Andrew Birkin is the photographer behind a new publication, Serge Gainsbourg et Jane Birkin: l’album de famille intime, filled with 900 intimate family portraits, with one of France’s most iconic couples at its heart. Andrew Birkin brings more than just his photographer’s eye to the book.
The intimacy laid bare throughout the pages also comes from the fact that Mr Birkin had complete autonomy over the design when telling the behind-the-scenes story of his sister Jane’s relationship with Serge Gainsbourg.
This was not the case with his first book, Jane & Serge, a Family album, released in 2013, when the publishing company Taschen determined how the pictures were laid out.
Birkin’s new book also displays prints of negatives as they might appear in a photo album stored in a cabinet, something that Millennials and Gen Z-ers no longer do.
“It’s a sort of family album from my point of view. I used it as a way of giving it to Jane with a ribbon on it,” he told The Connexion.
Behind the camera is a solitary man who in his own words “does not need people.” He lives in a remote cabin in the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales and is used to orbiting around a sister very different to him, despite being born 370 days apart from each other.
The Connexion spoke with Mr Birkin about his new book, his relationship with and understanding of French people and France after seeing his sister become a cultural icon.
He also talks about how shared grief could turn into a collaborative artistic project: Mr Birkin lost his son Anno in a car accident in Milan in 2001, while Ms Birkin lost her daughter Kate in 2013.
You have already published a book about the relationship between Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. What was the motivation behind this second book?
I wanted to do one with many more photographs in sequences, not just single pictures. Now, it is more through a series of four, six or 12 photos. That’s what I did.
The first book had about a hundred photographs, and this one has nearly a thousand, and gives a much fuller picture of their relationship.
Tell me a little bit more about your creative process? How did you choose the pictures?
I just did it by instinct, you know. There’s no other way of doing it. There is not a set plan. I went through the pictures and chose the ones I liked the best.
It is a bit like Japanese art and zen arts of flower arrangement, when you go out and pick loads of different flowers and then you come back and go “boom boom boom boom” and there’s your flower arrangement. It’s the same with photographs.
Did you have them all stored somewhere? Did you comb through boxes from specific years, or even decades?
I always had a 5mm, and had them stored in negative sheets, and quite a lot were still in the order that I had kept back in the days when I was still taking photographs.
Nowadays, of course, you do not need this kind of system. Everything is digital and so it’s done differently.
It’s interesting because if digital photography had been around back when I took these family photos of Jane and Serge, I would have taken many more photographs than I did, because digital does not cost as much, but then the flipside is that I would probably also have gotten rid of many of them, which you can later regret.
At that time, with negatives, you could not get rid of individual shots. You had to keep the mistakes, the bad ones, but also some that just did not seem so interesting.
Fifty years on, they acquire a certain quality and aspect that you did not see at the time.
Has going through so many pictures helped you to better understand your sister, Gainsbourg, their relationship, France...?
I can see, of course, a side of Serge that was rather different from his public persona. In other words the Gainsbarre he was supposedly going for.
In public he came across as a little bit more stylish and mystical, whereas in these photographs I see the Serge I remember, somebody much warmer, funnier, more spontaneous, less worried about his image.
The photos span your relationship with the couple, but also your sister, through most of your life. Is this a way to show artistically that she has always been around you, despite her living and performing in France?
Not really. I did not have an ulterior motive. It’s simply a family album taken from my point of view as a gift for Jane.
What is that point of view?
I can’t really analyse what I see in it beyond “there it is.” It’s a bit like when people ask film directors what they wanted to say in their movie.
Herman Bergman said it best: “I don’t have anything to say other than what’s in the movie.” It’s for other people to see things that I perhaps have not seen.
What is it like for a brother to observe the life of a sister who has become an icon in French culture?
You go with the flow. I have never thought of Jane as being anyone other than my sister. I have nothing to compare it to. I have a sister five years younger than me, but we don’t have the same connection because of the age difference.
You accept it as it happens. It’s not like she was another person suddenly. The thing with her becoming a French icon was a gradual process. It did not happen overnight. So you take it step by step.
Also, her fame was not particularly unusual to me, as my mother and first girlfriend were actresses. I was used to it. I prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. I was quite happy with that relationship.
What is your understanding of France from having been around that stardom, and what have you learned about France from being the person behind the camera?
France has been like a second home to me. Although it’s nothing compared with what Jane has experienced, it was the first foreign country I lived in, and French is the only other language I can speak. A bit.
I really got to know France, and the French people, when I went on my search for Napoleon.
Is it true that you read 88 books about the subject in a matter of six months?
That’s right. But I also went to places where Napoleon lived or visited. I don’t believe in stereotypes. I don’t feel like Italians, Spanish or Germans are different from one another. You always find a third of people voting for the left, a third for the centre and a third for the right.
Of course the French are a little bit more passionate than the Brits, but I don’t know why the French embraced Jane and her relationship with Serge.
I mean there was the Je t’aime moi non plus song, but generally the English have a much closer relationship with America when it comes to music.
Do you know John Lennon’s quote: “French rock is like British wine... Disgusting” ?
I would not agree. Serge was not really rock and roll anyway. I would say that most French music tends to look more for a sentimental side. But that’s not really fair because Americans also have middle-of-the-road sentimental songs. Serge is more romantic.
I’m thinking of Melody Nelson, for instance. Most English people that I know love Melody Nelson because it’s a unique song.
Have you ever considered venturing into music, having already published photography books, written screenplays and directed movies?
If I had a second life I would invest more energy in music. I never had the time to devote to it, even as a hobby, because I always worked.
The time that I had was used to practise, practise and practise. I do not think I have ever been bored, actually! (laughs.)
You mentioned that France was your second home. Have you ever had a second home in France?
I bought a house for my first wife in Normandy. I used to go there occasionally.
Of course I went to see Jane in Brittany from time to time, and Charlotte in the South. But I have two young children here in Wales and they have to go to school every morning and I have to pick them up.
From what I have read about your Welsh house, it’s really remote…
Yes. No neighbours. You only hear the sea. You know that’s what I wanted to say about being different from Jane. I don’t need people, whereas I feel she needs them, she likes to be loved. I think that is the key for performers, to need to be loved. I have never had that need.
You have both suffered the tragedy of losing a child. Has this brought you closer together?
Yes. Jane was very present when Anno was killed in 2001. She was more than a companion, she shared the grief. When her daughter Kate died, I tried to be as supportive to her, but she dealt with it in a different way. She was really quite numb and I could not get close to her.
She has expressed that grief through her songs. It’s not something that you talked about. Was it suicide or an accident? I tend to think it was an accident.
Kate still smoked at the time, and my assumption is that she fell because she was smoking out of the window at dinner time and leaned out so that the smoke would not go back into the room where her stepchildren were eating.
Whatever happened, it does not remove the grief.
Have you considered a new artistic collaboration with Jane?
I’d love to do something with Jane and vice versa, I think. The timing is problematic partly because of children and working on other projects. I have a feeling that we will do something at some point. Will it involve grief? Everybody deals with it in their own way…
Maybe it will involve your relationship with France?
It could well do. I feel closer to France, mainly because of Brexit, one of the worst things that has happened in my lifetime. When we joined the EU, it was the best moment of my life.