Grammy-nominated artist Mathieu Bitton, whose compelling images tell stories that range from the life of a rockstar all the way to depictions of everyday life in African-American communities. His exhibition, “Darker than Blue”, will begin in September 7th through October 17th at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles. We had the opportunity to ask him a few questions and share his experience behind the project and shooting with Leica cameras.
Your upcoming exhibition shows images that include day to day activities of African American and Black communities. Where were these image taken and what was your objective with “Darker than Blue?
These images are a culmination of the past 2-3 years from New York City to Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco and The Bahamas to Memphis. All over, really. I have had a life long admiration for African American and all around Black artists, images, memorabilia, and Black Arts in general. My objective was to show the highest beauty in these very basic moments. No one is really posing or at least non one planned on being photographed at the moment they were, except for some of the hand portraits shot during music photoshoots or performances. For me, black and white photographs capture these subjects better than any other subjects as far as I’m concerned. What I am doing here basically, is creating photographs to add to my own collections of African American arts.
The portraiture style of your monochrome work usually shows a deep contrast of whites and blacks, how have you developed this specific style? Is there any specific post-production involved?
I guess I like high contrasts and harsh lines in real life as well as in photography. I like extremes. Certain people have told me that makes them look older but if you ask me, it only makes them look wiser. And a lot of these subjects are actually old people who’s hands and lines show every bit of experience they have accrued in their lives, including the struggle of being black in America. I often wish I had been around during the Civil Rights movement to capture these types of images, but so many like Gordon Parks, Howard Bingham and Leonard Freed, have done it so perfectly.
As far as postproduction, I just use Adobe Lightroom to increase the contrasts, grain and whatever other adjustments I need to make. But I am that guy that pushes the contrasts all the way.
With a wide range of Leica cameras at your disposal, you shot this project mainly with the Leica M (Typ 246) and a few others with the Leica Q and D-Lux. Which one do you prefer in terms of performance and versatility? Clearly, this might depend on the type of work you’ll be doing…
I think 95% of these photos are shot with the M Monochrom, which is my favorite camera. Second is my MP Correspondent. In a couple situations, like last week when I was on a yacht with Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock and held my D-Lux which usually is in my car in case of emergencies, I was still able to get pictures good enough quality to use in the show. But lately I don’t go anywhere with the Monochrom Typ 246 or the Q. I also have been enjoying my M2 and M3s and want to get more into film again. The monochrom with a little Lightroom love gives me the look of film as well as instant gratification.
Is there a camera you don’t leave the house without? Why?
Well the Monochrom is so amazing but I am also looking forward to working with the S and SL series. The Q is fantastic for action shots, live concerts and moving subjects although once again I seem to go back to the Monochrom or the MP Correspondent. But I don’t leave the house without my Monochrom.
You have a music industry background, working closely with Lenny Kravitz, pointing out he was the one that insisted you should focus even more on your photography. How do you think these two disciplines, music and photography, correlate?
Art is art for me. Music and photography work hand in hand and I have been so fortunate to be able to work which such artists as Lenny Kravitz -who is also an old friend of mine. We collaborate so well together. We don’t really have to talk much about what we’re doing, we just do it. Music is my life. I have always been a huge music fan and record collector. I have also been designing album covers for twenty years and have been adding photography to my credits for the past decade. There is such an incredible balance in my life between music and photography. Simultaneous pleasure for the eyes and ears. I collect art and photography and always have some vinyl going on in the background. I’m told my place is like a tiny museum. What I like is that I don’t have the musical talent to play well but I have a good music ear. So knowing I can get great images with my instruments, my Leica cameras, gives me the satisfaction I can’t get from my lack of musical talent. I really enjoyed having my last exhibition “ASCENSION” at Ostlicht Gallery in Vienna and Rock Hall in Sofia. It was a really great way to showcase my journey as Lenny’s photographer.
You had a large pool of photographs to choose from for this exhibition. How was the curation process?
This has actually been the hardest part of the whole thing. Much harder than actually shooting the images. I have nearly 100 images in a folder called “Darker Than Blue.” When the gallery told me to pick images I felt like I was abandoning some of my children or something. In some cases I have 3-4 consecutive images that would work so well together but in the end I had to sacrifice images with repeat subjects. I’m thinking maybe I’ll make a book with all of them (for my own satisfaction).
What are your expectations with the Leica Gallery show you have?
Well as far as my expectations, I am so grateful to have a show there in the first place that I have already exceeded my expectations. I guess I’m happy to know complete strangers will discover my work and I hope the show can travel to other galleries after LA. And I also hope to get some constructive criticism from other artists. I am truly honored and excited to be co-exhibiting with Julian Lennon who is an amazing artist. I think our shows will work so well together.
And lastly, any additional thoughts regarding this project and what it means to you?
A very important part of this exhibition to me is the hand portraits. As I shoot celebrities for a living, I sort of accidentally happened onto the idea of shooting their hands or shoes or other details rather than their faces to represent the uniqueness. Hands really tell so much about a person. I believe more than their faces do a lot of the time. The way a person moves their hands when they talk, for example; the wrinkles and calluses tell so much about one’s life and achievements, work ethics and labor history. The photo that made me decide to include a Hand series is the one of Quincy Jones wearing Frank Sinatra’s pinky ring bearing the Sinatra family crest. In Quincy’s own words: “This right here is the ring that bears Frank Sinatra’s family crest from Sicily. Francis wore it for 40 years, before leaving it to me when he passed, and I wear it every single day. It’s one of my most prized possessions, because it has and will continue to represent our everlasting friendship.” Another wonderful image is the one of another legend and American iconic treasure, Cicely Tyson, holding the raving 2013 New York Times review of her performance in the Broadway play “A Trip To Bountiful,” which I was fortunate enough to catch twice. Look at her perfectly manicured hands! They are splendid. I shot it backstage after the performance. When I showed her the photo she gasped and said “It is a very proud moment for these hands.”
Meeting all these legend that I have spent my entire teenage and adult life collecting posters and photos of is truly an incredible gift for me. Immortalizing them, beyond the fact that I am doing it, is even more important to me. Earlier this year, Lenny Kravitz called me one afternoon saying he and Denzel Washington were spending the afternoon at Sidney Poitier’s house on he eve of his 89th birthday and asked me to come shoot some photos of them together. Lenny also said I should great a few rare posters from my collection to show Sidney. Of course, being the obsessive person I am, I grabbed a pretty large stack of posters and lobby cards as well as three original paintings for posters and concept art for “Paris Blues” and “The Slender Thread” (which incidentally was also the first in a series of Poitier soundtrack Quincy Jones scored).
When I arrived, I received a very warm and quiet welcome from the Poitiers (including his wife Joanna Shimkus). Long story short, Sidney was reclined on his couch and seemed quite tired. After speaking about Paris in the 1960s and Jean Paul Belmondo – my first childhood idol who Joanna had dated back in the day – I started unfolding some of my posters. It is impossible for me to describe how Mr. Poitier lit up and how his body language changed. It was literally like the sun coming up after a storm or a flower opening up its huge petals. He became very sharp with explicit memories attached to each film poster I was showing him. Coincidentally I brought a lot of posters for the film “The Lost Man,” the film on which he met his wife. I didn’t know this. It was amazing to pull out posters of them together. I actually gave them my original Spanish poster and they signed some of mine, including the gauche paintings I had brought.
Denzel, Lenny, the Poitier daughters and Joanna were all blown away by how his spirit came alive after seeing all of HIS history. But many posters he had never seen. I recently received a letter from him in which he said “What a treat and delight it was to have you join the room on the even of my 89th birthday. It was an extraordinary gathering made so in part by your love and appreciation of the history and the remarkable artistry you’ve been led to by instinct. You generosity in sharing the beauty of a forgotten art form as well as your own creative “eye,” celebrates the curious traveler in you and the many treasures yet to unfold in your own life. May the journey leave you rich in wisdom and inspired beyond your imagination. With love and appreciation, Sidney Poitier.” Absolutely the greatest letter I have ever received in my life. And from my idol. I also had Quincy sign the posters and art the same day I shot his hand portrait.
But these incredible experiences did come from my true passion. Just last week — and possibly the last addition to my show — I spent a day with another idol of mine, 83-year-old Director, Actor, Author Melvin Van Peebles at his NYC apartment with his grandson who’s a great up and coming painter named Marley Van Peebles. This was another dream of mine and by far my favorite photos I have shot to date.
I am thinking about doing a book called “A Day with MVP” because I got enough photos that day to make an amazing book. We smoked Cohiba cigars together which made for amazing hand portraits (as well as full portraits as well). Spending an afternoon discussing his films, his books, black film history, his view on politics and technology. He quickly realized I was a “nostalgia addict,” saying things like “things were so much better back then.” He quickly corrected me saying in his own classic delivery: “listen motherfucker, you gotta cut that shit out. Every era says the previous one was better.
Yet we are still here breathing and doing what we love. Live in the now and you’ll be ok. It’s fine to enjoy old shit, I do too. I mean I created a lot of this shit you like. But just create and shut up.” Now I might have gotten offended if anyone else used that tone with me, but this was high praise coming from him. This is a man who doesn’t waste words. He gave me Carte Blanche to shoot all day and all around his place and told me “you’re home motherfucker!”
Other images in the hand series come from sessions for Lenny Kravitz’s epic forthcoming “Negrophilia” album featuring many funk legends. In this case, I shot the incredible hands of James Brown percussionist, 80-year-old Danny “Big Black” Ray. Amazing to witness his playing, unchanged, at his age. I also recently shot Herbie Hancock’s hands on a yacht in Marina Del Rey after dinner with Quincy Jones who invited me.
Thank you Mathieu!
To know more about Mathieu’s upcoming exhibition at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles, please visit this website.