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Philippe Garner, Car Park, Pampelonne Beach, 1974
Philippe Garner, Car Park, Pampelonne Beach, 1974© Philippe Garner, Courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery

Philippe Garner’s sun-soaked photos of 1970s St Tropez

Philippe Garner’s archive of images depicting the Riviera at the height of its most romanticised era is about to go on display for the first time

Between the mid-60s and throughout the 1970s, photographer and auction specialist Philippe Garner spent his summers in the south of France, particularly the Cote d’Azur region and the craggy coastlines of Marseilles and Saint Tropez.

Raised in Brighton, Garner absorbed both British and French culture from early childhood, having spent his long summer holidays in Aix-en-Provence where his grandmother lived and where he was born in 1949. Following an insatiable visual curiosity, he documented the spirit of the French Riviera on Kodachrome film, capturing the atmosphere of 1970s chic leisure, intense heat, saturated colours, and seductive sense of detachment from real life. He reminisces in conversation with Dazed: “We had a different attitude to time, and a very different attitude to life.”

“I took those pictures when I was a very young man, in my early 20s,” he says. “They bring back vivid memories – as if I had taken them yesterday. Yet it was half a century ago.” His upcoming exhibition Summer – Seventies – Saint-Tropez [at Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair] brings together this body of extraordinary images chronicling midcentury Riviera chic which had, until recently, remained hidden. 

“My photographs have been such a private thing for all these decades,” Garner explains. “This exhibition is a sort of coming out of the closet for me.” Known primarily as a well-respected photography expert and auction specialist who has worked at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s across five decades, Garner has only ever considered himself to be an amateur photographer. The Hamilton’s show announces a new chapter for Garner, who, after keeping his most of photography in the shadows for many decades, can begin to redefine himself as a creative in his own right. “Unless I do it now – it’s never going to happen.”

Due to working so closely with renowned established photographers over many years, he felt it wasn’t appropriate to publicly display his own practice. “I’ve got a pretty extensive portfolio by now. It was really my wife who prompted me to do something with the overwhelming number of photographs I have in our collection, rather than just keep them in boxes.” Now retired and in his seventies, it made sense for Garner to begin exhibiting his works from the beginning – to return to the roots of his practice in the early 1970s before he shifted his gaze to other subjects, notably black and white portrait photography, many of which can be viewed in established museum collections, such as the National Portrait Gallery and, more recently, the V&A. 

Inadvertently, Garner’s colourful works tap into the aspirational aesthetic of today’s youth culture, in particular the nostalgia for the technology-free 1970s and melancholic longings for lazy Mediterranean summers (as reflected by recent TikTok trends). The ‘Euro Summer’ craze online – in which tanned skin, plates of fresh seafood, breezy linen trousers, Aperol spritzes, and crystal azure waters off the coast of Positano or Nice – speaks to a desire to escape the mundanity of oppressive city life, particularly for those who spend their lives working in front of a screen. As of this month, the hashtag ‘European Summer’ has now received over one billion views on TikTok.

Garner understands why today’s youth romanticise European holidays, but also revere the 1970s. “There’s a colossal difference between the two eras. Life was analogue in the 1970s. Every bit of it, the smell the texture, the colour. Things felt more tangible. So much today is virtual. There was something so innocent and magical about the raw physicality of the world in life in those years.”

What makes Garner’s photographs so captivating is the visual preservation of a bygone era. In hindsight, his works capture the remnants of a Provence that was slipping away. “Saint Tropez in the early 1970s wasn’t flashy. It was unpretentious and chic and had a lovely buzz to it. A sort of bohemian, village feel. I was there during a golden moment,” the photographer recalls. “I’ll never forget the smell of Hawaiian Tropic suntan. It was really about just getting tanned and roasted fast. How careless and carefree we were.”

Philippe Garner’s Summer – Seventies – Saint-Tropez is showing at Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair from September 4 until October 4, 2023.

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