story by Rocio Frausto

“Jazz tickles your muscles, symphonies stretch your soul”

The Dada Surrealism movement, 1920’s Jazz Age art and Rock Star Serge Gainsbourg are reincarnated as the aesthetic sensibility of  Mathieu Bitton‘s magnum opus. Blurring the boundaries between music and design creating an intangible aura materializing as a symphonic haze. Spanning a successful 20 year career of over 700 album covers, photographs and logos. As one of the industry’s leading soundtrack designers, Mr. Bitton has developed art for movies such as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and, Harry Potter. Most recently Kevin McDonald’s Marley documentary on the reggae legend.

Bestowed with France’s renowned Chevalier Dans L’Ordre Des Arts & Lettres (Knight in the order of arts and letters) from the French Republic in 2012. Including a Grammy nomination for his classic design interpretation for Jane’s Addiction Cabinet of Curiosities.

Whilst the juxtaposition of cultural genres culminated in collaborations with Rock Star legends: Miles Davis; James Brown; Lenny Kravitz; Sting; Prince and Warner Brothers.

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Strut, a homage to the glamour of the 1970’s metropolis marks Lenny Kravitz’s first release since 2011’s “Black and White America on his own record label Roxie Records (named for his mother, Roxie Roker) with collaboration by Bob Clearmountain.  Briefly, describe the challenges associated as photographer of the world tours for this new album?  How would you describe the atmosphere backstage/rehearsal of world tours for new album?

The challenge to me is all about getting a different photo to post on Lenny’s socials every night. I will shoot a similar moment because the energy in it might be completely different. There is a great luxury in being the only person allowed to capture everything on and off stage for the duration of a tour, including days off, parties, tour bus rides, events, etc. So to challenge myself more, I have started to shoot a lot of the shows with my manual Leica cameras. That way you have to manually focus on an instant and can’t shoot so many frames as with automatic cameras. Not that I don’t like both but that is a challenge for me.

But when it comes to albums and singles, Lenny and I work really fast together. For example we just did an “ENOUGH” post the other day when Lenny woke up angry about the violence in America. We shot it quickly on one of Lenny’s construction sites here in the Bahamas and then went back to his house and designed the poster and it was posted within minutes. That’s something you would normally have an ad agency work on for weeks or months. So we work really well together because we have a strong trust and long friendship.

Flash beams pulsated across world tours for Flash and Ascension exhibitions which celebrated their premiere at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles. Lenny Kravitz captures the essence of his life as a musician flourished by photographers, paparazzi, and fans. Tell me about the conceptual development of the exhibitions?  Developed across multiple venues rather than in one large space, how has this impacted the atmosphere of the exhibitions?

Flash was Lenny’s very first exhibition which evolved out of a book I designed for him, published by TeNeues. I can only speak for my show, Ascension, which was born out of Vienna’s Ostlicht Gallery’s desire to show the other side of Flash, the life of the rock star, since in Flash Lenny’s camera is turned on his public, fans, paparazzi etc.  I gathered images from the hundreds of thousands of photos I have shot of Lenny. This was a very hard task. I still wanted to have a narrative to the show, not just great images of Lenny. The show premiered in Vienna with over two thousand attendees and it was the first time both shows were done together. Flash/Ascension also traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria. Flash did premiere solo at Leica Gallery LA in the U.S. and at the Leica headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany. I really enjoyed the process of making an art show out of one person’s day to day life, at home, on the road, in the sky, and so on. The most interesting thing I realized once I saw the show up on the gallery walls was that this was also MY life, from my own eyes, my travels, my routines and my sleepless nights. It’s just a much better looking mirror of my life. Although Lenny recently joked about how he was going to start shooting me every day.

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Set against the groovy disco era of  1970’s Los Angeles, The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling marks your return as Art Director.  Can you talk about the inspiration for the book and soundtrack of The Nice Guys and working with Joel Silver and his crew as well as Lakeshore Records?

This great movie is set in 1970s Los Angeles was a perfect project for me, being a collector of 70s Blaxploitation posters and 1970s soundtracks. The Rizzoli book had to be designed at the speed of light and my friend and editor Jessica Fuller called me asking if I could design a full book in a couple weeks. I took on the challenge -as I love a good challenge- and designed about 100+ pages in 3 days, not going to sleep at all. She then presented it to Joel Silver who absolutely loved it and called me insisting on coming over to my place to go over the design. Knowing Silver is one of the biggest producers of all time I was both excited and nervous at the same time. This was a huge project and I just felt so honored to work on it. I had to see the film a half a dozen times right away to be able to design the book chronologically.  Their visit led to Blaxploitation posers of “Super Fly” and “The Candy Tangerine Man” to my collection of “Orfeu Negro” and “Carmen Jones” posters.  Mixed with black American statues and rock and roll photographs, vinyl, Prince memorabilia and paintings. Joel is such a cool guy. While he was there I told them my specialty is packaging and I would love to create a super deluxe package for the soundtrack. Once the book was done and everyone was thrilled with it —and we made the deadline— Joel’s office called me about the soundtrack. Lakeshore Records was hired and their main design John Bergin who does all their amazing packages was supposed to design it.  I had this idea of an extravagant 70’s Porn theme and am so grateful to Lakeshore and Iam8bit for allowing me develop it. I thought a 3D nude centerfold gatefold would be ideal, with customized 3D glasses included as well as 6 different double-sided posters, skin-colored with “pearly swirl” vinyl, an X-rated band over the cover and a Nice Guys business card. Jessica and I had a meeting with Joel, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to show them the finished book and soundtrack art. They were beyond ecstatic which was a great feeling. This was a great team all around. Everyone involved was so passionate about it.

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Looking Back on Love chronicles the production of  Lenny Kravitz’ ninth album, Black and White America.  Spanning more than two years of exclusive interviews and recording techniques. Showcasing musical partner, Craig Ross and New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty at the Gregory Town Studio in the Bahamas. What types of discussions did you have with Lenny Kravitz during the pre-production process of the documentary? 

Well, the whole thing really just happened. We didn’t necessarily plan it. Lenny was calling his friend Mark Seliger on the tour bus in 2009 from Italy to ask him about finding a cool director to document the recording process. I was sitting across from him with a deer in headlights look on my face and waved to him like “dude, I can do it!” and he looked at me and said “Oh never mind Mark. Yeah, Mathieu you can do it.” Then I just came to the Bahamas and started filming. This was around November 2009. The interesting thing was that when I first came to Eleuthera (where his studio is) to finalize production of the “Let Love Rule 20th Anniversary Edition” I was producing, I filmed some early “Black And White America” sessions. I didn’t know why but I just did. You can imagine how good I felt once I was editing the film and found all that. It was the “Push” and “Looking Back On Love” footage.

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What technical challenges did you encounter during the filmmaking?

The fact that I was doing it alone was a bit tough sometimes. I had to stay up 24/7 as Lenny was in such a creative zone he just kept going and going. But I also didn’t have great gear. I just had what I had and that’s why some stuff is so grainy. But I like it. it’s real. I was sponsored by FLIP cams at first so some of the super grainy footage was from that.  A couple sessions I filmed didn’t have sound to do some technical issues. It was distressful transferring those tapes and realizing they were unusable. Lighting was a big issue too as I didn’t want to kill the dark, cool, moody candle-lit vibe Lenny has at Gregory Town Sound. So I pretty much knew I was making a grainy documentary. That was the main reason I did those bright interviews on the water. I love the contrast. And Craig Ross disliked the camera top light in his face when I was filming his amazing solos.

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Do you have special anecdotes from your role as producer of the documentary?

Well, editing was crazy. My editor Quinn Alvarez and I showed up for editing every day at 9am and left around 5am. We would never leave the building. We were on a crazy deadline for an August 2011 release but then the label Roadrunner couldn’t get their clearances in order so it sat for a year. But it finally came out this year and the response has been wonderful.

I really love that Lenny let me do it the way I wanted to. Even making fun of him sometimes like the “Album’s done” montage. I even missed a couple more times when he said the album was done, maybe a year or so before he finally completed it. And the scene with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem was so cool. I remember going out for a smoke with Javier even though I don’t smoke. I totally pretended I smoked just to continue our conversation. He’s too smart though. He knew I was in fan mode. But we did all have an amazing talk about the music industry and compromises artists have made to fit into the system.

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What are your anticipated future projects?

The focus now is on my upcoming Leica exhibition Darker Than Blue which opens September 8th at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles. This is the fruit of the past couple years of shooting portraits of every day people – all black men, children and women throughout my travels from New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Memphis and The Bahamas. As you know by now I am a huge collector and archivist of Black memorabilia and photography. Since my early childhood in Paris, I have had admiration (or maybe obsession) for Black arts. This show is the realest thing I have ever done. A big portion of it is hand portraits. I find hands fascinating. The only celebrity photos in this show are in the hand series. Quincy Jones, Cicely Tyson, Herbie Hancock for example. For me, black and white photographs are more expressive and timeless than color images to capture the essence of a person. I was just telling the folks at Leica recently that what I am doing with this show is creating photographs to add to my own collections of African American arts. I am very proud of these images. They are intense and vivid. There is a hyper realistic quality I tried to give all of them. It’s been fun going back to the Bahamas this month and showing some of the subjects their portraits. They all react with huge smiles (sometimes telling me they look much older in the photographs. My heavy contrasts can do that, but I see it as character and wisdom —not aging). I think this show will travel around the world. I love the concept of these portraits traveling the world through my exhibitions.

I am also working on a Prince book which I will discuss when I can. I will also be doing a coffee table book of my Lenny photos. Working on a Rizzoli book of Moshe Brakha photos right now. I have been doing a lot of shoots for Blue Note records. The most recent one was a few weeks ago in NYC, shooting Robert Glasper. I had an amazing time shooting Kandace Springs for her debut album which was just released. I’ve had the honor of shooting Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Lonnie Smith (his album Evolution, featuring my photos was also recently released), new brilliant artists like Kendrick Scott and Lionel Loueke and new Motown artist Sebastian Kole who you will be hearing a lot about. And I am currently on tour with Lenny and Guns N Roses, which is a blast. I have also recently photographed and designed a fantastic album by my dear friend and soul man Chris Pierce entitled “You’ve Got To Feel It” recorded at Muscle Shoals with the legendary Muscle Shoals band. My goal is to keep working with real artists and helping bring them to the light.

And finally I have been in the studio with Lenny shooting a lot for his next couple albums. As my idol always said, “Real music for real people.” That’s all I want. The loss of Prince has been the hardest for me to digest. He has been the biggest influence on my career and will always be my favorite artist.

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