Bernard Plossu seldom seems to rest. He is an achiever. There are in print four books of his work—Surbanalism (Surrealism of the Banal), Go West, Le Voyage Mexicain (1965-66), and Egypt. He is now actively working on books of his African desert and New Mexico photographs.
When he is not creating or promoting his own work, he is promoting another photographer’s work. A show of photographs by four French women photographers, curated by Plossu, hangs this month at the Santa Fe Gallery of Photography. He, in concert with Beaumont Newhall and Gilles Mora, is organizing a large exhibition of work by Santa Fe photographers which is scheduled to travel in June to the Arles Photo Festival, and later in the summer to the American Center in Paris.
A show of his work entitled Selected Works (Mexico to New Mexico, via Africa and Rome), opens April 26 at the Eaton-Shoen Gallery in San Francisco.
Let’s begin with the usual background stuff. Where did you study photography?
Rather than speak of studies, I think what is interesting is . . . let me put it this way: I was born in Vietnam, of French colonial parents, and they still are my best friends. That’s more important to me than where I studied, because it means I had a very good youth and that kind of education to me is the first key to being a happy person and doing interesting things, more so than any degree. My father is a mountaineer and my mother is of Italian origin and a poet. My first picture-taking was in the Sahara at 13 years old, with a Brownie box camera.
I was raised in Paris and I studied philosophy, but I didn’t like it. When I was 19, I was sent to Mexico, to the other side of my family and that’s where I started really taking a lot of photographs. What happened was there was an English expedition that was going to go for a three-month trip along these rivers that had never been explored. The expedition had taken two years to organize, but at the last minute the photographer couldn’t go and they needed anybody. I just rang the door and said I have a camera, and they said you’re hired, and two days after that we took off in the jungles. It was my first job in photography. It was very difficult, a lot of rain and rapids and animals, terrible. It actually came out in French magazines entitled Green Hell. From that story, a lot of French magazines gave me stories to do. Thirteen years later I made a book of the Mexican trip, but I had no idea when I was doing all those pictures at 20 years old that I would become a professional editorial photographer, doing stories, book covers, illustrations, very little advertising, no fashion.
So you really had no formal training?
You have to keep in mind that 15 years ago there was no such thing as photography accepted as art. Universities in Europe weren’t teaching that way. The only way a photographer like me, in France, could make a living was to do it, to take pictures and then to sell them. My background in photography is work, and I’m tempted to say I’m proud of it. I think the gap between creative photography and commercial photography now is much too big. One has to remember that some of the best photographers in the world have done their best work on assignment. It is not a shame to take pictures for money.
You’ve got quite the reputation for your African photographs. How did you first get to Africa? Was that an assignment?
One of my clients was an airline, and they paid me in airline tickets and a week later I was in Africa, where I got this feeling that I had to go back to my own photography. The first country I went to was Niger. By the people who love Africa, Niger is known as Africa in Africa. It’s still primitive and ethnic: the tribes, the music, the customs—everything is still very much like it was. I just went crazy. It was so strong, meeting nomads and living with them. My wife Kathy and I met Fulani nomads, the Touareg people . . . we’ve been back to Africa many times. But after that first trip, I just couldn’t think in terms of commercial work anymore.
How did you end up in New Mexico?
Some friends from Mexico lived here and we visited them. First I spent two years photographing in Taos, and then we moved to Santa Fe. I’ve always liked the desert. It’s something where time stops, and in some way it reminds me of East Indian music. The shenai, for example, is a wind instrument that makes the same sound as the wind over the desert. Bothe sounds have the feeling of timelessness and peacefulness. And it’s odd because the musicians themselves don’t think of time like we do. Their music isn’t structured in beats like ours. And there’s nothing better than to be on top of a hill in the desert and look around you and it’s just space, no noise, no time. You have to be at peace with yourself. That emptiness is very good for the soul. We just wanted to keep that brown lands feeling, to be in the desert, and the American desert is one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. I still feel the attraction of my Italian roots, though, so every year I go back to Rome.
Artists like to talk about the special quality of the light in New Mexico. Do you find it any different here than, say, in the African deserts?
No, it’s the same light. You know the way some photographers like to take pictures only at dawn or sunset, I love to take pictures at noon when things are ugly, because it’s the reality of the desert. The desert is harsh, it’s not romantic. At noon the light is tough. It’s blinding, but it’s a great moment to photograph.
Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?
I can’t say. One critic of the Mexican book said the work was spiritual and sensual. There are people who make a job of being spiritual or a job of being an artist. How can you make a job with a state of mind, with a piece of your soul? Many times I meet people, I ask what you do and they answer me, I’m an artist. I find that embarrassing! You cannot say about yourself you are an artist or a spiritual person, maybe others can feel it in you, but don’t try to self-define yourself as such. It’s like saying artists are members of some special social class. What artists from all times always have been looking for is independence, so why suddenly want to belong to the artist community? I think creation is a guide to freedom. I would certainly never dare say of myself I’m this or that specifically. The only think I can say is that I’m trying to understand the world through photography. I’m just one more photographer doing a testimony of my times.
But the work of an artist . . . a photographer . . . is different from that of a factory worker. Don’t you think you have a talent?
I don’t think you can control the things you do well. We have to be careful with these terms, because the most dangerous idea is that you are born with a gift. Talent is something to be aware of, but to be careful with these words, huh? There are people who suddenly feel spiritual, so they think they have to look spiritual. You see them walking around. I could never dress like that. Why do you have to look like a spiritual person? Talent is the same sort of thing. I think all these things are very secretive. If they come out in one’s work, great.
How would you describe your own work? Would you say your intention is to capture reality, rather than to create something new?
There’s no doubt that what I’m concerned with in my photography is reality, and perhaps that’s a very European trend in photography. Someone once wrote about me that what I do and the way I live are uncontrived. It was Allen Porter, editor of Camera, which was the first magazine to publish me. For many years I had to photograph things looking nice for magazines, but I quit doing that and now I use only one lens. I just use the normal lens, 50mm. It has no gimmicks, no wide angle; it doesn’t change anything. It’s the most difficult lens in that respect. Since I can’t do any stylish exercises with it, I can let the subject of the photograph talk even stronger, by itself, for itself, without imposing vision or interpretation of my own. My ego fades into the background, and so the concern is the reproduction of reality. The concern is to transmit mood and circumstance. Of course, it’s only a piece of reality, a fragment, but the good photograph suggests all the rest.
You reproduce reality, but isn’t the emphasis on mood?
I am a moody person . . . I’m Italian by my mother. I told you that. So there is a mood in the images, but that I can’t explain. It’s in my blood. There’s no explanation for your blood.
For someone who seems to love life as much as you do, your photographs often are surprisingly lonely and melancholy. Is that a side of you that’s revealed through your pictures?
Someone once told me they thought I looked sad. I don’t think so, and to explain how I thought I was I played some Arabic music for him. Music like that might sound sad to an uninitiated person, but it’s not sad. It’s very dramatic and intense, and I guess that’s what I’m talking about in the photographs. They’re not sad . . . moody or intense is closer. I like to photograph rain, I like to photograph heat. As a matter of fact, when I photograph a landscape, I don’t think I photograph the landscape as much as I photograph the weather around the landscape. That’s what makes the mood. Krishnamurti summed it up when he said, “Perception, action, and expression are all but one.”
Could you give me a specific example of that?
Well, for instance, I took a lot of portraits in Africa. Some of the people didn’t want their pictures to be taken, but most of them did. I’m usually well accepted because I’m a drummer. I play wherever I go, with anybody—tribes, people dancing, whatever. I integrate quickly and people actually ask me to take pictures of them. Anyway, the book I’m doing on Africa shows the parallel between the faces of Africa—the moods, the eyes, the look—and the landscapes. Sometimes it’s amazing that a portrait of an African woman has as much to say about the African landscape as the photograph of the landscape!
Are there any particular themes that run through your work?
Yes. I think whether it’s a portrait of a friend, or a photograph of a woman, or a child, or a landscape, or a street in Italy with shadows, the key is a rather sensual key. By sensual I don’t mean sexual, but things that have a strong effect on any of my senses. I photograph what my senses tell me to photograph, and so I photograph a great many things. I love Kertesz, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans because they’re photographers who have been committed to photographing everything. I can’t stop myself and do only one thing and use it as a professional thing that I show everywhere. I can’t because photography is a part of life for me, I breathe like I take pictures. It’s to the point where I don’t take pictures, pictures take me. Everything that turns me on has to be photographed. I do what I do with a lot of pleasure. I love taking pictures. I always take pictures, my camera is always available, day or night. I sleep with it, because the best picture may be when I wake up!
Now what makes the selection of a good image possible is time and a very tense sense of self-criticism. I may need to take everything, but it doesn’t mean it’s all good. The selection takes years, as it took me 13 years to understand the value of those Mexican photographs. I think if I had published them right away, they would not have been that strong.
What do you think makes a good photograph?
Mystery, composition. The prints shouldn’t be played with too much; they have to be just like the reality. If the sky is bright and ugly, I leave it bright and ugly. I’m not going to darken it and make a nice “aesthetic” photograph. No way. That’s imitating painting. That’s a big mistake. There’s an interesting point here: it takes two things to make a good photograph, to see. It takes instinct and discipline, and that’s a wonderful paradox. You have to be disciplined, know all the technical stuff, impose rules on yourself as I have with the 50mm lens, but to take a good picture you must make it alive, transcend the discipline, and that’s the instinct, the mad, magic moment that causes you to click your camera. Photography is an instinct; a picture is the record or the evidence of a thousandth of a second of delirium. You have to have a little madness for that magic moment that really is the subject of a strong photograph. But there must be discipline and delirium, and in that way, at least with 35mm photography, it’s very much like the Zen archer. My camera is like the arrow. Do I reach the target, or does the target reach me, or is it all the same thing? It’s all very emotional, and I think very different from using a big view camera and a tripod, which is much more planned and careful.
To continue the comparison, if using 35mm equipment to make a good photograph is like archery, the view camera would correspond to the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Yes, I think so. There are exceptions, of course. I think one of the most famous pictures ever taken, Ansel Adams’s Moonrise Over Hernandez, was one of those mad moments, something he saw in a flash and shot very quickly.
I’ve read that you said a photographer needs to learn to be a child again and go for the gut reaction and spontaneity.
The gut reaction is what I call delirium, and spontaneity is what I call being completely aware, always ready for something to happen to you. The accident is needed in photography. It does not matter whether a picture is in focus or a blur. It is its soul that matters, not its sharpness.
I think children are fresh and the only way to become mature is to become a fresh child again. I keep hearing this word all over, serious—serious photographer, serious writer. We are children! The last thing I want to hear about me is that I’m serious. I want to die with my tomb reading, “He had a good time.”
You’ve had a considerable amount of success for someone your age. Has it affected you adversely?
When you’re young, it’s easy to make the worst mistake, which is imitating yourself. That’s worse than emulating other photographers. I’ve seen very good young photographers become a parody of themselves, doing the same thing over and over because they know it works. Photography should be about always shaking yourself up. Who am I? Do I grow up or not?
Is that one of the reasons you travel? To shake yourself up periodically?
BP: Yes, though I’m not such a nomad anymore because I’m a happy father. There are a lot of rough places where I used to go where I can’t go with a little boy. Maybe when he’s older. But I do have to go out on a trip every once in a while. I’m very happy with that mixture of the New Mexican desert landscapes and a few weeks of complete madness in the streets of Rome.
You’ve been compared to Cartier-Bresson. Do you think that’s accurate?
It’s the same tradition, the French photographer with the 50mm lens. I think the technique is the same, the reserved approach, no cropping, the image for what it is. But while it’s the same philosophy, they’re very different images. Just look at the contacts of my work—there are pictures of my wife, my friends, my son. You can really see that it’s my life, more than my work, or it’s the same thing, my life and my work. So, in that way, I think I have absolutely nothing in common with Cartier. It’s interesting, though, that the painters he photographed like Bonnard, Matisse, Giacometti, are among the people I also prefer. I guess it’s because their graphic sense is close to photography. But I’m from a completely different generation from Cartier. What your generation feeds you makes you different from the people before. I don’t feel like being Carier’s heir at all. I think his heir is Joseph Koudelka, not me. My influences are closer to Kertesz or Bravo. And the photographer I feel closest to in my own generation is Max Pam, who lives in Asia.
Photography is just now reaching a stage where there can be heirs to certain masters and traditions. Is that, do you suppose, another indication that photography is being regarded as a fine art?
I just don’t want photography to be decoration. The worst thing to do with photography is to say it looks like a painting. Photography is close to drawing, sketching, and it’s very close to writing. It’s a way of taking notes. A writer is closer to a photographer than a painter. I’m convinced just by the way I write notes that it’s a similar discipline. When you write, the time it takes for the idea to come to the pen and paper is very similar to the time it takes to put the image in the camera with your eye.
Have you ever published your writing?
No. It’s my private garden. It’s much more angry than what I photograph.
But I’m still thinking about what we were talking about before, about the connection between the work and the times. You know how I love quotes, and one of my favorites is from Edward Hall, a great man who lives in Santa Fe. He said, “Man learns in seeing, and what he learns echoes on what he sees.” The pictures I take are an accumulation of all the experiences I’ve had, everything I’ve learned, digested, see. The pictures that I took in Rome in 1980 were certainly different from the pictures I took in Rome 10 years ago. How can a person not change when you hear that so many people are killed in Afghanistan, when you’re confronted by more and more pain, but also fun, joy? How can all this not influence your own life and the way you see? To be less dramatic, how can a person who goes twice to the Villa Giulia (a museum in Rome) ever be the same again? There’s no way. You are influenced by Etruscan art when you go to that museum. And what you photograph, or paint, or write, compose, is your soul plus all the outside influences that feed you.
What’s it like living in New Mexico with so many other artists? Do you consciously have to resist not being influenced by them?
No, I really feel I’m doing a different thing than most of them. I’m most concerned with photographing movement, while most of the photographers in the area do landscape or static images. If I were doing landscapes, I think they would be very different. There would be beer cans in them. This is a tough land, I’m nervous here. I love it but it makes me nervous. I think that is good. But there’s one other thing about New Mexico that bothers me, a thing we have to be very careful about. Remember how Picasso, Braque, Bonnard, Matisse, they all lived in the south of France? Everybody was there, and later St. Paul de Vence became a parody of art, a joke, a cliché. Please, please let us not turn New Mexico into that kind of artsy-fartsy place. This place is a spiritual, powerful place. Let’s keep it that way.
Everyone seems to come here for some special reason. Do you know why it is that the area is special to you?
One time in Taos someone said to me very seriously, “Look at the mountain. It’s magic!” I laughed. O.K., it’s a nice, groovy, hippie statement, but there’s more to New Mexico than a magic hippie mountain. It’s not what it’s about at all! It’s now just groovy, and who wants to be groovy anyway? Pain is such a big teacher in life, how can you avoid it? Why does everything have to be only super-happiness? What makes New Mexico magic is that it’s a land that’s had a fantastic mixture of cultures and civilizations, and a lot of good times and a lot of rough times. It’s a real place and to just call it magic is limiting it tremendously. Let’s just try to be who we are and struggle here like anywhere else.
Stephen Parks, April, 1981