Interview: Rolling Stones Photographer Dominique Tarle on Those Six Storied Months in the South of France

As we detailed in February, famed French photographer Dominique Tarle, along with his longtime gallerist Julia Gagnon of Galerie L’Instant in Paris, recently undertook the enviable task of presenting his voluminous collection of photos he took of The Rolling Stones in the South of France over the summer of 1971, which had been sitting in boxes for close to 50 years. 

That summer’s “working holiday” came at a watershed moment for the band; they were at their creative peak, having recently released three tentpole albums, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers, their scandalous 1969 tour, which culminated with the deadly Altamont concert, was behind them, and they had fled the UK as tax exiles, ending up in Nice.

What ensured over the long, hot French summer, in addition to what for most people would have been excesses too extreme to manage – longtime producer Jimmy Miller’s slide into heroin addiction certainly escalated during that time – was, down in the sweaty catacombs of Keith Richards’ rented mansion, principal recording of their monumental new album, Exile On Main Street

Galerie L’Instant’s debut show in Paris this winter was as much a family gathering as photo exhibit, as Stones fans flocked to take in the celluloid evidence of one of the pivotal moments in the band’s career. And in mid-May a second installment of the show will open May 12 at La Cour Des Arts, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, within a couple hours drive of the fabled manse where it all went down in 1971, La Villa Nelcote.

We zoomed with Tarle on a Saturday afternoon in Paris, as he’d stopped by the gallery to visit and have a glass of champagne. 

Are you excited now to have the book and the show finally out? 

Well, it’s…what I would say is that music and photography, it’s a wonderful machinery to travel through the time. You see what I mean? 

Yeah.

When you take pictures, you cannot imagine that 50 or 60 years later, they are going to be exhibited and published around the world. Looking through all those pictures with the Stones, they make, individually, the same comments. In those days, we didn’t know if our business would last for three weeks or three years. And 60 years later, they are still around.

It’s amazing. And how has the reception been at the gallery, of people coming in and seeing for the first time? Have you noticed the love for the band and for the photos from everyone? 

Oh, yes. In fact, the people I meet, what they want, it’s…what I like is to tell the story behind each picture. 

Right, of course. 

So, in fact, people start asking you a few questions, but the conversation lasts for an hour and a half, because we look through the exhibition and I do explain the relationship I had with those people and how things were in those years and everything. So, it’s…I never ever thought that, so many years later, I would meet people who are fanatical, at this point, you know? it’s just – sometimes it’s difficult to believe what’s going on.

There’s always been this kind of question around the band – and the band members have said themselves – that Keith had this line, “It’s almost like a fairy story, you know?” So, that’s to your point that they continue to have a level of fandom. 

But when the band started, all they wanted was to play music together and maybe find a little club where they could play every, every night in front of 50 people, just to make a little living. Then suddenly, they are in front of thousands of people, selling thousands of albums, you know, and everything. From the publishing point of view, it’s just an incredible musical story. But also, this success with the public, gave them the possibility to have a public life, a family life, that they never thought that would be possible; they never dreamed of having this kind of success. 

You’ve become part of the Stones lore, part of their story, because those images are so important. Do you have any of those photos that mean more to you, maybe? Like, especially the one that was in the grand entrance, where Anita is kind of lounging and Keith has…it’s the one with the Telecaster.

Yeah. Well, first, I was a young unknown photographer, and broke. I was just passionate about photography and music. When I heard that the Stones were moving to the south of France, I kept in touch with the people working for them, and the idea was to spend an afternoon with each one of them in their new home where they could receive their family and friends; and it was the spring in the South of France, beautiful light, and weather. So, I came to visit Keith for an afternoon. And at the end of the afternoon, I thanked everybody for this beautiful moment, and he says, “But where are you going? Your room is ready, and you stay for six months.” And two or three days later, Keith says, “You are always wearing the same t-shirt.” I said, “I came for an afternoon, and I didn’t bring clothes.” Keith says, “Come with me.” And so, like, for six months, I was wearing Keith’s clothes, you know?

That’s amazing. 

And sometimes, he would ask, “Do you have enough film to take pictures?”, and I would say, “Not too much.” He would give me a big hand full of money and say, “Take the limousine with the driver, go and buy yourself some film. A photographer without film, it’s like a guitar without strings.” 

That’s a good line. 

Yes. And then, three months – the first three months, I am welcomed in an English family, on holiday in the South of France, and three months later they decide to record the new album in the basement of the house where I lived. So, what is fantastic is to discover the way those people work, because the music is not written on a piece of paper, or something like that. It’s fantastic to see Keith comes down to the studio and he’s got an idea for a song, and he’s going to play the song to the rhythm section. And if one of them leaves his instrument to go upstairs and smoke a cigarette outside, it means no. It doesn’t work. But if Bill and Charlie keep playing with Keith, all the others come along and find out what’s going on, what are we going to do on this, how does it sound, and everything. And they start playing the same song every night for – from 9 pm to 6 am for a week. Until everyone is in a situation to give his best. Whatever it is, the band, the Rolling Stones, but also Nicky Hopkins and Jim Price and Bobby Keys on the…

Sax.

It’s fantastic to stay in the basement with the Rolling Stones for three months listening to all those songs. It’s a beautiful story.

So, you’re taking the show now down to Provence in May. Is it pretty much the same as Paris?

Physically, yes. We are choosing the pictures with Julia, but physically it’s going to be pictures, most of them about the south of France.

Yeah. Beautiful part of the world.

Yeah, well…

Okay. You prefer Paris? 

Well, I live in Paris, I was born in Paris. But I must say that there are so many fantastic places to discover in France that before getting too old, too fragile, I’d like to discover. There is a story behind each place. 

You’re still taking photos, I assume?

Oh, no. Now, the idea – I took so many pictures of musicians, I want to go through archives and the idea would be to do a selection of prints to maybe do a book, but to sell the book with music.

That’s a good idea.

So that people could at the same time discover bands which are not very well-known at all. Sometimes, they lasted for a few months, you know. But still, they did beautiful songs and I’d love people to discover those songs. So to do a book and to make a choice about the artist and his music, it’s definitely the main project for the next few months.

That’s great. Will Julia help you with that too?

Oh, yes. My son and everyone are working together on it.

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