For over 50 years, Raymond Depardon’s favorite subject was France. He photographed and filmed the places of his childhood, then opened his viewfinder to the whole country. He describes his work here in an interview with Michel Guerrin for Foam Magazine (« Under the Spell of the City », summer 2010, n°23). Photographs by Raymond Depardon
Raymond Depardon was born on 6 July 1942 in Villefranche-sur-Saône (Rhône, France), where he grew up on the family farm. At the age of 16 he left for Paris to become a photojournalist for the Dalmas agency (1960-1966). He went on to found the Gamma agency (1967-1978) and since 1979 has been a member of the Magnum agency. He has progressively become more of an artist, going on to become France’s most famous photographer/filmmaker, but known outside the country as well. The author of forty books, he has also made some twenty documentary films and put on numerous exhibitions and installations of both photos and films in contemporary art centres. Since 2004, he has been on a colossal mission: to photograph all of France. He is working on his third feature film, a story set in Latin America.
What does photographing or filming the city mean for you?
First of all, looking at the people who bring it to life. I subscribe to a French tradition as well as that of American Street Photography. The failing of the French school is that it reduces the human to an anecdote: showing a pretty gesture, a movement; it’s a direction that produces sterile forms. Hundreds of photographers have lost their way in reproducing a famous photo by Cartier-Bresson, of a girl running up a white staircase on a Greek island, in their own way. This French tradition goes along with a lot of photojournalism. When I started my career in 1960, it was unthinkable that the scenery could be the subject. When I’d shoot a building façade or an intersection, my agency would respond with ‘what’s the matter with you?’. Photojournalism is about people. So I passed by what would have been some magnificent photos – hotel rooms, the smile of a switchboard operator or girlfriend. There was no room for the personal photo.
For an American, the street is a natural subject, but it took years for me to be able to photograph urban scenery. What did Walker Evans do after living in France, where he read Flaubert? He went back to New York and photographed the city, the Brooklyn Bridge. Those are his first photos. I photographed buildings in the early 1990s for a job on how Beirut was ruined by war. I passed from one extreme to the other, from the Leica in black and white, to the view camera in colour. Working with the view camera has allowed me to settle in, get out of my reporter’s costume, to not be taken for a voyeur watching the other person’s distress any more. On the contrary, I’ve tried to render the flight of time, to establish a connection with the grief. Today I’ve given up the view camera, and I situate myself between the reporter and the landscape painter: if someone moves into the frame, I’ll keep it, but I don’t go looking for it. What interests me is a social description of the city. Showing the isolation and the sadness of the city-dweller, how he or she is dressed, what their gestures are in the urban scenery. The street is still a fantastic witness of its age, something you can already see in the famous photo by Daguerre, showing the silhouette of a man having his shoes shined on the – empty – Boulevard du Temple, in Paris in 1838.
How did cities attract you?
Paris isn’t made for provincials, and certainly not for a 16-year-old fresh off the farm. I was out of place, and it was a shock. I had some hard, lonely times. I’ve retained a love-hate relationship with Paris since then. Also, I was awkward – for example, I didn’t know how to use the telephone. It took me a long time to ask a girl out to the cinema. I started out as a small-time photographer in an agency called Dalmas, taking portraits of starlets and Cabinet ministers’ outings. But the quintessence of my personality is pride. I can’t go back to the farm. This rural pride saved me.
After barely a few months of working as a photojournalist, I was taken on trips to other cities. It became a pleasure. I wasn’t afraid any more. I realized that the city fits my personality. I don’t like talking to people, I prefer to remain the observer. The city allows me to photograph without having to introduce myself. Cities have stimulated me, made me evolve. And the evolution of the equipment has helped me a lot as well, particularly the Contax G2, an autofocus with a 100mm lens. If I’m using fast film, I can take pictures of a girl while I’m walking, like a tourist, and to get up to two metres from her without her being able to imagine that I’m pressing the shutter. It’s a camera for voyeurs.
My evolution towards the city also owes a lot to the desert. When I was 18, I discovered the Sahara and I’ve gone back often since then. The desert brought me luck. My first successful reports were from there. At 18 in the Sahara, I stumbled upon conscripted soldiers dying of thirst and I saved them. And then I went to Chad with Gilles Caron looking for the Toubou rebels, and again I had a lot published. The last time I saw my father alive was right before going into the desert. I see things clearly in the desert. It was there that I got the idea to go to New York. Since then, even if the rural world obsesses me, my visual universe is essentially urban. The answer why imposes itself even if it’s almost a cliché: the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. The future of the planet is playing out there. Already, people don’t go ‘to California’ any more, but to Los Angeles, not to Japan but to Tokyo. Cities are an observation post. I live in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Watching the girls pass, I discover fashion a year ahead of the rest of the world. In a larger sense, the city has become the great subject for both the man of images and the intellectual. Are we both condemned to live in the same way?
What were the first major cities you photographed?
There were many, but I remember Algiers, Berlin, Beirut, which I discovered as a photo-journalist in the 1960s and 1970s. Three cities at war – I’ve never photographed wars outside of cities – which I perceived as allegories of confinement.
In the early 1980s, I photographed the insane people on the island of San Clemente near Venice. They were all in one of two attitudes. Some of them stayed babbling by the radiator, and some were moving around all the time. It’s the same in the city. Some people have nothing to do, often because they’re unemployed. They don’t move, position themselves near the streetlight, keep to the wall, sit in the pub. And then there are those who walk in a frenzy, as if they’re discharging some distress. Besides, the psychiatrist at San Clemente, Franco Basaglia told me that ‘Venice is a big psychiatric hospital.’ On a larger scale, the American sociologist Erving Goffman demonstrated how the city is modelled on an asylum.
My discovery of Algiers, Berlin and Beirut resonates with this analysis. I went to Algiers in 1960, at 18, and I went back there in 1961, right before the country became independent in 1962. The city was under enormous tension. I found myself stuck between two communities. To the French I was a traitor; to the Algerians I was a police officer. The photos were banned, my cameras broken. I had to hide myself to take photos, shooting from the balcony of the Hotel Aletti where I’d settled, with a telephoto lens. I was in Berlin during the winter of 1961-62, just after the Wall was built. I went to the most working-class sector, where the separation was the most painful. A council house could officially be in the west and the front of the building in the east. People were jumping from their windows, high up, and committing suicide. It was then I photographed children who had made a little wall, like you’d make a sand castle, and were playing war around it. I went to Beirut in 1965, but mainly in 1978, for the German weekly Stern. The Christians were surrounded by Palestinians and Syrians. I saw how you had to cross the street in pairs, running, so the sniper would have to hesitate. Beirut was the metaphor for a prison.
Didn’t you see any happy cities in your early days?
Saigon (today Hô Chi Minh City), during the war in Vietnam, in 1964-1965. It was the city of Eden, where men came back to from the battlefields, with comfortable hotels, prostitutes, opium, music. It was the soldier’s rest.
Was this dark view of cities clear in your mind?
No. A photojournalist runs like a madman, whether he’s chasing a current event or in a fit of anger. Later on I learned to think. I detached myself from the event, distanced myself from the subject, I travelled in a different way so I could keep free. The cities were at the heart of this thought. For example, it takes time to manage to do a sequence shot today in Paris, starting from 3 rue de la Santé, where Walker Evans lived, to the Rue Campagne Première, where Eugène Atget lived; two photographers who, each in his own way, depicted the city space very well.
How do you work in the city?
When the American documentary filmmaker Donn Alan Pennebaker wanted to do a film on [Bob] Dylan, Dylan asked him what he’d already done, and Pennebaker answered, “Nothing except shots in the street.” Dylan asked to see them, and he agreed to let him do the film. It’s called Don’t Look Back (1967). Not looking back is the attitude of the American photographer Garry Winogrand, which I adopted in the beginning. Advance, never retreat, capture people like in a performance. Also, do get lost, like I did in Tokyo – you have to lose your way in cities. I published a book called Errance (Wandering, ed.)(2000), that corresponds to this idea. I’ve also been able to film in the street while walking, making a tracking shot in, and if I miss something it’s too bad. The idea of advancing also comes from my years as a photojournalist. When I come across thousands of destitute Ethiopians walking on the road, I walk forward with them. It’s unthinkable to run after misery.
Another idea is by the American photographer Lee Friedlander. He stops and waits for pedestrians to fill the frame, like in an Uccello painting. I’ve managed to do the same things, to use the city as a stage set. In fact I oscillate between walking and positioning myself. I’ve also found my [personal] distance from people. Cartier-Bresson was the first to theorize this question, and to situate himself between five and ten metres away. Winogrand or William Klein get up closer, and others are farther away. I’ve used a wide-angle for a long time. These days I use a 50mm lens, which is both the most discreet and the most voyeuristic.
Do the places you remember in a city change between photography and film?
For my photography, I’m sometimes in rough neighbourhoods which show a city’s past as much as its present and future. I remember a place in the red-light district in Tokyo, where I was with the photographer Daido Moriyama, who really knows what it means to stroll about in a city. But for my films, I look most of all for a place where there are lots of people, that isn’t socially branded. In 2004, I showed some three-minute films to the Cartier Foundation in Paris, on seven world metropolises. The first thing to do in making them was to remember which spots to film. In Moscow, an underground station opening onto department stores. A Shanghai, night falling on the Bound promenade, where tens of thousands of young Chinese tourists are milling about. You feel like it’s the countryside going up to the big city. I managed to get a shot à la Winogrand, where I was walking towards the crowd. The passers-by smiled at me, they had mobile phones, prams, bikes. These details are precious. They express their enjoyment at being in Shanghai.
In Tokyo, I chose the intersection at Sibuya, where there are always 500 people present. You cross paths with beautiful women wearing Dior and Chanel. Women are the big winners in cities, because anonymity benefits them, unlike in the countryside. I remember a Japanese woman who was embarrassed by having my camera fixed on her. She’d been plagued by her culture, but flattered; she was reeling from it, but couldn’t stop herself. In Paris, I filmed thousands of employees of the Société Générale bank at La Défense, coming out of the Metro at 8 in the morning to get to the office; they were walking in a fascinating motion like a ballet.
What’s your favourite city to photograph and to film?
In the 1980s it was New York. The freedom there was incredible. It was a dream city to take pictures in: dynamic architecture, no one told me I couldn’t film, and passers-by ignored me. I also discovered American photography in New York, Walker Evans, the galleries, the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I improved my mind in that city. If I hadn’t had trouble with English, I would have settled there, without a doubt.
One day I had to leave Peshawar (Pakistan, ed.) for New York. In the city bazaar I noticed immediately that people saw me even before they’d seen me. In New York, I was able to photograph everything I wanted to, a metre away from people, as if I was transparent – a nice parable of capitalism. I understood that these two worlds will no longer be able to live together. My photography and films are in between these two worlds.
I also made two short films in New York that are like two facets of the city – the people and the scenery. In December 1980, several days after John Lennon was assassinated, the city had shut down, to come pay him homage at the entrance to Central Park. I filmed this homage, and called it 10 minutes de silence pour John Lennon. People were sitting on the ground on the dead leaves, some had come from Wall Street with their briefcases, others were crying. Towards the end you could hear Lennon’s song Imagine rising from the crowd. Yoko Ono, his widow, is known to be intransigent on the matter of copyright, so I kind of hid the film. In 2005, Yoko Ono had come to see the exhibition Lennon in Paris and I was able to show it to her. She loved it. The other short was New York, NY (1986), in which I filmed the city from the aerial tramway connecting Roosevelt Island and Manhattan: the outward trip, a shot of Wall Street at nightfall when it was snowing a bit, and the return trip. The only noise you could hear was a woman’s stiletto heels, which reinforced the feeling of solitude, with scenery like in the Fritz Lang film Metropolis.
But everything in New York changed after the attacks of 11 September 2001. You could feel how tense people were. I wanted to take photos from inside a taxi. The driver told me it had been prohibited by the police.
What city stimulates you the most today?
Tokyo. It’s the largest urban agglomeration, at thirty million inhabitants. It’s the craziest, the most exciting and fascinating.
I have the impression that you notice loads of details in the city …
Everything starts with the details. Take Tokyo. Men don’t smoke while walking but they stop near an ashcan. My son Charles-Antoine was struck by the refuse collectors, who were working from inside a plastic shell and using articulated arms so they didn’t have any contact with the garbage, like in a video game. Claudine, my wife, fell in the street, and a man managed to give her a bandage and still make his train, while another one went to get the station manager. You notice things like this when you walk a lot. Like how the poor people in Nairobi take over the city centre when night falls. In Johannesburg, I was surprised by a black man who was running to catch a train while taking the time to call out “Good morning, Sir !” to me. In Berlin I noticed the “baby hatches” for women who can leave newborn babies they don’t want to keep. I loved the women who chatter away by the dozens in the bars in Buenos Aires. And in New York, on Wall Street, there are 15 miraculous days when the morning light falls perfectly between two buildings. I could make a schedule to specify the light in each city.
It was there that I, a reporter by profession, took the liberty of expressing myself with a movie camera and sound. It’s crazy but my first films have Paris as a backdrop. Not frontally, but while protecting me as an urban intermediary – a politician (Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, Une partie de campagne), a newspaper desk (Numéros Zéro), a paparazzo (Reporters), policemen (Faits divers), a psychiatrist (Urgences). The doctor’s function in Urgences is to listen to the city. I’m thinking of a scene where a bus driver talks of how he broke down because of the pressure of the city, after a conflict with a passenger who was defended by the other passengers. In Reporters, a shopkeeper asks Jacques Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, to make him a nice pavement. They’re films that show human adventures, little dramas, in an urban framework.
Did you have problems getting image rights?
I didn’t have any trouble in Tokyo, Shanghai or Moscow. Berlin was harder. With Paris, it depended on the neighbourhood; some Parisian women seemed to be saying to me, “Take my picture, I’m the most beautiful.” In Cairo, a policeman asked me not to photograph the street, but to shoot the sun setting over the Nile. We still need to pay homage to the American photographers who imposed this culture of the street picture, like Frederick Wiseman did with his films. It all comes from the US Constitution, which protects the right to look at and see the public space. I often let five years go by before I publish photos. I’ve found incredible pictures that I’d taken from my balcony in Algiers; I’m going to make a book out of them. When I see all these pictures of cities, like the two lovers in Saigon holding hands, it’s like having my own Temps retrouvé [Remembrance of Things past by Marcel Proust, ed.].
A specialist reporter on photography, Michel Guerrin is the editor of Le Monde’s cultural section. He is also the author of a book: Henri Cartier-Bresson et Le Monde (2008).
Raymond Depardon (1942) is a French photographer, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker.
In 1966, Depardon co-founded the photojournalism agency Gamma. He has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1979. In 1969 Depardon made his first film and he has directed 16 films since then, most recently Profils paysans: La vie moderne in 2008.