Today, I want to present a photographer I admire, particularly his travel photography, presenting some rather striking images. He has carried out a number of voyages to different countries, many of which we will refer to over the course of this interview.
Hello Pierre. Today, I would like to do the opposite of what I usually do. I want to begin by talking about your most recent trips and from there, go back in time. I hope this modus operandi is ok with you… To begin, let us talk about the introductory photograph you have chosen for this interview. A beached boat is a rather unusual symbol for an imaginary journey… Perhaps, I can interpret it as an allusion to my penchant for wastelands and abandoned spaces…
Indeed. Let us set off on a journey that is both imaginary and improbable! I’m glad to have satisfied your penchant for abandoned spaces, by the way. In fact, this photograph was taken at the end of 2018 in the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea is drying up and this boat lost all the water around it. The phenomenon is affecting an entire region that was once prosperous. I was looking at the boat when a beautiful Uzbek woman showed up, climbed onto the wreckage and took ... a selfie!
A random gift from the universe in other words! Can you tell me a little about your most recent project?
With pleasure. It’s often easier to talk about our more recent projects than past ones. The advantage of recent work is the permanent immersion of the moment; the disadvantage is the lack of perspective!
My last photography project dates from March of last year (2019). I set sail on a Caribbean cruise ship departing from Miami, on-board the Symphony of the Seas, currently the largest ocean liner in the world.
How many trips do you go on per year?
I do about three photography trips per year, each of which gives birth to a photo book without text or captions, with just a title only.
Do current events, opportunities or the people you meet influence your choice of photography project? Can you tell us more about this?
Yes, my choice is generally influenced by all of these factors, if not more, and of course by various ideas that evolve over time.
For example, the idea for my book on hidden Venetian courtyards, Venetian Backyards & Mirages, was originally based on a personal challenge: I wanted to make a book on Venice, a city that has been photographed millions of times, by avoiding the typical picture-postcard shots and kitsch atmospheres.
I decided to stay in Venice for 13 days and 13 nights in mid-January, normally the best time of the year for damp and gloomy weather. I wanted a rainy, foggy backdrop for my shots, even maybe a little snow.
What I got was the complete opposite! Postcard conditions, albeit slightly chilly, for 80% of my stay. I even got a suntan on my second day there! Therefore, in order to meet my objective, I was forced to “bend” the circumstances, the environment, and even my expectations. It was tough.
Is it important to your work to vary the countries visited? Does this affect the style of your photographs? For example, a visit to an “old European” country is followed by a trip to Japan, which is followed by a trip to the US…
Not really, there’s nothing premeditated about my choice of location.
Regarding the Venice trip, I must admit that I was somewhat unsettled by the close-up shots. I felt that we lost a little of the magic of Venice by focusing on Venetians and details of the city that the majority of travellers don’t even notice. Were these images motivated by a desire to demystify the city, in addition to being different from other photographs already taken of Venice?
Exactly! I’m glad I challenged your expectations! That was my goal. If you consider the title, along with the front and back cover, there is a certain promise. The title and front and back cover photos set the tone of the book and its contents: Venetian Backyards & Mirages.
The book is divided into two parts: the first focuses on hidden Venetian courtyards and the second explores the “mirages” of a city nicknamed “Serenissima” (the Serene) that plunge the viewer into a kind of dark magic.
My response was an automatic one, I think. That happens to me a lot (laughs). I like the nostalgia associated with Venice and its slow decline, the gap between the tourists and the daily life of the city’s inhabitants. I look forward to “leafing through” your slideshow again, and invite our readers to do the same.
On the other end of the scale, we have my book Extrême Far East, shot in Kyoto in May 2018.
Again, I wanted to take up the photographic challenge of a super touristy location, where kitsch stereotypes abound. I wanted to find a way of distancing myself from all of these clichés.
I worked intensively for 16 days and 16 nights, travelling 230 km on foot, and the same by train, bus and metro around Kyoto and its surrounding areas. All of this was necessary. The resulting photographs are more attractive ... for Westerners, in any case!
I really liked this album but it didn’t leave the same impression as the Venice project did. Perhaps this is because I am not familiar with Japan, or because your work corresponds to my “impression”, my “imaginary Japan” from all the films I have seen about it...
In other words, it corresponded to your expectations, to what Westerners in general still expect: this ancestral Japan that they first discovered in the 1950s and 1960s in films, magazines and photo reports.
The Japanese on the other hand, have mostly turned the page; they look at these photos as we look at ones depicting life in 1960s’ France.
“The Japanese have mostly turned the page”. Yet, this Japan must also exist since you encountered it. I don’t know if I was “expecting” this Japan, this mixture of tradition and modernity seems a given to me, perhaps wrongly so, but I found it in your pictures.
But allow me to insist (good naturedly, of course!) that you were expecting this in the same way that Westerners unconsciously imagine (= expect) and wish to “see” this nostalgic Japan identified and captured in so many still and moving images diffused after the war.
Yes, this Japan exists… in part. Photography, mine at least, does not translate a reality, it is always staged based on the choice of the framing of the composition, both in and off field, the choice of colours and the play between light and dark, by the fraction of a second that freezes what the eye is unable of capturing.
In more concrete terms, I tirelessly sought out “this vision of Japan”, tracking it in Gion, Kyoto’s red-light district, where from the hundreds of photographs taken, I kept only the tiny percentage of those that reflected this specific “vision” of Japan. I apologize if my words have tarnished the magic of the images!
No harm done, because now I know that if I was “expecting” this, you were “seeking” it!
In terms of the cinematography of your images, do you think about the framing and composition in advance? Alternatively, do you unconsciously tend towards these compositions that often seem to have been inspired by the cinema?
When you take a photograph while strolling around a place or a city without any prior aim, and where shots are taken in the moment, the framing is often instinctive. There is no time to think. It becomes a reflex in the long run, we take inspiration from painting, cinema, photo books by major photographers, exhibitions, and with time and luck, all of these influences can be seen in certain snapshots. You could say that all of these elements come together to unconsciously influence the way of framing when you click the button. Other images, less in the moment, the instantaneous, allow you to adjust and perfect the framing, the perspective, the lighting and even the moment of shooting.
What are you looking for with this type of photography? I get the feeling that it’s based on a desire to go towards the other, towards other cultures. This is what drives you. Am I right?
Through this type of photography or rather through the medium of the photo book, I humbly seek to offer my vision of the world, an artistic rather than a journalistic vision.
To go towards the other is to accept and respect differences. Having lived and worked a quarter of a century outside of France, I have seen that there are many versions of the truth or of reality, which can be explored and often appeased, particularly when there are misunderstandings, through exchange and dialogue. A photographer’s eye is constantly on the lookout, ceaselessly attracted to the unusual.
Before travelling and focusing on street photography all around the world, what kind of photographs did you take? Unless of course, this type of photography was your first love and you are still drawn to it today…
In fact, I have only truly been taking photographs since the beginning of 2015, and at that time, I had a fascination for “regards”. My practice revolved around the stolen or surprised gaze or regards of my subjects, sometimes even shot in motion, without stopping. I only had this type of photo to my credit!
Are these types of portraits still present in your work today? What was or is the meaning or motivation behind them?
Since late 2016, I have expressed myself exclusively through the photo book without text or captions, just the title of the work. Visual storytelling is the key to this medium. The photos serve the narrative.
Today, a few rare “regards”-style portraits appear in each of my books, without them being the pivot of the work.
What did or does this mean? Until recently, I had no idea.
These portraits of stolen or surprised “looks” are characterized by an absence of depth; they are an attempt to “penetrate” the soul of the subjects photographed. Like for example, the powerfully moving portraits by Diane Arbus or Vanessa Winship.
Recently, several people from the world of photography who are familiar with my work have told me: “the apparent superficiality of your rare ‘regards’ portraits are actually your own self-portraits!”
In truth, I don’t know if this is relevant. It’s for others to judge.
That remark doesn’t surprise me because it’s a reflection that can also be made in terms of painting, which I could apply to my own work at a time when I painted people. I stopped painting as I found that through these portraits I was revealing too much of myself... I realized later that other choices revealed themselves to us too but in a more subtle way.
What advice would you give a (young) photographer based on your own experiences?
I’m not the best person to answer that question, Isabelle. I may be advanced in age but I’m still a “young” photographer, with just 4 short years of experience.
In my physical and virtual meetings with talented photographers, I’m still looking for the answers to this kind of question!
Do current events, social and/or ecological, inspire you to explore other subjects or at the very least, to approach your work differently?
If so, can you tell us more, and if not, can you explain your opinion?
No, I don’t have any socio-political agenda.
The places and subjects are simply a pretext for artistic expression, outside of a traditional documentary or photo-journalistic narrative.
However, let me nuance my rather abrupt answer: when I photograph everyday life in the street, I necessarily offer a vision, a very personal reflection that is undoubtedly oriented in a certain direction. Let me explain.
I define my activity in two words: author-photographer. This allows me to separate my activity into two parts.
When shooting, I am 100% a “photographer” and I “shoot” anything that catches my attention, which I find interesting, without asking myself too many questions or without ulterior motives. Here, the result is due to the amount of work and to chance.
Despite everything, a first filter is in place, the filter linked to my personality, my values, ethics, etc., ultimately everything that is associated with me as a person that prevents me from taking certain photos or from seeing certain scenes that other photographers might see and accept.
So in this first part, a personal (instead of the term socio-political) selection is made, and often unconsciously.
Concerning the “author” part of my work, this is where the radical choice of photos (editing) comes into play, along with the realization of the editorial line (the sequencing of photos), the construction of the sequences of the book, their layout and finally the title of the work. None of this is due to chance. I am 100% responsible for the stance given, for all the choices made. The author’s work is simply a filter to retain and orchestrate the photographs that correspond to the subject I wish to develop. Here, there is a clear intention to lead the reader in a certain direction or path.
Like for example my desire to show the real life of Venice, of those who work and/or live there. Or the cruise ships filled with middle class Americans, Trump supporters for the most part.
Afterwards, and that’s what I like about photo books without text or captions, each reader can interpret the photos and books in their own way, depending on their own experience and imagination. They cannot rely on a text or be guided by captions.
In conclusion, everyone is free to invent their own story when “reading” such books.
How do you see your work evolving?
I have been asking myself that same question! My eleventh book has just been completed.
At the end of last year, I returned from Estonia where this question haunted me during my two-week stay. Three days after my arrival in Tallinn, I practically stopped taking pictures: “You’re taking the same pictures as usual. What’s the point? Where are you going? Or rather where do you want to go? Where should you go?” All of these questions went in circles around my head. The fear of repeating myself, of not innovating and of doing the same thing over again paralysed me.
In short, after a brief period of feeling unsettled and uncertain, and now with a little hindsight, I know what I want to keep. However, I am still not sure what I want to look for in my future photography projects. I’m still thinking about that.
I asked you to choose a photo from your last trip. Why did you choose this one? In terms of what you have just said, can you tell me a little more about what is going on here?
Usually I let my photos “rest” for several weeks after I come back from a trip and before I look at them!
Your request forced me to break that habit! When I looked through the images to choose one for you, I stopped on these two “self-portraits”. They were taken at the “Energy Discovery Center” in Tallinn: a large screen surmounted by a camera reproduces your reflection under the rays.
They represent in diptych format what I have just explained: the man and the photographer facing the man who seeks to analyse both in depth in order to answer questions like: “What will your future inspiration be? Will it be found around you, in your head, your way of seeing the world?"
What is your preferred method of sharing your work? Do you exhibit? We can find interviews with you and about your work in several reviews/magazines. What is your stance on this?
The traditional or industrial photo book without text or captions, only with a title, is my preferred mode of expression. It is within this complete medium: photographs (the raw material), editing, design and layout, that I recognize myself best.
Today’s digital technology allows us to master the entire production chain behind our own computer screen: development, post-production, layout, design and online printing. This is what motivates me: to be solely responsible for the final photo book, from shooting to printing.
No, I don’t exhibit and never do exhibitions on my own. However, for the first time, I recently applied to a number of festivals where the winners’ work will be shown. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.
As for interviews, publications and conferences on my work, it is always an enriching way to take a step back from my activity and to get feedback on how it is perceived by others.
The emails and messages sent by my readers are part of this too. All of this is very motivating.
Before finishing this article, I would like to provide some information on how these interviews work. Firstly, I select artists whose work I like, some are known to me, others are not. We may admire the work of an artist but when we find that we have an affinity with their personality and points of view, it makes the interview even more rewarding.
The interview is done over several stages:
- I ask questions;
- The artist sends me their answers;
- This in turn leads to other questions. Speaking with them over the phone at this point is always a pleasure, especially when a certain complicity has been created.
I would like to thank all of the artists who have accepted to participate. These interviews are always tremendous fun for me and I hope that you enjoy discovering their universe.
Finally, I would like to add that I respect the answers given to me by the artist and the choice of photographs is made by mutual agreement.
Regarding the layout, I like to validate it after it has been completed and I would like to thank my son for his work in this area.
Plastic Artist - La Rochelle
Just one year ago, we were at the Luxembourg Street Photography Festival where we were fortunate enough to meet Sabine Weiss. An opportunity and a simplicity that we are sorely missing today. Now, the definition of simplicity has taken on a whole other meaning, or rather to be precise, nothing has meaning anymore.
Despite everything, we had the pleasure, this year, of participating online in the Festival, in events like Slide Night, the Open Wall, and in several conferences with renowned photographers. The positive side of lockdown, if we can call it that, was that we finally had the time to ask our guest artists questions.
Pierre Gély-Fort participated in this year’s festival and not for the first time.
His humanism is evident in all his images, in their colourful tones, with the exception of his penultimate work produced exclusively in black and white. The Dark LOVE BOAT is an invitation to discover the passengers on giant cruise liners like this one.
Pierre Gély-Fort tells us the stories of those whose paths he crosses, of the people he meets, in the form of photo books without captions, where our gaze merges with the intertextual game of echoes he creates, allowing us to bring our own story. His photographic work is a journey of emotion and benevolence.
Nowadays with our smartphones, we have all become masters of street photography.
So what makes the difference: technique, material, spontaneity or the intention behind the photograph?
Firstly, that’s an excellent question! As far as I am concerned, three quarters of it lies in the intention or meaning.
Everyone has their own intention and in this way, they stand out from others. Before going into more detail about this notion of intention, let’s explore the two other concepts. I say only two because for me, the material is part of the technique.
The technique, including the material, must not only be mastered but also controlled. With the sole purpose of serving the intention of the image. Technique, while essential, remains merely a tool or a medium.
Spontaneity, like creativity, is the ability to see what others don’t see. Street photography also requires perseverance. All of these qualities are equally important. But like the rest, they are simply the means that serve the intention.
The intention that motivates me is a visual narrative via a photo book, without titles and captions, with simply a book title and a very short introduction or conclusion. In short, this type of photo book is my medium. The images, technique and all the rest are the raw materials that feed the medium. The purpose of a photo book is to present a completed work, where fate or the random has no place. The narrative, the choice of images, the formal harmony and the sequence of images are 100% conceived and created by the author.
Other photographers surely have different intentions and points of view.
Where, when, how and why do you decide to use colour or black and white?
I could give numerous examples in response but I’ll take only two: one by photographer Anne-Marie and one of mine. We have worked together on almost half of our personal projects, all over the world. In more precise terms, we take photographs of the same things, the same scenes but we render them differently.
Anne-Marie “sees” only in black and white, more in a square format and exclusively by holding the camera at stomach level. She never takes photographs with the camera at eye level. Anne-Marie decided from the outset to use black and white and continues with this today. At this point in time, she only knows how to express herself in black and white. To view the result, have a look at her website on http://www.am-croutzet.com/ailleurs
I express myself through colour. Or so I thought up until March 2019 while on a cruise on the world’s biggest liner, The Symphony of the Seas. Despite photographing the American cruise passengers in colour, quickly and for the first time, I began to “see” this “life” on board in black and white. When I returned from the project, without looking at my original colour photos, I transformed the shots to black and white. Hence the title of the book—The Dark LOVE BOAT.
Lastly, the great photographer Harry Gruyaert https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/harry-gruyaert/ recognised as a world-class colour photographer, who was the special guest of the Luxembourg Street Photography Festival in 2018, took photographs of his daughters from birth to adulthood in black and white. When we asked him this same question, he replied: “From 1986 to 2006, I took photographs of my daughters in black and white. Black and white is simpler. It allowed me to have a more intimate relationship. I was less preoccupied with the details in black and white. What mattered was the person, not the way they were dressed or what was around them.”
To conclude on this theme, I believe that there are no set rules. Each photographer, depending on their personal inclination, the moment the shot is taken or the subject, can choose to go from colour to black and white and vice versa.
As in all other areas, women are poorly represented. Men take the photographs, women are photographed. The same can be said for this year’s edition of The Luxembourg Street Photography Festival, where there are four male guests.
Do you think there is such a thing as a “male gaze”? Do you think your photos could be taken by a woman?
No, I would think and say quite the opposite! There is a “female gaze” and I would be unable to take many of the photos taken by women photographers. Once again however, this is simply my opinion.
The most striking example came to me last year at The Luxembourg Street Photography Festival with the presentation of work by Vanessa Winship (https://www.vanessawinship.com/projects.php). Last year, I was one of the four guest artists; one of the others was Sabine Weiss, whom you interviewed. Excuse the digression! In other words, last year, there were two men and two women. Let’s go back to Vanessa. She has been living with a fellow photographer, George Georgiou for thirty-five years (https://www.georgegeorgiou.net/projects.php).
Both of them are well-known photographers, and both of the same standard. In the photos taken by her husband George, I can identify with him, his universe is familiar to me. I get the impression that my practice adheres to the same codes, even though my work is in a different category. Vanessa’s photos however, strike me by their emotion, an emotion that none of George’s images know how to do! Her photos convey a powerful, yet subtle, sensitivity! I would be incapable of getting anywhere near such a result. Furthermore, I don’t remember any work by masculine photographers ever having the same level of emotional impact.
On the other hand, Vanessa’s landscapes and especially her portraits make me think of those of another woman photographer in terms of their intensity and impact: Diane Arbus.
Another conflicting example this time with another photographer couple: Magnum photographer Trent Parke https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/trent-parke/ and his wife Narelle Autio https://www.agencevu.com/photographers/photographer.php?id=122. The differences in their work, particularly in terms of emotional impact, are not as pronounced. I even detect a certain similarity between their work. Narelle has shown herself capable of producing shots comparable to those of her husband, Trent.
The pandemic that is circulating at the moment has changed our lifestyles. Has it changed your vision as an artist?
The “free time” we have had to endure has awakened a creativity in many. What has it revealed in you?
Your question is very timely! The answer is yes. Absolutely!
After weeks of doubting and thinking about the future direction of my work, where I was afraid of repeating myself and not innovating, and without making any real progress, we were confronted with the phenomenon of lockdown.
Transforming this (long) period into an opportunity, I began, I say began, to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I produced a work (a book) featuring photographs taken in the second half of 2019. All shots were exclusively taken in a museum. Thanks to lockdown, I was able to finish this project. Ironically, it tells the true story of an authoritarian lockdown that lasted forty years in a now inexistent country of sixteen million inhabitants. The project can be viewed here: https://pierregelyfort.com/perfume-of-ddr
The “extra time” we found ourselves with also showed me that I no longer feel the need to travel to take photos. Instead, I now want to take photos so I can take people on a journey!
What was the last photo you took? Could we see it?
My last photo below dates from 6 May at 8.40pm. A sunset with the artificial sun hanging on my living room wall!
Maryline Dumotier & SoMuch Noise
Journalists - Grrrrr magazine - University of Luxembourg