Telling tales: An interview with photographer Samuel Guerrier

"Icarus' Children" by Samuel Guerrier

FAULT: You studied Fine Art and trained as a painter. How much did your studies influence you as an artist? Or do you consider yourself more of a self-made man in that respect?

Samuel Guerrier: Let’s say I’ve kept a very ‘pictorial’ approach in my work as a photographer. I’ve just traded my paint brush for photoshop… For instance, there are certain things in painting that can be applied just as much to photography : Caravaggian chiaroscuro is one of the main methods used to light up a model. In that respect, nothing much has changed today.

I am a self-made photographer, made from my studies of painters and graphic artists. I remember J. Y. Guionet, my expressionist painting teacher, so talented and so opinionated. He asked us to focus on the shadows and lights rather than on the features themselves. He always said “Picasso is not a painter, he is an illustrator!”. At the end of the day, the medium is not so important. Whether you use new technologies, sanguine technique, or whatever technique you want, the real question is “do you have something to say?”

FAULT: Your work seems to be very much inspired by the classical trends of painting: from renaissance to surrealism. Les Enfants d’Icare in particular reminds me of Dali’s work. Are you a painter at heart?

SG: Thanks for the compliment, and yes, Dali is the absolute reference! The Old Masters, the Romantics, the Symbolics, the Modernists… I use every technique! ‘Icarus’ Children’ depicts several artistic and sporting disciplines, with a parallel to the physical and spiritual rising. This painting is part of the series ‘Sacred and Profane’, which was also my first exhibition in Paris, three years ago. It consisted of a digital collage, inspired by the principle of misappropriation, like the Dadas used to do during the last century. The visual artist Constance Chambers Farah kindly agreed to comment on the entire series. She was also working on the sacred and profane theme, and had already been exhibited in Chile and Argentina.

FAULT: It is easy to see that your work references major historical events and artistic pieces. It seems as if you impute strong values in your photographs in order to give them more sense and presence in addition to an aesthetic value – is that the case?

SG: It is crucial for me to tell a story, be it poetic, philosophical or even political. This is the first step, then I try to connect the form and the essence. I like surprising people; I like it when their first thought is, ‘What a beautiful picture!’, and then that they wonder, ‘Where does he want to take us ? ‘. For instance, my new portfolio ‘The Dream of Copernicus ‘, deals with obscurantism, God being against science, the former geocentric system compared to heliocentrism, but still remains primarily aesthetic. I find it less violent to denounce the current religious fanaticism by transposing it to another era.

"The Dream of Copernicus"

FAULT: Clearly your photographs are infused with notions of spirituality and even mythology. Is the religious aspect, that border between sacred and profane, an essential notion to you and to your work?

SG: It is, indeed, a crucial aspect of my work! My social and family background led me to that obsession for the sacred and the profane: my mother was a single mother, and I’ve learned much later of the existence of my Tunisian father, rejected by the family at my birth. I grew up with the idea of having a father living somewhere in a distant country. It felt like I was the child of an alien! (laughs). It was enough for me to fantasize about it, and then I began to take an interest in foreign cultures. I am still curious about folklores and legends from all around the world. That’s why I say that I don’t support any religion, or that I support them all…

FAULT: Considering the emphasis you put on staging – notably in your Ladybird series with the shadow work – do you consider yourself a perfectionist in the style of the Realist painters? Is that why you chose photography instead of painting?

SG: Let’s just say that I used to be a painter dreaming of being a photographer, now I am a photographer dreaming of being a painter… We’re never pleased with what we have! (laughs). Above all, I’m keen on expressionist cinema, Dutch painting and the Flemish Primitives… You’re right, I am a perfectionist, concerned with details. I can express more through photography than I ever could through painting. I like to imagine and create staging, like the ones in theatre, as it enables me to highlight even more the striking truth of my actors.

FAULT: Despite the strong elements of realism, there is also an element of the extraordinary and fantastic in your work. Is juggling between reality and imagination something important for you?

SG: It is my way to go ‘through the Looking-Glass’. Finally, there’s something very British in me! In life, I’ve always had troubles facing the reality… When I was a child, I was extremely afraid of the dark. I couldn’t fall asleep : I was scared of monsters I imagined, lurking in the shadows. I spent my nights telling them stories in order to catch their attention. I thought they wouldn’t do me any harm that way, and finally I just fell asleep from exhaustion… I was, without knowing, a kind of Scheherazade in a masculine way (laughs). It’s funny because I keep telling these ‘extraordinary’ stories, but now through pictures. Maybe that is the only way for me to silence certain anxieties…

FAULT: Your photographs always have a certain ‘darkness’ which makes them both dramatic and enigmatic. Do you agree with Degas in saying that there is a ‘mood of sadness’ that comes over anyone who takes up art?

SG: Yes, of course, without wishing to fall into the aching artist cliché, you never produce anything good by being in last-stage depression(!). I do consider melancholy as a positive thing. It is a tremendous fuel to creativity. I can’t erase my past and childhood, but I can be born again in many different ways, all the rest is to recreate and re-imagine. Art is, for me, a kind of resilience.

FAULT: Who or what are your inspirations (photographers, painters, relatives…)?

SG: After painting, cinema is one of my main sources of inspiration: Derek Jarman, David Lynch, Tim Burton, Wong Kar Wai… all my portfolios can be presented as movie scenes, sometimes in reference to some great cinematographic opus. This is the case of ‘Love is a Vampire’, which is a nod to the mirror scene in Polanski’s ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’. Other photographers also had this cinematographic approach of photography, like the great Gregory Credwson.

"Love is a Vampire"

I rent most of the antiques and costumes that I use from a cinema props company. Their store-room is like the cave of Ali Baba: everything is inspiring, so a lot of my ideas are born there. In the fashion industry, I particularly enjoy the work of Erwin Olaf, Steven Klein or David LaChapelle. They are way beyond chic porn: erotism and weirdness are inseparable in their phantasmagorical work.

FAULT: Are your models work colleagues or friends? They seem to be so heavily involved in the fulfilment of your work. Could you photograph anyone or do they need to have significance for you?

SG: For my portfolios, I exclusively work with actors, who are also my friends. Dan Uzan (‘Taxidermy’) is currently shooting his first feature film about boxing. Elisa Sergent (‘Last Call for Brooklyn’) has been in several plays, one of which is Alfred Musset’s ‘Les Caprices de Marianne’. I am their number one fan! We are like an art family. I am sincerely happy that you could see their strong involvement in my photographs. We take time to speak together about their characters, as if it were a real movie…

I need to photograph people I like and admire. My luxury is being able to chose who I want to work with. I recently worked with the talented musicians from ‘The Spectral Mirrors’. Other artists fascinate me too, some lesser known than others: Devendra Banhart, JJ Johanson, Tracey Thorn, Morrissey, Zooey Deschanel, Anna Calvi… it’s a long list!

FAULT: What are you currently working on?

SG: I am currently working on my official website. My work can only be viewed on Myspace, Facebook and Flickr for the time being. I also have the project to publish a book gathering some of my first portfolios for 2012. Otherwise I am working on my next series the theme of which is Benjamin Franklin…

FAULT: What are you looking forward to in the future?

SG: Travelling; exhibiting abroad; continuing to collaborate with artists I admire, be they visual artists, musicians or actors…

FAULT: What is your FAULT?

SG: I’m starting to enjoy interviews, it’s my guilty pleasure! (laughs)


*Interview conducted by Léa Bourgeteau*