best possible work based on that and they appreciate that.
Dave Chappelle mentioned my name in his Netflix special and I was completely blown away by that. But there’s a reason for that. Over time you establish a mutual respect for one another and I don’t look at it as business from that point. It becomes more of a friendship and we just happen to be working together but it’s friendship first. I think that shows in my work as well because people are more relaxed and they give you more access to certain situations. My relationship with Dave Chappelle is another example of that. He’s a private guy and doesn’t really allow any photographers at his shows. All of a sudden we developed this relationship and I’m given all of this access.
My friend, the legendary D-Nice is a great Leica photographer who’s been shooting there with Dave for years before me and the greatest harmonica player in the world - Fred Yonnet who I refer to as my photography student – “and he has a great eye” both have full access to shoot Dave as well. So it’s a small group of us and I have nothing but gratitude for that. Fred was actually shooting Nikon when were at Radio City Music Hall last year but I turned him onto Leica and so now he’s loving it. So there’s a few of us that Dave will allow to shoot but that’s also based on the results. If somebody sees your work and they’re not impressed they are not going to waste their precious time so I constantly have to deliver my best possible work.
Last week I had a totally impromptu shoot that I wasn’t really prepared for. I was asked to come by the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles. I didn’t know what was going on so I just grabbed my Leica Q, which is a great camera but I use it more for backstage photos or just running around. It’s not my big camera that I use. Along with Dave, LeBron James, Jon Stewart, Katt Williams and all these big names were there and on top of all of that Will Smith did his first ever stand-up comedy show. So I felt a little handicapped. I had all of this incredible stuff in front of me and there I was shooting with this 28mm lens. In the end they are all looking at my images saying “wow these photos are great!” But I’m sitting there totally insecure. I’m thinking I fucked up; I should have had my Leica SL “my big camera.” But hey, you win some you lose some. We still got some cool stuff. That’s one of the things that I love about working with people like Dave, and Prince was like that too; you never know what’s going to happen and that keeps me on my toes!
AP: That’s great to be creatively pushed and challenged like that. I’ve watched you shoot before. It was at Dave Chappelle’s Juke Joint in Yellow Springs, OH earlier this year. For those that don’t know this event goes on until nobody’s standing!
MB: Yes! I came in from Paris that day where I was at the rehearsals for Lenny Kravitz’s tour. I got off the plane and went straight to the gig so I had been up all night. I think by the time I got back to Paris I realized that I had been up four days straight. So yeah, it’s a demanding gig but they are so much fun because you never know who’s going to be there or what’s going to happen.
AP: Do you have a bucket list of people that you would like to photograph?
MB: It’s funny, my sorta bucket list is always Jack White. Well I recently designed a poster for his tour. So I was like okay, “that was another dream come true.” But he’s one that’s definitely one that was on my bucket list so hopefully I’ll get to photograph him some day.
I have had the opportunity to shoot so many artists and people that were on my wish list in the last couple of years it’s been crazy. I would like to do a proper shoot with Jay-Z. As far as portraits Larry David and Woody Allen are two people that I would like to sit down and do portraits of. I’ve shot a lot of comedians but those two are musts! Woody is getting up there in age now so…
AP: Have you tried reaching out to them?
MB: I tend to let things like that happen naturally or if something opens up I find ways to make it happen. Melvin Van Peebles had always been someone that I wanted to photograph and things worked out where I got to go to his place and shoot him so that was amazing. That happened completely naturally through a friend of mine that used to be married to Mario Van Peebles. Their son was going to visit Grandpa Melvin and she said, “hey maybe you should grab your camera and go along.” That ended up being a dream come true for me.
AP: What advice would you give to aspiring music photographers?
MB: If you play your cards right things have a tendency to fall into place. It’s that whole Laws of Attractions. If you’re on the right path and you do what you should do and you’re not lazy a lot of things will come your way. I’ve found that a lot of people are just lazy. I get a lot of messages from people complaining about my son Miles. He’s 18 and just went off to college but he trained with me and he’s becoming a great photographer in his own rights. I get people complaining that it’s not fair, that it’s nepotism - I’m like what!? “He’s my kid, it’s my responsibility to show him things I know and I want to hang out with him.” He’s not even trying to be a photographer but he’s been able to get some great shots just from going to events with me. Now Miles is off in college I look at his instagram account and he’s getting the most amazing photos. So he’s on his own now and that’s great! If you are real and honest and grateful things do fall into place.
AP: So with all of the things that you have on your plate do you do all of your post work “edits” on your photos?
MB: I do all of my post work and I do it quick! “laughs.” I boost a few levels in Lightroom and then I’m done. Sometimes it’s exhausting and I’m like wow, “how am I going to work my way through these images.” Like last week at the Peppermint. I had traveled from Paris to New York, back to Los Angeles, back to New York, back to Los Angeles. So I was tired and wondering how am I going to find time to edit all of these images tonight. The thing is that there were a couple other people that were there shooting as well so it’s competitive. So I was thinking that if I don’t do mine right now those other photographer’s images are going to be out first. Usually when I’m working with Dave I’m the only photographer shooting for the sake of press but that night Will Smith had a guy there shooting as well so I was like “oh shit, I have to get these ready!” and like I said I was already insecure about not having the right camera.
AP: I actually became aware of your work and started keeping up with you a couple of years ago when I came across your Darker Than Blue project. I was on Instagram and Leica posted these amazing black and white images that captivated me. I called the Leica Store in Los Angeles to order the book and you just so happened to be there. We spoke on the phone briefly and you signed my copy of the book. What’s going on with Darker Than Blue now and do you plan on doing more projects like that?
MB: You’re lucky, those things sold-out quick! I actually saw one on eBay that sold for a couple hundred bucks and I thought that was crazy. I’m working with a publisher now to publish a proper copy sometime soon but that edition that you have is a rare one and I’m glad that you got a copy!
Darker Than Blue is an ongoing project that I’m continuously adding to. I keep getting asked to do music exhibitions which I may do eventually but I feel like I’m not done with Darker Than Blue yet. It’s a traveling exhibition so now it’s in Germany and then I think it’s going to Shanghai and Singapore and like I said I keep adding pictures to it. Once I do the big book and I feel satisfied that I’m done then I do a exhibit with images from my music photography. But Darker Than Blue is such a passion project that I’ll probably just keep shooting sand adding to it. There’s so many beautiful people. I grew up in Paris and Paris is the place that opened it’s heart to jazz and embraced black culture at a time when guys like Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon couldn’t even use certain restrooms in America. They were treated like Gods in France so I feel like that’s in my blood. I grew up on black music, black films; so I appreciate black culture. I think the karma in that is that now I get to photograph and hang out with my favorite artists. When the Chappelle show was out that was like religion for me. I was like “I can’t go anywhere or do anything tonight! I gotta watch The Chappelle show!” So now if I go back to myself at that time, watching Dave Chappelle, Questlove, John Mayer, Mos Def and all of those people on the Chappelle Show and realizing that now I’ve literally worked with and became friends with all of them, it’s kind of surreal. I’ve had that a lot in my life and the only way that I can describe it is pure passion. It’s not always about money or saying I’m not gonna do some big project that I’m not going to get paid for it. With me it’s all about passion. Sometimes you get paid what you deserve, sometimes you do it just because you want to do it and sometimes you just want to help someone out.
The success is to not have rules. The only rules you have are boundaries and respect. Some people respect you and when people try to start cutting corners that’s when you know it’s not going to work. So knowing who you are and your value as a photographer is important. Sometimes it doesn’t seem real. I’m humbled when people send me messages or stop me on the streets. I look at them like “I think you got the wrong guy.” I’m glad because I don’t want to be like Kanye West about it. I don’t want to be like “yeah my shit is dope!” To me that’s the best shit in the world - when people let you know that they appreciate your work. But I realize that the subject plays a role in it too so it’s a combination of things. It drives me a little crazy when I see people taking themselves so seriously. We all can do it. Creating a way to get the access is the main thing; creating that trust.
AP: What do you hope to achieve “creatively” in the next twelve months?
MB: That’s a really good question. I’m just finishing up another documentary a film of Lenny Kravitz about his new album “Raise Vibration.” I think I’m going to get more into film work. Maybe features, I don’t know if that will happen within a year but it’s definitely a big dream of mine to make a feature film. Just keep growing. But that’s such a good question because I don’t even know what the universe has in store for me. I like to have some published books.
AP: I’m sure you get asked this question a lot but of all of the concerts and events that you have captured which one is your favorite or stands out to you the most?
MB: Wow! Well Dave’s stand at Radio City Music Hall for a whole month last year was the most insane experience of my life. Being on tour with Lenny there’s been some shows where I’ve been blown away. But there’s not one specific show that I can point back to. The other night at the Peppermint Club I left there thinking “wow, this may be the best night of my life” but that was just the latest time I said that. (Laughs.) Seeing Will Smith do stand-up for the first time in his life was crazy AND to get to shoot it was amazing. And he was funny. LeBron was funny too. I had already shot LeBron with Dave before about a year and a half ago but Dave brings that out in people. He has that talent to make other people feel like they have a little bit of “funny” in them and he knows how to bring it out of them.
AP: I want to thank you once again for taking time to talk with me and CincyMusic, we appreciate you!
MB: Thank you, I appreciate you and your interest in my work and I’ll see you out there shooting!