She is a project you created between 2005 and 2009. It is composed of 52 pictures whose main subject is always a woman (there are four different characters). This specific “gender” choice immediately gives the whole series a sort of political meaning and tone. How did you come up with the idea of a work where women are the only human presence?
The woman is omnipresent throughout the series, she is affirmed, she is even sublimated. My position as a woman photographer, operator, artist, which I inhabit, reinforces this sensation.
The choice of women as the main subject of my series She becomes a statement, where a woman with multiple faces asserts herself in her familiar world often a stranger to herself and her environment. She assumes her singularity. Furthermore, there are also those extraordinary women who are authentic, who exist in real life.
The images file past each other and interconnect from the mother’s body, to the daughter’s body, passing through the sister’s body to wind up in the aunt’s body.
I have a particular interest for women on the edge. Because their universe is very narrow, their way of projecting into the future is quite limited but very intense, their inner landscape is enclosed. Although my work is not narrative, I start with a base which is not unfamiliar to me and with which I can create links.
A blonde, a brunette, a redhead, the images are shuffled like a deck of cards to forget who is who, without any chronology. And because the act of shooting is often chaotic, I worked on the editing, the way the images unravel, in a determined sequence.
When I met these women I had a photographic intuition. There is a tone to this sequence of 52 images which is based on confidence, as if these women had something to tell us but will not unveil it. The “Uncany” as Freud defined it: “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”
Scale seems to be a very important issue in your work. I mean that the subjects of your pictures often have a very specific size in the frame. Is that a matter of size (which has to do with the final picture) or of distance (which relates to your relationship with the subject)?
I attribute an importance to the proportion of the figure in space. It is in fact the subject which obsesses me in my work. I always ask myself if the character dominates the landscape or if the landscape dominates the character. Proportions are very important. In my series I have three proportions: the landscape, full frame, the three-quarter frame, and the close-up.
I have a certain inclination for the static body when I am close to the character. I like to mix up the proportions in a sequence. The proportions of close up faces create a more determinated strength in the gaze and a personal relationship with the viewer. Because I work in a frontal way, the images could be projected onto a screen. They have a hovering quality. It is the conversation provoked by my images, hovering and of equal value on a same plane, clear, so the eye glides like on the surface of a canvas.
In a confined space like an appartment or a house the character is very close to me physically and cannot ignore my presence, especially since our encounters are appointment based. So the distance during the shoot is not determined by the psychological relationship I have with the characters.
I already know the distance which is necessary to elaborate my project before my encounter with the character. On the other hand, I collect my images in a disordered and non-systematic way. And I am always subjugated by the power of the woman I am going to meet.
I always thought you work mostly like a painter. It looks like there’s a kind of preliminary sketch on the viewfinder (exactly like there can be one below the layer of paint on the canvas) that you follow when you take the final picture. How strictly do you work on the preparatory stages of your works and how much do you leave to chance? Did you ever think of yourself as a sort of painter using a camera instead of a brush?
It is true that if I think of my “preliminary sketch” it is in photographic terms: the scenery, the background, the landscape. I will work on the relationship of the character to the landscape (the scenery). For the series She the landscape, the backdrop is the bedroom, the dining room, the wooden porch of a Victorian mansion, the store next door, or downtown Oakland for the exteriors. The scenery is already a character. It is commonplace but specific and precise. It constitutes the preliminary layer of the image. The interest comes from the relationship the landscapes entertain with each other.
I cannot imagine what the painter feels. I know that I play with a camera, a machine which records information which I direct but which has its own personality. I really need to negotiate with the camera and know how to use it. I am in direct contact with a technique and the mystery of this technique fascinates me. The machine is directive, also I like this relationship to reality in the sense that I like the life experiences of these encounters. I like the precision, the discernement and the choice.
My camera has to record what I ask it to record so I can remodel it once the shoot is over, so I can edit, choose my images and combine them the way I like while creating a time and space which is completely mixed up.
For the preliminary steps of my shoots I choose my characters instinctively but in a very precise way, in the manner of Robert Bresson.
Like him, I avoid professional models. He avoided actors who recited their texts theatrically and whose bodies moved without life, without truth. I choose my characters in a spontaneous, instinctive manner. Often they can be quite defiant. Often I like them to be, so I know they will not be absorbed in the prism of the feminin model of fashion photography or photography involving seduction or sexual complacency. My female characters are always a little bit against the world and I need to tame them, make them feel who I am. I do not try to weigh on the psychological relationship nor on the model. I choose them for what they emit and all the while, being precise, I give them complete freedom to express themselves, to perform without a script… It is the most delicate moment where one asks a lot of questions, where one dives in. I keep the freshness of the character through their lightheartedness and their indecision.
Robert Bresson chose his characters with care at the outset of a circumstance. He chose one of his male characters after the man rang his doorbell to ask for some salt. Even if Gus Van Sant choses his actors at the beginning of their careers, he lets them improvise like Léos Carax does. One of the basic conditions is not to work with models. I would be incapable of working with actors or models. I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I would not be inspired. I would not understand. The character will bring much more depth in their emotion and in their truth. In this way the character will find themselves in a floating space-time continuum, without a script. They do not know why they are here and I don’t either so something extraordinary is created in a space-time continuum no one could have imagined.
Your pictures look like movie stills. There’s a kind of suspension that reminds me of the atmospheres you can find in some works by artists like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. Is your work influenced by cinema in any way?
Yes, if the images in She ressemble film stills. She is like the skeleton of a film without a story. Like we just kept the characters but forgot the screenplay. All that remains are silent images which anyone can reappropriate however they like. Shooting a film often means a large crew. The photographer is more solitary. I always tried for my series She to make the shoot commonplace. I never enhanced my project or tried to make it important. So, beneath the tone, our “situations”, our “encounters” were ordinary. I did not ask them anything predetermined. Here the women were required to be implicated. It was a sentiment. It is difficult to describe it.
I also like the silent photographic image.
My cinematic influence is important, like many of my peers, because our life experienced this prism. One thing is certain, my framing is frontal like often in cinema.
The idea of the suspended character comes from a far off place. I experienced it in Russia.
I lived with it for ten years. I also read it in Russian literature. And, to mention only Jean-Pierre Léaud and a poetic film written and directed by Jean Eustache: “La Maman et la putain”.
How do you work with narratives? Do you think your pictures can tell or suggest a story? Or, also, are you interested in photography as a medium to develop any storytelling strategies?
I like the tone of deception in this series, particularly certain images which stay in my mind and which I find overwhelming, like the photograph of Sloane in front of the blue wooden house, a close up portrait. She has a wig and close to her there is a sign on the door: “Alert! Pets live here.” I am deeply moved by the truth of this image and the strength of the feeling of deception which emanates from it. It is also the case with the image of Sloane eating her meal from a plate. I find it also interesting that there are no anecdotes in She. These are images which are articulated and which create analogies or which contradict each other. Julia Kristeva commented on my series The New Life, the title which I borrowed from Dante’s “La Vita Nuova”. She said: “‘A New Life”, yes, but with how many interrogations facing the void…”. I think that my characters skate around this, the projection, the interrogation facing the void… I do not know if this relates to stories. It is rather a state of being.
Michael Fried applies his famous concept of “absorption”, which he developed in the Seventies, both to painting and, then, photography. Your subjects often look completely absorbed in some thoughts or activities, apparently oblivious to the presence of the photographer. This way we are able to contemplate in detail somebody who looks unaware of our gaze, thus having a very peculiar experience. In this case your pictures are partially staged, or anyway the subjects/models know you are in front of them with your camera. So how do you play with this simulated absorption and why are you replicating this model?
In movies there is no direct gaze into the camera except in the cult sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s “Monika.” In general all close ups, even when the gaze is frontal, are always out of reach, like the close up of Jean Seberg in “A Bout de souffle”…
The close ups of women in She which I gathered were created at the same time as the wider shots. But when I was close to the character this varied.
Western culture is suspicious of simulacrum with regards to America. One has to replace the game within its complexity. One has to recompose, re-establish, reconsider this artefact. One has to replace the game by solemnity.
They (the women) are playing out their lives. The artificial dimension is not pejorative. One cannot subordinate it to manipulation or a repetitive gymnastic.
It is a projection on their behalf.
It is both overwhelming and astounding.
It is they (the women) who position themselves in this projection.
I completely understood this during my series The New Life where I photographed a lot of teenagers, always in the confines of their rooms, dining rooms, or neighborhood stores.
Along with the many little details distributed in your pictures, light seems to be a key-element of this work. It is the typical American light. Crystal clear. You can find the same quality of light in the paintings by O’Keefe, Hopper, or even Mark Rothko’s abstract fields. You can feel it as a continuous presence, like an inevitable subject. Which meaning do you connect to this light?
I have always worked in natural light. I know how to observe light. Light is a character. It is a statement which connects photography to painting but also models the surface of the image and gives it volume. I used a slide film which was used in Hollywood in the 1940’s and no longer exists: Kodachrome 64. With She I worked mostly in interiors. There was not much light but one had to observe it. It was beautiful and sensual. For my series Oh Man I worked in full sunlight and took pleasure pushing through the difficulties. So for me light is a character and light always contributes to the psychological tone of a series. I think of a photograph of Christine in a raw light: she is surrounded by green grass which is very contrasted and her eyes are hidden as if by a mask, in fact a shadow which hollows her eyes. Or the light on Christine’s face, the close up where only her nose is lit by the sun… The light is the new measure.
Since about 10 years now you’re realizing entire projects in the US, especially on the West coast. Why?
I do not know. It is chance which led me to the West Coast. It is the light which shines like you are on another planet, as if the sun was closer… It is the light that guides you, which gives you things to see.
She sometimes looks like four private diaries juxtaposed and intersecting with each other. It’s a very intimate work, but at the same time, as spectators, we feel a sort of detachment from the actual scene. We do not participate in the subjects’ lives, but we look at them from a distance. How can you combine these two attitudes in your work, involvement and separation?
Yes, it could be four intimate diaries of women who are the guardians of the mystery of feminin sexuality, where very little is unveiled. One could write a novel…
These are images which require commitment and detachement. One has to be in reality and far from reality at the same time. It is the correct posture and the right sensation. There is the symbolic, the imaginary and the reality. What is this thing that repeats itself. I would say “it is the image”.