Michel Comte feels right at home at Kronenhalle. The Swiss artist and photographer grew up near the storied restaurant in Zürich, which was founded in 1924. He has fond memories of meeting Kronenhalle’s founder, Hulda Zumsteg, during family dinners. An oil painting of the legendary restaurateur, by Swiss artist Varlin, hangs in the brasserie. “He really captured her soul,” says Comte, while occupying his usual corner seat in the neighbouring Chagall room. “No one can see me but I can see everyone else.”
Diners at Kronenhalle eat alongside a dazzling collection of early 20th-century art. A well-dressed crowd of regulars tuck into meaty European staples, such as veal escalope and Comte’s regular order, steak Robespierre. He arrives after 14.00 with company ranging from his 93-year-old father to his Japanese wife – or a book.
During lunch with monocle, he opens a tome about the late artist Louise Bourgeois, a friend and one of many famous faces he snapped during a career spent shooting for fashion houses and magazines. Today he is preoccupied with art but his camera is still in the picture. A “monumental” portraiture project will be unveiled in four years’ time; his response to 35 years of photographing fame.
As the afternoon light in Kronenhalle changes, Comte shifts to the brasserie and orders green tea under a painting by Joan Miró. The documenter of the great and the good occupies the same seats that Albert Einstein used to inhabit. A happy coincidence, he says. Comte has a fascination with science and quantum physics: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is on his bedside table and a major art project involving artificial intelligence is to be unveiled later this year.
Averaging one week a month in Zürich and two days at Kronenhalle, the denim-clad artist makes an unlikely addition to the many picture frames. “I’m an art collector but there’s nothing on my walls,” he says. “Collecting is about learning but if I have things around me then I can’t think.”
The Swiss has spent most of his career away from Zürich. Almost 40 years in the US came to an end when Donald Trump’s election prompted a return home. Comte shot the “pompous fuck” twice for the cover of Vanity Fair. These days he’d love to photograph US speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi. “What she’s doing is remarkable,” says Comte, who starts his day poring over political developments in a handful of newspapers.
Photos take him seconds; artworks take years. Dramatic land-based projects require him to fly from the Syrian border to the Norwegian Arctic. But when it’s wheels down in Zürich, he heads straight to Kronenhalle. “All my memories come back to here,” he says.
1954 Born in Zürich, Switzerland
1979 Karl Lagerfeld commissions debut shoot for Chloé
1995 Auction of fashion and war prints raises money for building a hospital in Kabul
2007 His Schumacher 791 book, documenting the Formula One driver Michael over 12 years, is published
2014The Girl from Nagasaki – Comte’s retelling of Madame Butterfly – premieres at Sundance Film festival
2020 Setting sail for Svalbard on an art expedition to 3D-map a melting glacier