SUNDAY TIMES - Koto's wonderland
Sunday Times STLive By Sean O'Toole, 2012-04-08 00:16:10.0

Koto's wonderland

Fashion photographer Koto Bolofo on making pictures of the rich, famous and sometimes royal. By Sean O'Toole

Ever since he visited a vintage race-car circuit nearly a decade ago, Koto Bolofo, a South African fashion photographer living in France, has been stalking posh people with his camera. Men called Lord Such-and-such and women with illustrious double-barrelled surnames. The extended adventure, which has resulted in half a dozen books, goes back to a particular moment.

"I came across an article on women racers in the 1930s while browsing through a car magazine," writes Bolofo in Racing Style, the 2005 book that set him off on his current trajectory as a photographer. "I was surprised - and pleased - to read that women used to race cars back then, wearing suits and looking elegant."

The encounter inspired Bolofo to "find a way to do a make-believe version of the story". After some searching with a friend, he stumbled on Goodwood estate, seat of the Earl of March. Every September this country estate south of London hosts a three-day festival devoted to the golden age of Grand Prix racing.

It is an aristocratic dress-up affair: even the mechanics have to wear ties.

"As soon as I set foot at the revival, I felt like I was in Koto Bolofo's Alice in Wonderland," writes the photographer, a genial dandy with a love for craftsmanship in all forms and styles.

Encouraged by Franca Sozzani, the platinum blonde editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, with whom he has worked for many years, Bolofo did a fashion shoot at Goodwood. Lord March loved what he saw and invited the photographer back to do something more substantial.

Since producing Racing Style, 52-year-old Bolofo, a self-taught photographer who launched his first clothing collection at hip New York boutique Anthropologie last month, has produced a number of books documenting the discriminating ways of the rich.

Two years ago he released Vroom! Vroom!, a nostalgic black-and-white essay on the Bugatti garage in Buckinghamshire near London. Published last year, La Maison is an admiring visual study of the craft that underwrites Hermès, the luxury French brand.

The book traces its origins back to a 2002 meeting with Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. Bolofo mentioned growing up in the Transkei, near the Lesotho mountain kingdom. Dumas, whose great-great-grandfather, a missionary, had been sheltered by the Basotho, warmed to the photographer immediately.

As Bolofo tells it: "Dumas welcomed me as his cousin and gave me carte blanche to photograph what I liked at Hermès."

Forthcoming later this year is a new book on Christiane Head-Maarek, a renowned racehorse trainer living in Chantilly, France's famous racehorse region. Both her father and grandfather are well-known trainers and breeders; the family's clients include the press-shy Wertheimers, owners of the Chanel brand.

The subject of Bolofo's current book is no less illustrious: it focuses on the present English monarch's brother-in-law. When photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones married Queen Elizabeth's sister, Princess Margaret, in 1960, he was without title. He was quickly given one: Earl of Snowdon.

Although now somewhat forgotten, the name Lord Snowdon is synonymous with 1960s British celebrity portraiture. His subjects included media personalities and royalty, notably the queen and her eldest son's deceased wife, Princess Diana. Midway through my telephone interview, I ask Bolofo what his parents think of his hobnobbing with high society. His new book is dedicated to his mother, who lives in Port Shepstone, and father, who has passed away.

"My mum is so proud, and my father in heaven too," he says.

"Really?" I press.

A graduate of Fort Hare, MaKhaola Dublin Paul Bolofo was a schoolteacher whose interest in Karl Marx is the reason the family had to hastily flee their home, first to Zambia, later London.

"Yes," insists Bolofo. "He would have been proud. My mother was also floored. She asked how I did it: how did this mampara, this African boy, this village boy, get to knock on the queen's gate? How the hell?"

This is how: In 2009, American portraitist and fashion photographer Irving Penn died. Bolofo was hugely dismayed by the cursory obituaries.

"I thought, my God, no one is talking about this great, iconic photographer. I found myself wondering what he was like at 92. Did anyone know what he looked like, what he did, what his daily movements were?"

This in turn prompted him to think about some of the other photographers that inspired him as a young London art student, including Lord Snowdon, whose 1983 book of portraits, Sittings, was an early inspiration.

"I decided to write him a small letter saying I really want to do a photo documentation about you, to see what you are doing on a daily basis." Accompanying the letter was a copy of Racing Style and Venus Williams, his 2008 book on the gifted tennis champion.

"It was throwing a fishing line," he admits. "Somehow, the stars were with me. I got a response the following week. He was sitting on a chair like a throne when I arrived. I said it was such an honour to meet him. I was stumbling when I was talking - I didn't know what to say or how to carry myself."

During this halting exchange, he blurted out that many people thought Lord Snowdon was dead.

"I was really upfront with him. I could see a twinkle in his eye. We had a really good laugh. He asked me: 'Would you like to have a drink?'"

Over the next year, at intervals, Bolofo travelled to London by train to take pictures of his photographic predecessor, Snowdon. As with his previous book projects, he worked alone and used his old film cameras. The mostly black-and-white photos that resulted are typical of Bolofo's refined formalism and restrained-yet-inquisitive style.

Bolofo says he was greatly inspired by the things he saw in Lord Snowdon's studio.

"When I was delving into his darkroom studio, going through the countless things he has done, I came across his Polaroid notebooks. There are 20 of them, all filled with countless pictures of iconic people."

As Bolofo's new book shows, each Polaroid was meticulously annotated. "Miuccia Prada seated, facing camera," reads a typical example. "Camilla Parker Bowles, grey background, pearl necklace," offers another. Each included the technical settings he had applied.

"Basically, to me, he was a craftsman," ventures Bolofo. "It made me look like a fool. I work in a really spontaneous way, but his way was really craft-like. I was flabbergasted."

He laughs when he recalls presenting Lord Snowdon with the big red book bearing his and Bolofo's name. "He got so accustomed to me coming that he forgot about the book. He looked at every page slowly, taking in every single detail - and then he did it a second time. That is what impressed me: he is so meticulous about detail."

This habit extended to matters beyond photography. One day, while working on the book, remembers Bolofo, he arrived wearing a suit and brown brogues.

"Coat-toe," remarked the Lord in his aristocratic voice, "I knew a friend who used to wear brown shoes on the weekend. It is a weekday."