From Northern France, Eric Leleu graduated from EM Lyon with a Master in Management at age 25, and then set his sights on becoming a full-time professional photographer. Aware that Asia was destined to play a major role in the future, he settled in Shanghai in 2005 thanks to two grants from the French Youth Ministry and Paris City Council. Since then, he developed a body of personal work that blurs the boundaries between art and documentary, as well as reality and fiction.
In 2010, he was named official photographer for the French Pavilion at the world expo in Shanghai. Subsequently, his “Day Dreamers” series was shown on the gates of the Beauvais Cathedral (France) and on in the street at the Rencontres internationales de la Photographie d’Arles as part of the Antennes program. Leleu held his first group show at the YanHuang Museum in Beijing, and is slated to publish his acclaimed “Day Dreamers” images in book form soon, which he describes below.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: To me, photography is kind of a catharsis that pulls out my sensitivity, and lets me express myself. Maybe it is because I lost my father when I was three years old, and always missed the values he could have imparted to me, I see each of my projects as an additional point in slowly defining my self-constructed ideal; my “sensitive galaxy.” I want to see my work as budding legacy of values, ideas, and feelings, while hopefully showing how bright and full of light this world can be.
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?
A: I use different cameras depending on my projects, but the cameras I use most are my 2 Leicas. I’ve used an M6 for the past 10 years, and an M (Typ 240) for about a year. It’s interesting to note that I use only one lens, a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux, swapping between the analog and digital body depending on the feeling I want to express, or the mood I’m in.
Q: You mentioned that you use the same Leica Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 lens on both your Leica M6 and digital Leica M (Typ 240), and that you swap between these analog and digital models “depending on the feeling I want to express, and the mood I’m in.” What kind of distinctive feelings do you think film images express or capture, and how does they differ from digital images in your view? Also why do you favor the 35 mm focal length for your style of photography? Do you think the 35 mm Summilux has a discernible or identifiable way of rendering images, and is that important to you?
A: I think analog images are more imperfect than digital images because they are less sharp, less detailed in the shadows, and feature colors that may be “more subjective.” Those imperfections offer a more cinematic rendering of the images. For some projects, it may add a poetic touch, and sometimes it adds a “vanishing” feel to them. Therefore, I still use a film camera when I believe it matches the content and shape of a project.
As for lenses, I like the 35 mm angle of view; it’s an instinctive choice, something you feel without being able to explain. The 35mm focal length has a good balance, between being wide enough to describe the photograph’s context, yet narrow enough to be able to make the image personal and subjective, sometimes even abstract.
My old 35 mm Summilux has a kind of softness in the images it captures. It renders the light in a way I like, a milky way. The feel of the images is tasty, rich, and strong, but also subtle and delicate. It flatters the reality. I also like the vignette effect that it has when I shoot wide open, as well as its color rendition. When I bought it 10 years ago, I was thinking: “Now you won’t have any excuses for taking bad photos…” However, it took me some time to learn how to handle it properly.
Q: Can you provide some background information on the images in this portfolio?
A: I started the “Day Dreamers” series unconsciously. After a year or so of living in China, I realized in looking at my archives that I had taken quite a few photographs of people napping on the streets without really being aware of it. So I decided to delve deeper into this topic and kept on shooting them continuously for a rather long period of time (4 or 5 years) to the point it became a true obsession. I did not hunt for those images; they came to me spontaneously in between point A and B. I like the simplicity of those people doing something private publicly. I like also the idea of showing another side of China, unseen, unexpected, a soft and tender aspect.
Q: All the images in this portfolio express a common element in our humanity that anyone can relate to, and that is one of its strengths. It also suggests our common vulnerability, both in our need for sleep, and also our ultimate existential defenselessness when the soporific urge takes over and we enter the world of unconsciousness. Am I over the top here, and in your opinion, what are the underlying elements that hold this theme together?
A: You’re not over the top at all. I actually really like the way you sum it up. I see in the “Day Dreamers” elements of frivolity and lightness, humility in exposing one’s self publicly as defenseless. I see the “Day Dreamers” as universal examples of peace, moderation, and simplicity.
Q: This is certainly an amusing behind-the-scenes view of a restaurant kitchen and the various reflections within the frame create a kaleidoscopic and somewhat jarring effect that captures the chaos of everyday life. Do you agree, where did you take the shot, and how did you come to create this engaging image?
A: Yes I agree; it captures the feeling after a storm: quietness after chaos. It was shot on Ruijing lu in Shanghai after lunchtime, next to my place in the French concession. This is one of my favorite images from the series, if not my favorite.
Q: There’s a beautiful symmetry in this image that successfully violates the “rule” not to place the primary subject smack in the middle of the frame. One reason this picture works is that the symmetry is broken by the way the subject is holding his head to one side, and the asymmetrical placement of his shoes. What are your feelings about this image, and how have viewers responded to it?
A: Viewers have never responded to it because it hasn’t been shown yet. It’s being shared exclusively on the Leica Camera Blog. I’m glad you like it, and it will be interesting to see how people respond.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan to explore any new countries, cities, genres or types of subjects?
A: I am always open to new genres and types of subjects, so I think the answer is yes. I do not want to lock myself into a style, theme, or genre as I told you before. In terms of location, I am considering moving back to my village in Northern France in 2017 in order to reopen, run, and develop the café that recently closed near my street. I have been building a book and exhibition about it during the last three years, and I fell in love with the place (and the light in it) in the course of doing so. We exhibited the photos of the café last July, and we will hold a second exhibition of the project early next September.
It sounds a bit crazy after 10 years in a megalopolis like Shanghai to settle down in a small village to reopen a café that went bankrupt, but I like to follow my intuitions. I hope to reopen the place, and make it a place for social interactions, holding exhibitions, and perhaps even having an artist in residence. Maybe I’ll serve Chinese food and homemade French fries, and brew craft beer. It could be a kind of utopia if my girlfriend is willing to follow me in the dream. So after 10 years going around the world, I now realize that the beautiful and the interesting is also around the corner, so close that I didn’t see it before. As a consequence, maybe my work in the next 5 or 10 years will be a bit more social, a bit more documentary, but I will do my best to keep universal, to give it a twist, to express some concept in it, and to keep it playful and real.
Q: How do you think that executing this project has helped you grow and define yourself as a photographer?
A: This is my very first project. Whatever size house you build, you have to lay the first stone, right? “Day Dreamers” is my first stone. It helped me to define myself as a photographer because I did it solely for myself, because I wanted to, and because I thought it was interesting. I was just playing while shooting. I never thought about whether it would be well received or not. So this could be the leitmotif of my life for decades to come: just do it, and do it for yourself! One can never be disappointed if he’s having pleasure doing it, and if he is doing it for the sake of his own selfish pleasure. It could be because of the “Day Dreamers” that I decided to be an auteur, a documentary photographer, but not in the conventional meaning of those words. Perhaps with this innovative project, I decided to be in between different classical photography classifications. This series is documentary photography, it may be journalistic, but it’s also conceptual—all these things at once—and relating something personal, not something people want or expect to see.
Style is something that would come naturally I believe, slowly, project after project, and it’s not something I think of, or look for. I am more focused on defining the space of my universe, each project being a star embodying an idea or a concept or an emotion. All these are essentially different (different time, place, technique, period of life) but altogether I believe some sort of consistency will link them just because the same not-too-unbalanced person is behind them. So I do not really think about developing a recognizable style or trying too hard to have a clear link between my different projects: I believe those are things that come naturally if they have to, and if they don’t come it doesn’t really matter.
Finally, during “Photo Shanghai” that takes place September 11 – September 12, my project “Subtitles” (mostly chapter 3) will be on display at the ART LABOR gallery booth (C08).
Thank you for your time, Eric!
– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team
Connect with Eric on his website and Twitter.