After taking part in Kreyol Factory in La Villette (Paris) in 2009, then presenting Land of the Imaginary, a tribute to Edouard Glissant in 2011 in Les Foudres HSE (Martinique), Jean-Luc de Laguarigue has exhibited his work on Quartier Nord-Plage, Requiem for an Island, which he had developed for fourteen years; this was coupled with the publication of a book with the same title. In these last months of 2016, Jean-Luc de Laguarigue’s work is represented in the collective exhibition Visions of the Archipelago in Fondation Clément (Martinique) while preparing other individual shows in 2017 in La Havana (Cuba) and Le François (Martinique). This is an opportunity for the martinican photographer to comment for AICA Southern Caribbean on his commitment and artistic choices and his practice in portraits; he also reveals his preference for the film camera and black and white photos, and questions the digital revolution.
How do you define your photographic project?
This project is the commitment of a whole life, an imperious need and an opening towards new horizons, and probably also the invention of a new language telling about my connections with Martinique, with the burden of history and the untold story. This project that I have never stopped illustrating under different shapes has finally filled a gap, and doing so, has completed a journey in time, travelling back to the first founding visions of a child in a plantation society in the final throes. The original impressions of my young age have resulted in latent images and questions that have left their print in my memory; I had to, somehow, as these haunted me, develop them and extend them to give them some meaning, leaving aside any emotional disorder. Today, I think I can admit that all I did was photograph my childhood, not in some sort of nostalgia, but much more in the idea of a construction allowing me to understand my own life and share it by testing it in the present.
That is probably the reason why I worked on series without any deliberate intention, without scheming. They imposed themselves on me and that was that. Moreover, they do not seem to reach an end and they never stop unrolling from one scenario to another: each project, with no real chronology, contains the preceding work, which contains the next, which refers to the first, on and on… Whether each series can be dated doesn’t matter as it is the entire thing that matters and makes sense when it is revealed. In fact, I frequently use some of my photographs out of context and I use them again deliberately from one project to the other; which means that I believe in the poetic energy of some images that will, once you associate them with others form new meanings.
Nevertheless, I admit that everything in my work started from portraits; meaning the prodigious, necessary and arduous meeting with oneself. I think that in this case, without having the capacity to define precisely the relation with others, the idea, or more exactly the intuition of experience, of some final test, seemed to me fundamental. Moreover, I had the certainty at the end of the 80s of being on some untrodden ground, seen by few. In a postcolonial world our vision was amputated by denial, rejection and low self- esteem. It seemed to me important and beneficial to confiscate the portrait without any photographic concern; I mean without any estheticizing idea enhanced, for instance by the work on light in a studio: that being the reason why I strove to reverse the technique. So, my models did not come to my studio, on the opposite I went to meet them and photographed them mainly in their homes or where they lived, in the light and atmosphere of their everyday activities.
During all this period I worked with a film camera, a Hasselblad, a square shaped 6×6 camera for which I felt so much affection, close to devotion. With this I felt again and again the emotion of the ‘first time’; without exaggeration it beckoned me to some ritual of initiation that was needed to create the images and that made every shooting solemn like a consecration.
There was such a ritual using this camera, first loading the film on the film spool holder with its empty take-up spool, unfolding the protective paper, the small winding crank you turn to position the film on picture 1, which required painstaking and sanctified skill. Focusing, the aperture (f-stop) and speed shutter, the beauty of the moment included the specific use of movement; a slight bending of your body synchronized with the movement of your head so that your eye went naturally to the waist-level viewfinder without losing the skyline. This particular sound of the ‘blad’ when pressing in the shutter release button, combined with the simultaneous movement of the mirror flipped up out of the way of light path and the opening of the light-tight flaps at the rear of the body, letting out a pleasant phonic ‘slash’, hieratic, conquering and grateful as if the camera itself thanked the photographer for honoring it. This humming sound was at one punctuated by the slight click of the in lens shutter that consecrated the importance of the moment. I used this camera in fact until 2006 on the publication of my first book Gens de pays –People from my Country- ; this was also a turning point, the moment when I opted for digital cameras, and probably, along with this new technology a new approach in my photographic work.
Can you explain that thing so specific in photography that cannot be found in other means of expression?
That question was asked to me by Patrick Chamoiseau in 2008, and I tried to answer with my project ‘… the Rest’. I will not repeat again how this 33 image collection was realized, but I remember the conclusion to my text: one thing I feel ‘Irreducible’ in the specificity of my medium and that I can formulate like this today: the possibility to bring together in the same moment reality, time, chance and the eye. But the eye melted in the flux of time and chance, changes reality and reproduces it in a new imaginary. From this new imaginary emerge the photographic creation, its magnificent lie and vast poetry.
So, looking back, I realize that this project means leaving aside the film camera, and that it heralds the end of the Kodak camera while at the same time coming alive thanks to the digital camera with its fantastic technology.
A great part of the photo practice has disappeared today; it has really entered a new era, a new approach that is difficult to grasp and define for the time being. The real question is what is to become of Photography, and then how different will it be from the creation of purely technological fake images?
I do feel too that with film cameras, what was’ specific to Photography’ and more particularly to the use of negative films is powerfully related to temporality that was one essential part of the choice of the final image by the photographer. More than the necessary time for the shooting, there was the time for the film development, then making the contact board in order to select or reject images, and then indicating the choice on the tab, and then the time to produce the final image that involved new difficulties. All these stages were capital for the aesthetics of the image and the effect produced.
Concerning colour, I observe that every film specialist had their own touch which every photographer could play with. Progressively, the resulting colour was not the same either and you could note the different shades according to the periods when colour was invented, from the 40s, 60s, 80s… and so on.
Working with the digital has sorted out all this and has invented software to produce effects: Palladium, Cyanotype, and Polaroid, even if the range of effects is unlimited something has been lost.
I have always been attracted by the uncontestable beauty of the black and white negative, its mystery and poetry. These qualities appear only when it is seen as it must be, in transparency through a ray of light. The effect of each ray of light on their own shadows makes it alive and intangible like a dream, through some angles of reflection; then comes the final picture in a furtive way, grasped at once and then gone. It doubles the emotion of the shooting. It is as secret as life; immanent, evanescent, delicate, ungraspable and perpetual. Through chemical inversion it can be reproduced on paper. Today, the software gives you the negative effect on screen, but it lacks the music, it has become a partition on which the keys would be false: a bad reproduction of a singular state which is its own. I also liked their smell, meaning their presence; the smell of the 135mm film in its box is no longer the same and probably less present than that of the 120mm film rolls to which we can add the smell of the protective paper; but both of them when developed take on the same smell left by the chemically processed silver salts. A magnificent state that we lose, like many other acts with digital photography but which I find again with the same emotion whenever I manipulate them, I find again their perennial fragrance. A developed negative is the permanent quality of time, the promise of a new day, the renewed pleasure of discovery; it is the enigma of the chrysalis before its flight. Working with the film camera appears to me as many enigmas to solve, a quest that enables me to have access to the marvels of the world, to the inherent beauty of every being alive. This would have allowed me most of my life to reach, without anything artificial a sort of trance, to be in a daze where all my sensations aroused build up a field of knowledge that invents and holds, in its way, a fertile love where death does not exists: this is a song for life, full of restraint and made of humility.
When and where does the photographer’s work start?
The first ten years of my childhood went on without television but in a family where image and reputation were very present. My father used to read quality reviews such as Réalités, Planète or Connaissance des Arts – Realities, Planet or Knowledge of the Arts- and so much more, a golden age for Photography, where well-known such as Boubat, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Larry Burrows made the headlines; not to mention the specialized press concerning this medium art, a sociological phenomenon in the 60s middle-class. In one of those magazines, the publication of a photographer’s work whose name I have forgotten, and entitled I think Le Creuset got my attention. His photographs showed pictures of men and women representing the diversity and wealth of the west-Indian population. The impact was immediate: it was about not France or Indochina or these far away countries that I did not know, but about my country that I had never left and that was presented to me in its simplest daily life: I had then the certainty that this was exactly what I wanted to do.
Then, when I was eight I was given my first camera as a birthday present: a Brownie Kodak. Using a ready-set camera was rather simple, only loading the film was a major difficulty. These were film rolls, so it was necessary to place an empty take-up spool under the groove knob of the spool clamp bar then insert a roll of film under the other end of the bar. Using it the wrong way made the film useless. The second aspect on this apparatus that required even more reflection was the fact that winding up the film for the next view and the shutter tensioning protocol were two independent operations. And, regularly I cocked the shutter in order to press in the release button having forgotten to advance the film for the next view. This recurring lack of attention produced on the pictures for which I had no talent for composition, overlapping effects that made them even more confusing.
All this obviously remains trivial, but the truth is that I chose Photography early in the context that I have mentioned, and late professionally since I was 37 when I broke up with my activities and became a self-employed photographer. I think that these long years of maturation were necessary to ‘start’ my activity and finally understand what Guillaume Pigeard de Gurbert expresses so cleverly: “ The photographer’s eye is not so much sensitive to what is real or to the real light rather than the picture; to matter and photographic light themselves. This eye of the photographer’s that does not spy on the real and does not reproduce snapshots, but sees photos and sees in photos, we can only call him photosensitive”.
Now, I would not know exactly ‘where the photographer’s work ends’. I think he takes part in a mise en abîme where frontiers are always blurred. There is some perpetual renascence with a strong impression of unaccomplished and the temptation of a new experience. I have always wanted to write the word end to my work without being able to do it. I might succeed progressively and the unaccomplished could continue one way or the other. I also know, and that is the irreducible part in Photography that an insignificant picture today could have unpredictable proportions tomorrow. Therefore the work itself is never finished.
Conversation with Dominique Brebion
Traduction Suzanne Lampla