This impressive collection of photographs is like a story within a story and so on. It’s the story of Villa Nellcote, a superb Belle Époque residence which served as a home away from home for countless celebrities, from billionaires to diplomats, to a Titanic survivor. It’s also the story of the legendary British band which pumped a massive dose of rock’n’roll into the place. And it’s the story of a young French photographer who had been raised on Black American music, rockers like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and of course the Kinks, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and who was about to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Galerie de l’Instant in Paris whisks us to the French Riviera, to Villefranche-sur-Mer, and invites us to discover archival images that still hold many secrets, glimpsed in fifty unpublished works and a beautiful book publication in 33 rpm format.
Six months outside of time
Dominique Tarlé is fond of his status as an “amateur photographer” with a “contemplative” style. He is a passionate man who doesn’t ration his time or keep count of all the emerging musicians he captured during the three years he spent in Swinging London, having left Paris post–May ’68. His assiduity brings him luck: the chance to cross paths with John Lennon, who in turn introduced him to the Rolling Stones. They became close friends. In the spring of 1971, following a tour with the band as their official photographer, Tarlé’s “amateur” work came down in the history of rock. “My umpteenth three-month tourist visa was about to expire,” recalls Dominique Tarlé. “The British immigration services told me to leave the country, and I was depressed. But during their last concert, Bianca, the future Mrs. Jagger, let me know that the group was leaving England to go into exile in the south of France in order to escape the tax collector.”
The photographer, aged 22, got the opportunity to photograph the band one afternoon in an unusual setting: at the villa Nellcote rented by the guitarist Keith Richards: “I arrived early in the morning and spent the whole day taking pictures. Around 5 p.m., I thanked everyone, and Keith said: “‘Where are you going? Your room is ready!’ The day that was meant to last only a brief moment thus turned into six months of sharing house. “As I had not brought anything, Keith lent me his clothes and invested in film,” says Tarlé, adding with a smile: “He would regularly give me a handful of bills and tell me to take the limousine, because ‘a journalist without film is like a guitar with no strings.’ ”
With his Nikon 24-36 and 35mm and 85mm lenses, Tarlé documented the daily lives of Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg, and their son Marlon. “For the first three months, I was the guest of an English family on vacation in the south of France. The Stones then decided to get back to work, but there was no professional recording studio in the region,” recalls Dominique Tarlé. “We had to fetch their recording truck from London.” The activities included: boat and car rides, family meals, Bianca and Mick Jagger’s wedding in St. Tropez, and then rehearsals and the recording of their album Exile on Main St. in the basement of the villa. Months of shared life, incredible shots, and the SNCF, which unwittingly supplied them with electricity: “The pianist Ian Stewart had spotted a train line nearby and ran a huge power cable to the villa.”
That summer under the Côte d’Azur sun is engraved in the photographer’s memory: “Never in all my life have I felt as safe as I did with Keith Richards and at Villa Nellcote. Everything just naturally fell into place. The house was filled of children. Keith invited his friends over and they would bring their kids so his son never had to be alone.” To this day the guitarist continues to have confidence in him—a testimony to a lifelong, heartfelt friendship.
The photographs had remained locked up in a drawer for thirty years: “When I returned to Paris, I was turned down by agencies and magazines,” says Dominique Tarlé. “The head of Magnum reviewed [my photos] and said: ‘Young man, behave, stop scavenging in your colleagues’ trash!’ At Rock & Folk, the editor-in-chief, Philippe Coquelin, commented: ‘They’re not bad, but tomorrow the Stones will be somewhere else with another photographer and yours will be worthless.’ ”
For a twenty-year-old, that was like getting the axe. He stopped photographing rock bands five years later, in 1976. The images of the Nellcote adventure, however, resurfaced in 2001 thanks to the release of a deluxe edition Exile by the publishing house Genesis: “I had made a list of people still alive from that era. Eight days before going to press, the publisher contacted me. Keith Richards wrote the preface, which opened: ‘Dominique is a member of the family and a member of the band.’ ”
The anecdotes supplied by the protagonist make the exhibition at the Galerie de l’Instant more surprising, moving, funny, and intimate with every shot. Plus, sharing the life of such a famous music group would be unimaginable today. The latest book, La Villa, brings together these privileged and rare moments, transcribing the legend in more than 150 photographs, including some to see light of day for the first time. Above all, the book delves deeper into the image of decadence which the Stones knew how to capitalize on, keeping their fans in thrall.
Dominique Tarlé, La Villa: The Rolling Stones 1971. Exhibition on view until March 16, 2022, Galerie de l’Instant, 46 rue de Poitou, 75003 Paris. Limited French and English editions of La Villa, 1500 numbered and signed copies, €135, 152 pp., 33 rpm format.