Samuel Guerrier is a fine art photographer whose distinctive style appears to be a hybrid between painting, photography and silent movie scenes. The actors that he uses to create his unique and surreal artistic style/mood appear to be caught in the action of a dramatic moment that transcends photographic poses to become a theatre of Samuel’s vision. We go to Paris to meet him.
Tell us a little about yourself, your childhood, where you were born, where you live now? I grew up in France, not far from this part of the Normandy seashore that is mainly remembered for the D-day landing beaches. Now you won’t be surprised if I tell you that my name means “Warrior” in French. In actual fact, though, this name is the closest I get to being a warmonger, except maybe for my everlasting rage in fighting prejudice. With my Jewish first name, Tunisian Muslim father, and French Catholic mother, you could say I was born from a melting pot and as such, I have always been open to other cultures. I would find it really painful, however, to dwell on my childhood, which could be summed up as a mix of violence, violence, and more violence… Thank God I managed to emerge from this ordeal relatively unscathed. I might just as well have resorted to drugs, ended up in prison, sought refuge in analysis before ultimately being saved by transcendental meditation in Kathmandu… instead of which, here I am, a life-long soya milk addict quietly living out in Paris his passion for the arts in general and photography in particular.
When does a photograph become art ? When François Pinault buys it! Seriously… I have hardly any idea. It could be whenever a picture is taken at just the right time and place, a lucky strike you might say. Or, according to some purists, when the photograph works with no need of being retouched… A never-ending debate which actually amounts to nothing more than petty squabbling. Retouching is all very nice, but if my actor displays no inner feelings and embodies nothing, all the photoshopping in the world won’t prevent the model from remaining a hollow shell. Images can be tweaked, feelings cannot.
Elisa Sergent, the beautiful French actress with sparkling blue eyes and red hair is nicknamed Ladybird in your portraits of her. What is it she captures for you? What I am interested in is not so much photographing beautiful people as making them beautiful. I love enhancing and magnifying them. I think I missed my calling in life, actually: I should have been an image makeover coach (laughs). Just joking… Elisa is first and foremost an actress I admire, as she can play just about anything. She is like a muse to me – which is why I call her my Kiki de Montparnasse. She reminds me of these sublime Hollywood stars of yore – Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, or even Clara Bow, the original “It girl”… Elisa can frequently be seen playing in Paris theaters. I recently had the privilege of seeing her in Alfred de Musset’s The Whims of Marianne, Sacha Guitry’s Let’s Have a Dream, as well as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/samuelfilsdusable/sets/72157622671899398/)
Why do you bring into your work insects and animals? Is there a symbolic meaning behind that? Although Elisa is more of a Darwinist than a creationist, you are not being very nice to her here… No, I’m kidding!
I certainly do like to draw from various bestiaries. From a symbolic perspective, it is a way of suggesting human urges and drives in certain contexts, shall we say. Interestingly, how such symbols are perceived may vary across cultures. Take dragons: in the Western Christian tradition, this mythological monster epitomizes evil, while ancient China made it the emblem of the Emperor. I am quite partial to animals that tend to be associated with various superstitions and beliefs – wolves, owls, ravens, black cats, snakes… While I sometimes like to play on such clichés, I am also keen on rehabilitating such unfairly demonized creatures. I should mention that the fight against obscurantism is another pet cause of mine.
Your pictures make memorable visual statements. What has influenced you to produce such work ? Antiquity, Renaissance painters, German expressionist cinema, silent films… Influences are many and not necessary linked to photography. Funny as it may sound, my first contact with the arts – the original visual shock if you will – was watching Walt Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty at the age of 9 or 10. To this day, from a purely stylistic perspective, it remains the Studios’ most accomplished animated movie. To design its gothic and geometric background illustrations, American painter Eyvind Earle drew inspiration from medieval and pre-Renaissance artists. It feels as if illuminations from French gothic manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry or the famous tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn suddenly sprang to life…
I increasingly tend to collaborate with other artists, which I find inspiring per see. For instance, I recently designed the cover art for English folk/psychedelic band The Spectral Mirror’s first single, The Breath of Whales. Right now, I am putting the finishing touches to my next portfolio, exploring the figure of Salome and featuring American performer Lynsey Peisinger, whom I had the privilege of working with on a previous project, De Profundis. Lynsey was recently mentioned as one the 10 most promising young artists of the day by Marina Abramovic in the US edition of Harper’s Bazaar. http://secretlodge.bandcamp.com/album/the-breath-of-whales-distant-murmurs
Can you elaborate on your interest in theatre ? Alfred de Musset’s politically committed, dark, and romantic Lorenzaccio was the play that first gave me an appreciation of theater. The role was initially created by a woman, the great tragedian Sarah Bernhardt, who in my opinion remains the ultimate reference in the field. However, I am and remain first and foremost a film fan: George Cukor, Charles Laughton, Fritz Lang, Stanley Donen, Hitchcock, David Lynch, James Ivory, Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar, Kim Ki-duk, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrik, Wong Kar-wai, Kwon-taek… these and many other filmmakers are an inexhaustible source of inspiration to me. One tremendously enjoyable aspect of my work is writing sketches, the way a screenwriter or a playwright does. As a matter of fact, I never fail to brief my models about the “role” they are going to play during a photo shoot…
How would you define your style of photography ? Photo-story! (laughs). No, actually the nicest compliment I ever got came from a visitor on my Facebook page and neatly encompassed my approach, I thought. After watching the portfolio entitled “Last Call from Brooklyn”, she said she felt like she had been watching a movie… Indeed, even though each and every frame gets as extensively reworked as a painting would, my work is kinetic above all else, so much so that I am considering presenting it as multimedia content in the future. One option would be a digital frame displaying the piece as a slideshow, accompanied of course by an appropriate soundtrack. My take on the magic lantern, if you will…
What do you do to create the right ambience and mood to put across your vision ? I use theater props and old objects found in antique shops – pieces that tell a story in and by themselves. I am quite fond of period costumes and cardboard stage sets. One single movie prop or piece of scenery can be more than enough to create an atmosphere and embark viewers in a journey to an imaginary world. That is the kind of illusion I am trying – and sometimes manage – to create in my photographs. There is no need for Hollywood-sized budgets to tell a story or create an atmosphere, as evidenced by Chinese shadow theater.
Give us an idea of the types of equipment you make use of in your pictures and a hint of the post-processing and color selection techniques. I use a plain digital camera – my magic wand being photo retouching. I put my actors in darkness and use violent lighting to get this “Caravaggesque” feel. Using a technique similar to the blue screen in cinema, I shoot my models on a white background and add the backdrop – shot separately –at a later stage. Using Photoshop, I obtain a solarization effect, a technique reminiscent of Man Ray’s work. Finally, I apply several filters to soften and fade the colors, thus effectively ageing the picture. This is what makes my photographs look like old paintings.
Quick fire questions
What is your idea of happiness? Carpe diem: seize the day as if there was no tomorrow…
What is your greatest fear? Tearing up a hole in my Sue Clowes T-shirt after being awarded the Legion of Honor! (laughs)
On a more serious note, the rise of extreme ideologies in Europe. The atmosphere these days is pervaded by an uninhibited brand of racism that I find positively frightening! It seems to me that we should all keep in mind the poem written in 1942 by pastor Martin Niemöller as he was being detained in Dachau concentration camp:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Where would you like to live? In Jake Gyllenhaal’s bedroom(laughs)! There are many dream cities in this world to me: Tokyo, San Francisco, Florence, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Sydney, Hong Kong… I’d like to end up in London, in a flat entirely designed by Arts & Crafts. I have rather simple tastes, you know…
What is your favorite piece of music? I would say Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, an album which happens to be the original score of my life –past, present, and future…
What do you most appreciate in your friends? Open-mindedness and emotional intelligence – the intelligence of the heart. Being literate is one thing, being intelligent is quite another.
Who are your heroes in real life? My mother! She was involved in social work her whole life. She is my role model, my pilot, my guiding star. If I did have a magic wand, I would bring her back to life. I realized recently that resurrection was one of the recurring themes in my work…
Apart from her, my heroes are Jean Moulin, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela… and whoever fights the daily struggles against sexism, racism, and homophobia. In this respect, I have the deepest regard for our current Minister of Justice, Christine Taubira. Not only did she initiate the 2001 Taubira Act, a “memory law” that recognizes the slave trade and slavery practiced from the 15th century onwards as crimes against humanity, but she also, more recently, pushed with courage and determination the French legislation on same-sex marriage, in a climate of hitherto almost unheard-of hatred and homophobia. Opponents to the “marriage for all”, with their “OK-for-a-civil-partnership-for-them-but-don’t-touch-our-marriage” discourse, remind me of the “separate but equal” position in the US prior to the Civil Rights Movement: “Sure, Black people can have buses, just not ours!” Appalling…
What is Love? Something that costs an awful lot in chocolate and compulsive shopping when you’re deprived of it! (laughs)
Thank You Samuel!