How did you come to shoot only at night?
The idea of taking photographs at night came totally by accident. It happened near Annecy, on a mountain I knew as a child, a place where nature has worked wonders with erosion. I started working on this rocky plateau – it felt like a kind of monastic retreat, a return to the desert: I pitched my tent, and I spent over a month there shooting. After a few days, I had exhausted the supply of literature I had brought along, evenings started to feel a little long, so I found myself wandering around with a flashlight. And I saw everything I had photographed by day; I could revisit all of it by night without depending on the sunlight I was always after to create the shadows I wanted to see. That's how I took my first night shots, with a single tool – my camper’s lantern – because I hadn’t brought any equipment for that. It wasn’t intentional originally, it was more a case of the wonder and amazement I felt when I discovered the possibilities.
What encouraged me to continue over the years was the realization that I could re-shoot everything that has been photographed until now, all those things that photographers were shooting repetitively to the point of exhaustion, and make something new out of it. For a long time, your night photographs were in black and white, and then you moved to colour, which became your raw material. Why the change? Did it change your relationship to the landscape?
In my black and white night photographs, my movements were highly visible: I was drawing with the lamp, the lines were very marked. And I felt the need to leave more room for space, depth, and this yearning called for colour and much less acute interventions of the luminous trace. Colour allowed me to work on interpreting the landscape. In my work, the transition from black and white to colour was like moving from drawing to painting. In a way, what I do fits in the tradition of painting: Renaissance painters used a monochrome background, called grisaille; I also work with a background, which is the dark of night. Against this neutral backdrop, I place elements, transparently, colour by colour, with my palette of colour gels and my "torch brushes".
How do you work when you’re shooting?
I scout the locations by day; I prepare my frame, with the same camera body and same focal length. I take a look at my scouting image and, before shooting, I decided which colours I’m going to use. I have a double, or let’s say triple palette, consisting of gels - transparent films I affix to my torches – that come from the world of theatre, film, and everyday life (sweets wrappers, exercise-book covers etc.). Very little is decided while actually shooting.
Do you have a team to support you?
It’s always better when there are two of you. At Marcoussis, where I was on an artist residency - one of the two photographs selected comes from there - I asked residents if they would be interested in taking part in the shooting: there were sometimes ten, fifteen people around me.
I ask people to press the shutter release, what they think about a particular effect I'm trying to create, say a backlight, which I can’t see the result of as I’m in the frame. I'm always in the picture, never out of the frame: I walk around, in constant motion, so that my phantom image never appears in the picture. It’s an interesting game: always being in the picture has a slightly shamanic feel to it! The ritual with the light and the gestures induce a rapport with a form of spirituality - so any picture taken with this technique fits into this spirituality, which I would describe as secular.
You have photographed cityscapes, but nature seems to take up most of your work. Here too, nature is what you find.
The city comes with a challenge that’s hard to overcome: ambient light, which is always competing with what I do. I had to look for technical solutions for the power of my lamp to counterbalance public lighting. The use of digital technology allows me, through double exposure systems, to remove ambient lighting more easily and retain only my light intervention.
I had to do this for Yuccas
, because it’s right in the middle of Pachuca, not far from Mexico City, and there are sodium lights that give the sky reddish, orange hues.
Two states of nature are what I have photographed in these recent images, Yuccas
and Cabane de Marcoussis
features almost animal forms, very strange, somewhat disturbing, but friendly nonetheless. They are like a family; it’s the clan side that caught my attention.
In Cabane de Marcoussis
, chaos and organisation meet. Knocked down trees form a big pick-up sticks game of branches that kids have gathered into a hut. It’s human - perhaps also animal - intelligence that has turned the chaos into an orderly heap.
The Mikado pick-up sticks aspect explains my choice of colours, there is a play of complementary colours and contrasts.
When evoking these landscapes, you sometimes use the word “stage”...
When I create an image, I think of the condensation that occurs in an opera overture, in the music but also in the scenic design, the set. An overture must not be a spoiler for the rest of the plot, but must start to draw us into the mystery and suggest the overall atmosphere. Everything’s already there, but at the same time, nothing is given away.
Limited edition, numbered and signed.