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Le Comptoir de l’Image, Paris. Fashion photography, collector’s fever

A quiet hello

In the heart of the historic Marais district in Paris, near Yvon Lambert, Dover Street Parfums Market, and Tom Greyhound, on a street opposite the musée Carnavalet is a bookshop—collectors and tourists travel to it yearly. This is Le Comptoir de l’Image, home to over 2000 photography and fashion books and magazines and it was founded in 1993 by photographer Michel Fink. Unlike any bookshop, upon opening the door, hoards of books stacked like towers form a path to the barricaded owner of the shop. Unable to see his figure behind mountains of books and magazines upon entering, he offers a quiet hello.

Fink had worked as an assistant for Richard Avedon and Hiro in 1996 in New York. He had sent a letter to the Avedon Studio in 1965 because he knew the big American photographers would be coming to Paris to shoot the upcoming fashion collections. Avedon replied immediately asking to meet him in Paris. After two weeks of working together, Fink was asked to return to New York with Avedon where he worked for a year.

He returned to Paris and worked as a photographer in advertising for fifteen years producing campaigns for The New York Herald, Phillips, Credit Agricole and more. Pulling out the preserved portfolio of his work from the 60s, with a smile on his face, he points out his technique, his use of actors for models, the set design, the styling, the flared trousers and shoulder pads on men, women signing cheques, women smoking, men with painter’s brush moustaches eating lobster for the French water company Vichy Saint Yorre or a room full of journalists fighting over a story with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths for French Newspaper at the time, L’Usine Nouvelle. 

A proud bibliophile

Fink had kept it all. Stills from shoots with Avedon, every single advert, even his work when he was an assistant for his first ‘teacher’, Tom Kublin in Switzerland. Covered in a protective plastic seal, he’d meticulously preserved his entire body of work throughout the years. His photography and the contents of his shop on 44 Rue de Sevigné alike, each book and magazine was immaculate, just like new, he says, with a smile full of pride. «There is so much to collecting books that I love, I’ve got all the big signatures, Klein, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton here behind me and Peter Bearl, I’ve got them all here and I look after them».

As a proud bibliophile, the art of collecting comes with many responsibilities. «I look after my books, I keep some in custom sleeves and sometimes», he says laughing, «I restitch them all every night». His passion for books has always existed, but he explains, «I am often stern with clients who mistreat them. I usually ask them to stop and if they don’t then I’ll show them the door». 

The constantly-open door in question, often strikes curiosity in people and entices them in. They see the books and start fiddling with them, he explains, «they have no idea what is in front of them with some of the books costing 300 or 400 euros—they just have no idea». Fink keeps all his most treasured finds behind him as if they were armor or he was protecting them. All consist of one-off, special edition photography books by the likes of Newton, Penn or Klein as stated above.

An infallible memory

Still, his dedication to every one of his 2000 books is apparent as he recounts guest editors, particular photographers on a specific Vogue shoot in the 60s, the location where he found each book or who gave it to him. A quick glance at a pile of back issues of Vogue Paris and Fink can tell you which guest editors he has in stock, pulling out copies edited by Polanski, Catherine Deneuve, Nelson Mandela, Karajan, Kurosawa, Antoni Tapiès, Peter Estranov or John Huston in 75’. 

«Every year at the end of the year, Vogue Paris would release a special edition guest-edited by photographers, artists or actors and these copies are rare». Picking up a few of the hundreds of American Vogues he says, «they vary between 25€ to 50€ but these aren’t the special editions». His first shop in Rue Du Louvre, was a boutique dedicated to photography with its own photography lab inside.

A dedication to photography

After many years spent as a photographer, he had compiled a small collection of books by 1984. He dedicated Le Comptoir De L’Image to photography which worked well as collectors in Paris began to appear. 

The art of collecting, often perceived as hoarding is a niche market that involves tact, knowledge, patience and research. Throughout the 2000s, Fink explains his shop was a massive hit with the Japanese. «I sold so many books to them but things have calmed down a bit… Now the Chinese have replaced them. They are so knowledgeable about my books it’s incredible. I do get a lot of Italians during fashion week, particularly the big fashion houses like Valentino, who came in recently and bought many books».

Valentino aside he explains, «all the big designers, the design houses have been into the shop. Usually they send their staff with a credit card for them to do their shopping or research. I rarely saw the big designers, like St Laurent, they usually sent their employees, but they all came over the years. Although, these fashion people aren’t bibliophiles, they are usually looking for ideas rather than passionate about the books»

With most questions being met by a sigh, Fink has spent years being asked the same things when he would really just like to talk to collectors alike and mull over recent treasures or favourite books. Interrupted by a phone call from a fellow collector, he says after a couple of yes’s, «for that price, it’s worth it». He hangs up and continues, «people walk around and find things they need advice on and call me to see if they are worth buying». They go to book fairs, markets, he says you can find books everywhere.

«This man just called and asked what I thought about a rare photography book by Thierry Mugler. These are virtually impossible to find and he’d found it in a market for a very low price so I told him to go for it». The man on the phone had retired a few years ago and was spending his time collecting books often bringing them to Fink’s shop and selling them. «He has one of the most incredible collections of books, like me, he’s been doing it for years», he continues, «I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the subject». Pointing at a stack of Japanese photography and fashion books he explains, «I have a friend who lives in Tokyo and every six months he sends me a few Japanese books, he has done so for a while». 

A lot of the books come to Le Comptoir De L’Image through friends and collectors he has met throughout the years. «It’s a small community of people», he specifies, «very small. But that’s what makes it so special». The rarity of his craft is what makes his passion so individual. Unlike so many resale or archive websites around, he prides himself on his detailed eye. Having never promoted his bookshop or done adverts for it, simple word of mouth has resulted in a cult following of his obsessive bibliomania and has landed him with the expert title he deserves. Despite the ever-growing digital generation, he claims, «people still love the hidden, obscure side, which is why I’ve never put any of my books online»

Other collectors like Fink, such as Idea Books in London have their entire shop online and actually closed their physical shop down. «It’s a very efficient system, they put one copy of a book on their website but without indicating the price so people are often forced to call to find out and it seems to work really well for them. They are very expensive though, a book I sell here for 200€ will go for 400€ on their site».

Still, it has become very rare to find real treasures online he explains, «you have to become an absolute addict, constantly searching, hoping for someone to make a mistake and sell something they aren’t familiar with». Still he says, «my addiction continues, maybe not for long now, but it continues». Finally, as he takes a few steps towards his concealed desk, he says, «at the moment things seem like a bloodbath, there are so many deaths and they are all people from my generation»

The life of an artist

He lists, Peter Lindbergh, Steve Hiett, Robert Frank and Fred Herzog, some of his favorite photographers as he says, «an entire generation is disappearing». He continues, «I knew them all, I grew up with them, I worked with them, it’s so sad, but I suppose that’s life». Just before we are interrupted by incoming clients, he pauses and says, «the life of an artist can wear you down in the end».

It was with a heavy heart that I left Michel Fink in the Comptoir in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris on Tuesday morning as I contemplated the future of his legacy and the treasure he will leave behind. With both his parents working in fashion and Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar shaping his childhood, Fink embraced photography and lived through books and a lens for his entire life.

44 Rue de Sévigné

Paris, France