In the 1990s, you shot a lot of portraits for the press, and then started doing much more landscapes, including urban areas. What decided you to take this new direction?
I was doing a lot of press commissions, almost every day, mainly portraits, and I needed a change of air. Les Inrocks magazine was doing a special issue about New York. They sent four photographers, among which Depardon and me, to shoot portraits of New York City’s cultural scene. I was staying in a very fine hotel overlooking Central Park. I was instantly seized by a dizzying sensation: I felt tiny in the great city. I immediately felt compelled to express that feeling in photography, the difference of scale between men and the city.
How has photography allowed you to reflect this?
I have always worked with a large-format view camera. It consists of two “standards”: one to the rear with the viewfinder, one to the front with the shutter and lens, and between them, the bellows. If you tilt one of the standards, you can reduce the depth of field and modify the image’s sharpness. I used this technique in portrait photography to focus on the eyes only, while the rest of the subject and its environment faded away in a blur. This tilting effect immediately seemed perfect to me to express the deep change in scale prevalent in today’s megacities. Applied to an urban environment, tilting creates a miniature effect.A bit like the impression you are looking through a magnifying glass at a world full of aimless little beings?
It’s the same feeling that Sofia Coppola so aptly addressed in her film Lost in Translation
: whether in New York, Tokyo or Sydney, things are always pretty much the same; you are a tiny person lost in a big city. I actually visited the hotel where the film was shot, stayed there for two weeks, and that’s exactly it. This was at a time when I myself was traveling non-stop, and I felt the same detachment, a sense of being in a beautiful place but not being sensitive to it. It could have been anywhere, at any time.
As if time were expanding, just as the city expands and becomes anonymous?
In my photography, I always try to give a face to the image of generic cities. Big cities are all increasingly looking the same, and the emotions we feel in each of them are also becoming more uniform.
Have you now given up the tilting effect?
I still use it, but differently. At first, I would exaggerate it, to express the loss of scale in a more straightforward manner; now, I try to explore the idea in more subtle ways. I still use tilting: it’s less noticeable, but the weirdness remains.
This photograph of Tampa for instance has a slight tilt: the strangeness is still perceptible.In this, are you again exploring the difference of scale between two extremes, the vastness of the ocean and the tiny elements in the distance?
This photograph of Tampa is at the crossroads of my work on urban areas and of a new series I am dedicating to the oceans, specifically to capes - places where you are on the edge of the world, of civilization, where something new begins; equally immense, but without the artefacts and noise. In a sense, it’s a counterpart for the work I have done so far. This image stands at the junction of these two zones: in the background, on the horizon, it still has a thin strip of land, with a few small buildings, which are actually huge skyscrapers. They stand out clearly, while the rest of the image is the moving ocean, slightly blurred because it’s a little choppy. It’s interesting to work on an element in constant motion: with relatively long exposure times, you can play with the material.
Does the Mulholland Drive photo also use motion blur?
Yes. I wanted to use my view camera without a tripod, hand-held, like Weegee worked in the streets of New York in the 30s and 40s. When I took this picture, I had just seen David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive
. I wanted to experience the road by night, as it winds across the heights of Beverly Hills, and recreate the aura of mystery this place emanates, especially for those who have seen the film.
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