Interview, Francesco Zanot

Forget them #09, Spring Summer 2016, Milano, Italy


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”.