Q: Could you tell us a little bit of the story behind this photo? Where were you?
A: This was in Paris in March 1991 at La Palette, one of my favorite cafés in Paris, rue de Seine, in the “Beaux Arts district.” The place is very reminiscent of the ’20s, and a good nose might still detect the odor of Modigliani or Picasso, as it seems likely that they would have elected at least temporary residence in this joint a few decades ago. The ’80s had been tough on me. I had just moved to the Paris area after a 12 year-long anemic beginning of my career near Aix-en-Provence. I was in search of everything, notably love, and there it was, performing right in front of me.
I noticed that couple upon my arrival, and subsequently picked the table in the corner, which offered all the rest of the room as background. The door on the left is normally closed, but after six shots I positioned it to have a foreground that would introduce mystery and a 3-step composition: the door, then the couple, then all the rest. I was on a tripod the whole time due to the rather low light, and after rushing to capture the first handful of frames, I found the final composition on frame 10, one that included the ceramic tableau on the wall. Four frames later, I don’t know how, Le Monde (the newspaper) showed up on the table, bringing an ideal complementing touch to the scene.
Amazingly, after completing this series of shots that spread over at least half an hour, I approached the couple in order to get their name and address, just in case. They had no idea that I had been photographing them.
Q: What camera did you use to make this picture?
A: I used a Leica M2 with Summicron f/2 50 mm and Kodak T-Max 400 film. I had made a nicely toned print, with partial sulfuration and a touch of gold toning over it, back in 1992. That print was later badly damaged by a careless art card publisher, as I was young and stupid enough to put such a rather valuable print in his hands. That was, of course, before digital means made that type of deal easier to handle. 23 years later, I just re-printed this photograph, digitally this time, after a customer ordered a print. For this print I scanned the negative with my Imacon scanner, and printed it on my Epson 9900 after intensive Photoshop work destined to allow enlargements up to 25” wide. I print almost exclusively with Museo Portfolio Rag, which has a smooth surface and is very dynamic for a matte paper, yielding ultra crisp prints. I like matte papers for the feeling of depth and profundity that they inspire, and Portfolio Rag allows to get that sensation while maintaining a very photographic rendition.
I have to say that, in this case, the digital route offers the tools needed to get the best interpretation that I can conceive.
Q: Is there anything specific you want the viewer to take away when looking at this photo? If so, what?
A: This is a rather self-explanatory photograph. I am sure that it will give a lot of people the desire to visit Paris, this café, and either witness something along those lines or live it themselves.
Q: What does this photo mean to you?
A: This photograph symbolizes Parisian life to me. Paris is obviously a very romantic city, and French people are not shy about their feelings. This café is as Parisian as it gets, genuine, which is amazing given that it seems to have been reasonably untouched since the 1920s and yet is a very lively and living place, not a museum. Paris is a town where people take the time to live and socialize in cafés, restaurants, and parks.
Q: What inspires your photography?
A: Many different things, but typically subjects that have political or cultural implications, especially if they lend themselves to photographs with aesthetic qualities. I am fully aware that I am involved in visual arts, and therefore no matter how strong the subject is in terms of content, the end result needs to be visually pertinent and compelling.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: What I show to the public meets my requirements of interesting content, as well as artistic and technical excellence. I try to be technically perfect in a style of photography, often captured on the fly, which is not easily conducive to this kind of fine art quality. I also work on a lot of the semantic parameters of a photograph, down to the size of the print, the texture of the paper it is printed on, etc. I tend to maximize the contrast, as in this photograph. I do that from a technical aspect, but also content-wise (not here), as my subjects often contrast with the status quo, hence the title of the Rodrigo Dorfman documentary film about my work, life, and struggle: Monsieur Contraste.
Q: In what genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?
A: I do fine art photography, meaning that my work is above all destined to be seen on a wall, in a frame, purchased in a gallery. I am a hybrid product of the French and American schools of photography. My photographic genealogy includes Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Like the latter, I like the notion of the decisive moment, something that is uniquely photographic and eventually leads to something that is “the alloy of geometry and emotion” (HCB). But one of my mentors is Denis Brihat, and through him, as well as one of the schools of photography that I attended, I am indelibly permeated by an array of techniques that is essential to a fine art product and goes back to Edward Weston.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: It began at the photography department of the Faculté des Sciences Saint Charles in Marseille, in 1976. One of my fellow students and friend there, René Tanguy, introduced me to Leica cameras. I stopped using them for a while, then came back to them for good in the mid-1980s. I cannot get used to SLRs any longer in 35 mm. I find them clunky, inelegant, inefficient and cumbersome.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next three years or so?
A: Apart from more printing, more framing (I do my own frames which are quite extensive and rare), and more galleries to expand my representation, I plan to spend more time in the darkroom. I am very happy with what I do through the digitalization of my negatives and the power it gives me when I print them that way, as in the case of this photograph, but I also like the uniqueness of what I can do in the darkroom, the organic nature of the print, working on the silver presence in it. That requires a lot of chemical experimentation and therefore demands a solid time commitment, but I would like to put to use the beautiful equipment that I have and enjoy the process while I still can.
Q: Do you have any projects in the works you can talk about here?
A: I am going to focus primarily on two series: “La Nature Humaine” which is quite close in spirit to Denis Brihat and Edward Weston’s work, and “Urban Legends” which introduces a Cartier-Bresson-esque dimension to photographs of urban landscapes pointing to culturally defining architecture. All of this might be presented as part of the shows accompanying the screenings of Monsieur Contraste, an exhibition format that I have developed with the film director, Rodrigo Dorfman, and that has proven to be immensely popular.
Thank you for your time, Jean-Christian!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Jean-Christian on his website and Facebook.