Photographer Stéphane Lavoué was born in Mulhouse, France, in 1976. After using the Leica S2 for a series of portraits published in the French press, he explains in this interview his personal concept and approach to portraiture, which he has continuously explored and worked on for several years now.
How did you start out as a photographer?
I was studying engineering, in the wood industry. I found it rather boring, so I tried to find an activity with some form of technical foundation that would enable me to express my emotions, my sensibility and my gaze. That was how I came across photography. Later, I traveled to the Amazon in Brazil, to work on a forestry project for various French companies importing tropical wood. I took a Leica with me, an enlarger, black and white film and a stock of chemicals for developing.
A Leica right from the start?
Yes, I was passionate about this brand, and my first engineering wage packet got spent on buying a Leica M6! By day, I worked at the wood plant – I also took photos there – and at night, I would develop everything and produce my prints. In 2001, however, I had to suddenly return to France for family reasons. At that time, I stopped working in the wood sector definitively and decided to devote myself to photography. I wanted to stop a job that I found boring; I also wanted to follow my passion, without really knowing how one might make a living from it, nor how that might work. Not to mention that I was really very aware of the level of my own capacities as a professional. I arrived in Paris, where I took a short training course at the Centre Iris. I then rapidly started working as a photo reporter for Libération and other French newspapers.
When did you start working as a portraitist?
Portraits came later. After a while, I began to grow tired of political press reporting; I was frustrated to see that only one photo would be published, when a story is constructed in several pictures. At that time, portraits were progressively beginning to be given more space in the newspapers. I was working at the time for Libération, and I asked them if I could do portraits for them. Even though I had a pretty terrible portrait portfolio, they entrusted me with one portrait that I worried, stressed, and sweated a lot over and which turned out rather well! That’s how things started. Later, I worked a lot on the portraits on the back cover of Libération.
From the moment I started taking portraits, I practically no longer did anything else. I found an intensity, a tension, a satisfaction – when I managed to get a good image – in these encounters that I found gripping. Unlike reporting, where you can often expect to wait around a long time, and where you have to go “fishing for images”, with portraits, an appointment is fixed in advance; you then have twenty, thirty minutes, an hour at best. In this timeframe, in this unity of time and place, you have to capture an image.
Can you describe your photo sessions? Are you very directive?
Yes, I am very directive: it provokes reactions! What interests me in this process is not so much that the people I photograph do the gestures I ask them, but rather the way in which they react to my suggestions.
Three parameters have to be taken into account in portraiture: the person being photographed, the light and the setting. You have to fix the light and setting as quickly as possible so that you have time to concentrate on the character and, like in sculpture, to work on the subject’s attitude.
I don’t work in natural light. I explored all there was to explore with this type of lighting in interiors with windows. I work in artificial light, with a flash. That makes it possible to circumscribe the scene physically, with lamps, which creates a space in which the person will feel a little bit enclosed.
The setting, on the contrary, is chosen by the person being photographed: it might be a café or in the person’s home. For me, it is very important that the session takes place in an environment that he or she has chosen, even if ultimately, the photos often have a plain background and are completely decontextualized.
So you don’t work in a studio?
Very rarely. I have a studio, but don’t like working in it too often. I like going to people’s places, not knowing what to expect, taking inspiration from elements in their environment.
…A way of putting them at ease?
Or not! Having a photographer show up at your home, seeing him/her setting up the lights can make people nervous, even if it’s going on in their own apartment, with their own points of reference. It’s an ambiguity that is interesting; it creates a tension.
Within this space that is assigned in advance, I thus create a limited geographic space, in which I place the person, and from then on, I work a lot more on the body than on the person’s gaze. As a photographer, I think that we don’t really have access to someone’s gaze nor to their expression but, changing the position of the body, its supports, will determine their attitude and expressions. I thus try to direct the person; I simply ask him/her to advance a foot, move their arm, and raise their shoulders or, on the contrary, to hunch their back.
Do you do any preliminary research on the person you are going to photo?
Until very recently, I didn’t do any research at all. I wanted to preserve the freshness of the encounter. I didn’t want to be influenced, to reproduce or incorporate elements relating to the photographed subject’s activity in the image. My idea was to focus on the encounter and to work on the body. But, recently, I started researching into the people I photograph.
What does that bring you today?
It’s just an additional parameter that I give myself and which – maybe – enables me to go a little deeper into the image. Each portrait is a challenge to myself.
How do you work on the light? Are you guided by any particular influences when preparing it?
I started out basing my set up on the lighting in paintings. Initially, when I started taking portraits, I used to love rainy days, very gentle, diffused light that isn’t aggressive, cutting across the face. It’s a more northern light, that of the Dutch painters. I thus tried to reproduce it in artificial lighting. Nonetheless, it’s only with experience that you manage to improve the position of the lighting; to obtain something rounded, soft and, at the same time, to be able to focus on the person; it can be a matter of two or three centimeters. Natural light imposes the setting of the portrait; it was a constraint that I couldn’t stand any more. Being able to modulate it as I like reassures me.
The photographs presented here are commissions for the French press: Libération, Le Monde, Les Inrocks. In addition to that, do you also do portraits of your own?
Yes, I do and other more personal works can also be seen on my site. Nonetheless, the reason I started working on this particular form is that the portrait column in the press allows a degree of subjectivity. I thus consider it at the same time a commission and a personal work. That is to say that when I bring together the commissioned portraits, I present them as personal work because I set the lighting, I direct the subjects; as far as I see it, it’s very personal. In reporting, it’s complicated mixing genres because you often have to work on different subjects, you control the lighting less, the setting, etc. In this context, it becomes more difficult to adopt a radical, personal position. In portraiture, on the other hand, a highly personal approach is possible.
I also consider this exercise a little thankless, however, because it is repetitive: you often work in similar settings, the same goes for the composition or the work on the lighting. An image’s finesse will thus depend on the way in which you position and make people react, to see what they give you.
What, in your opinion, can a portrait reveal?
Personally, I have no illusions. I don’t believe the portrait reveals someone’s personality. It offers a facet, at a given moment. From time to time, people say to me, “it looks just like him or her!”, but that’s not what I’m looking for; it isn’t resemblance that interests me. And anyway, I don’t know the people I photograph.
What’s interesting is the way, in which people, who look at the portrait perceive the subject. It is these different visions of this image and the person photographed that will create a more complex vision that will exist in spite of the person photographed, independently of him/her. I compose my vision of the photographic subject; it’s the final image that I present. Everyone will then interpret it, project it differently, according to different parameters, namely the photographs that people have seen of that person before, what they have read and heard about them.
What type of relationship is established between you and the person you photograph, in the time it takes to take a photo? Can it be said that it is a kind of “game”, a challenge, given, as you have explained, that this takes place in a limited amount of time, with a person you don’t know and whom you don’t really know how they are going to react? And, in addition to that, when the subject is a public figure, there are also the representations of them we might already have in mind.
Yes, unconsciously, I myself arrive at the rendezvous with images in mind, those I have constructed via the television, the papers. In general, as you have to work fast, you are a bit in a trance-like state.
I would say that the relationship established is a kind of combat. It’s a face-to-face, particularly with people who are very famous, and who protect themselves. And that in two ways: either by not responding to the suggestions I make, or by themselves making umpteen suggestions (which is notably the case with actors, whom I hate photographing!). That for me is two facets of the same attitude, which comes from being too used to the exercise.
Consequently, my combat lies in the attempt to get the person to react, or to rein them in! With people who refuse to move, it often becomes conflictual. Yet, at a given moment, I just have to be motivated by the beauty of what I see, to be able to press the shutter release. That above all happens with politicians. I met a lot during the last French presidential campaign: they are people who master the moving image, because they convey a discourse. They are seducers and they seduce the camera. They quite naturally manage their gestures, their body, in relation to their discourse. In photography, we turn their sound off and that often puts them into a state of panic because it’s the photographer, who tries to take command of them. Moreover, they are often in a highly trivial iconographic logic. That’s to say that, generally, the idea they have of a good photo is a portrait in which they are smiling, while having one’s arms crossed is seen to give the impression of not working.
I push them on that front! These – often tense – exchanges result in a tension in the body, the smile disappears and it’s then that things become interesting! But I find it violent; I often come out exhausted, even if the session only lasts two minutes.
What, in your opinion, is a good portrait?
I think that you have to be able to feel the person’s presence, without that presence being put on. In my opinion, the definition of the portrait is truly this idea of a face-to-face. No matter the distance, the setting, etc. A portrait is when you have a rendezvous with someone and that person knows they are going to be photographed. For the rest, it’s totally subjective.
I often find myself debating my images with those who commission my portraits: I am the one who chooses, and I do so in an increasingly measured way. I think that it is truly with experience that you are able to select one image rather than another. For me, I acquired this learning mainly at Libération, when I used to go to see the photo editor with my contact sheets; we would confront our gazes, each of us in relation to our own sensibility.
You took this work with a Leica S2. What struck you most about this camera when using it?
I usually work with a Canon 5D. The Leica S2 offers a much more comfortable body; what I find pleasant about this camera is that it’s nice to hold: for me, in photography, the object takes on a great deal of importance. The view finding is very beautiful; there is space in the viewfinder, it’s clear and you can focus by hand. Unlike Japanese cameras, which are in some way just lumps of plastic, there is something highly sensual about it. Personally, I need to have a sensual relationship with the tool I work with. That is why when I went to Brazil; I chose to invest in an M6. I thought the object was wonderful; I had a very carnal relationship with it, even if I didn’t completely get this sensation again with the S2, which is bigger and rounder. But I nonetheless found the same gentleness and fluidity.
The image quality is quite breathtaking, notably in the finesse of the colors and in the depth of focus. With this camera, there is detail everywhere in the dark areas, the image isn’t flat, and you can enter into all the levels of blackness. Finally, more than the sharpness, that is the capacity to render that sharpness, I find that the great quality of Leica lenses is their rendering of matter; one can truly feel the textile sensations that appear in the image.
Earlier, you were saying that, in spite of everything, portraiture can become a rather thankless exercise. Are you re-directing yourself towards other forms of photography?
I’m trying today to apply what I habitually do to “unknown” people, people I choose. I’m working at the moment in a little village on the southern tip of Finistère, Penmarch. I move my studio to people’s homes, to the bistro, the port, and I photograph them as I would actors or politicians.
Have you noticed any differences in your approach or in their reactions?
It seems to me that things come more quickly, in people’s attitudes, in what they give off. I find spontaneity, an intensity that is very powerful for me. There’s nothing artificial, no polish. Nonetheless, there is a stake at play for them, which is that of representation and that can be sensitive for a lot of people. With this series too, I don’t just content myself with what people give me.
Click here for the French version of the interview.