Capturing the Reality of Saint-Tropez’s Local Characters

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Found scenario with an octopus, Fashion Eye Saint-Tropez© Louis Vuitton Malletier / Osma Harvilahti

Finnish photographer Osma Harvilahti took to Saint-Tropez for an upcoming publication for Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Eye series. Here, he tells us about seeking out the quieter side of the glamorous Riviera town

For photographer Osma Harvilahti, travelling to different parts of the world has played a significant role in the work he has created. Previous personal series by the photographer, who was born in Helsinki and is now based in Paris, have taken him to Cape Town to capture dance companies; to Ethiopia and its bustling capital Addis Ababa; and to Japanese islands where he documented the fishing industry. The opportunity to take part in a forthcoming instalment of Fashion Eye, the book series from Louis Vuitton that sees fashion photographers document a country or city around the world (Harley Weir went to Iran and Quentin de Briey went to Bali for the last release, for example), was therefore exciting to Harvilahti – but the chosen destination of Saint-Tropez might not initially have been his first choice. “At first I made a little trip there in the beginning of summer and it was all the clichés I could think of: big boats, champagne spray – these kind of Martin Parr clichés. Rich people with enormous amounts of wealth, having fun and throwing parties,” he explains. “Literally the first thing that I saw when I got there, I heard a splash and went to see what was going on, and we saw Pamela Anderson in the cold water wearing like haute couture, and we were like OK, we’ve arrived.”

The project then became about seeking out the everyday, local aspects of Saint-Tropez, removed from the glamour and excess it has become synonymous with. Over two trips to the French town, Harvilahti took notes, began “building a map of characters” and explored some of its lesser known aspects, with shooting eventually taking place over a couple of weeks. “We went to the marketplace which they have two times a week and we saw these beautiful older Tropézien people. They seemed to be arguing but I think they were just passionate about the vegetables and whatever the market provides,” he says. “In a way, it is an exploration of these senior people and the vegetables from the market, they’re kind of jumping in and out from the pages of the book. And then there are kids – I guess I was trying to capture something real, something that is timeless.” Market produce became props as Harvilahti created images, a mixture of portraiture, documentary and still life, of Saint-Tropez’s local characters. The resulting photographs are warm and captivating, and offer an unexpected view of a town with a certain reputation attached to it.

“I try to keep it kind of subtle and blur the line between reality and something that’s a little bit arranged,” the photographer continues. To this end, there is a level of anonymity in the shots: a face might be partially obscured (in once case by an octopus), or squinting eyes mean a subject doesn’t quite look at the camera. Harvilahti made a point of capturing retro cars – “there are no fancy cars in this book, it’s like Renault Twingos and basic French models” – to lend the photographs a feeling of timelessness, rather than anchoring them in a specific year. “The stories that people were telling had a big effect on how I wanted to finally approach this whole project. It was like stepping back in time. In photography in general it’s about how you frame a certain place, it is a constant creation of your surroundings, closing things out and then taking things in.”

While the book is due to be released in June, a recently opened exhibition at the Design Museum in Helsinki features a number of the Saint-Tropez shots, serving as a preview of the publication. Also bringing together previous personal series and commercial work for brands like Hermès and Miu Miu, the show, Osma Harvilahti: New Colour, is part of a programme at the Design Museum which sees Finnish artists who work internationally exhibit in their home country. “I love the dynamics of life in Paris and London but in Helsinki you can kind of take it easy a bit,” Harvilahti, who has lived in Paris for four years, says. “A lot of clean air to breathe and not so many people.” The photographer notes a change of pace between Paris, where things feel sped up by the seasonal fashion cycles, and Finland, where longer and lighter summer days afford him a different kind of energy.

An inherent interest in the natural world comes with being Finnish – “nature is such a big part of life here, we spend summers isolated in cabins, going fishing, rowing boats, cutting wood” – which is something that comes through in Harvilahti’s work via the presence of animals, the sea, the sky and lately, as seen in Saint-Tropez, vegetables. The feeling of a slower pace is evident in the Saint-Tropez shots too, as Harvilahti captures the quieter side of a Riviera summer – watch this space for more from the book with its release later this year.

Osma Harvilahti: New Colour is at the Design Museum, Helsinki, until May 26, 2019. For more information on Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Eye series, head here.