Open-heart Surgery
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“In the living room the voice-clock sang, ‘Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock!’ as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness…. ‘Today is August 4, 2057,’ said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling.”

This house (dreamed up in 1950 by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles) functions independently of its occupants. No one has survived to justify the daily routines of the robot cooks, the automaton storytellers and cleaners. The house has valiantly and imperturbably withstood the ravages of some catastrophe, about which we know nothing except that it has totally destroyed everything, leaving the house to its solitude.

Houses are a recurrent motif in Jean-François Lepage’s photography. His typical house has all the silence of a neat and tidy, sparsely decorated, odourless interior – totally indifferent to its temporary occupants. There is no clue as to where we are. Lepage’s house, like Bradbury’s, is a desolate space surrounded by scorched earth. The writer’s house is on Mars; Lepage’s is on the black, volcanic rock of Lanzarote, or the lunar landscapes of the California desert hills. Withdrawn behind its shutters, it has all the timidity of Bradbury’s house, with its “old maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.” Lepage’s, however, does concede something to a human presence: a lone figure, completely wrapped in thought, wandering in the half-light of the living room or the kitchen – in a place where she cannot belong – a world that never seems to be entirely hers. Whole worlds are constructed, intuited, allowed to rise to the surface of consciousness, then taken hold of and used in the picture – the fashion image is transformed into a phantasmagorical space. Jean-François Lepage’s phantasmagorias, however, do not lapse into over-explicit futurism; they are more a kind of fantastic realism which keeps the image hovering between two states, its feet grounded in reality and its head in an imaginary world. Lepage keeps the reality that anchors his image at bay by painting the model’s skin and putting wigs on them. Make-up artists and hairdressers, he confesses, are the people in the business with whom he shares a kind of nuttiness and lack of reverence for the glamour that is usually expected. Pink hair and blue or, as it often is, pure white skin (a pallor consciously reminiscent of Velázquez) – these are prerequisites, according to Lepage, that emerge from the “ritual” that allows the woman to cross into this parallel world. Thus apparelled, the model is immersed in the hyperreal atmosphere dictated by the eight-by-ten-inch area of the negative in the camera. Lepage adopted this format – a very large negative that creates optimal sharpness – in the late 1990s and it gave him an appetite for “high resolution” that he has indulged to the full. In this world where nothing is left to chance, colour calls the tune; indeed, the image appears to be totally devoted to it. These days the colours are vivid and brilliant, but in the late 1980s, when Lepage had moved on from black and white, they were colder and duller. His use of a medical photography film (Polaroid 891, a sort of instant transparency that could produce deviant colour effects with long exposure times), along with blue-filtered tungsten projectors, resulted in this ‘early’ colour atmosphere and it quickly became Lepage’s signature. A slightly rough film that suited the period, which he describes as “punk-grunge post cubism”, inhabited by dark and gloomy visions, sometimes aggressive, often provocative. In order to create these worlds and to keep the images in tune with his vision, Lepage, from the very outset of his career, never failed to use the full range of effects available to him: lighting, contrast and of course colours. Then, once he had found the balance, he worked away with a nail or a razor blade to upset the excess of tranquillity.

A Lepage image is an experiment, the result of a reality explored and experienced there and then. It is total improvisation. With no script, no brief and little in the way of location hunting, the photographer, the model, the hairdresser and the make-up artist all go with the flow of the world whose threshold they have crossed together. Contrary to usual practice (i.e., the practice of those few who still use analogue equipment and not the screen on the camera to check the frame and exposure), Lepage does not use Polaroids before taking the picture: “I always shoot my film first. When I was an assistant, I saw too many photographers take a fantastic Polaroid and then spend three hours trying to capture that image on film. But how do you recapture that first moment, those positions that the model and the photographer first got themselves into, the magic of that first attempt ?” These days a photographer is often asked to provide references and a statement of their creative intentions before making an image, but Lepage insists on his own vertiginous approach. It involves walking on a tightrope, maintaining balance through extreme concentration. The resulting image is tenuous, a world of its own that looks as if it has incorporated into itself everything that the moment contained. The photo may be in the can, but the tightrope walker tiptoes on – on the high wire now. In search of what he calls “balance losing its balance”, he takes a razor blade to the task of revealing some flaw in the surface of the image. This reworking of the image is Lepage’s other signature.

Back in the 1980s he was scarifying his
4 x 5 Polaroid Type 55 films – sacrificing them too, you could say, for there was no going back once he had started this process. He would scratch drawings on to them in a style borrowed from African art, emphasising the totemic quality of some of his female busts. A few years later he started cutting up the colour positive film, reassembling it and stapling it together as a photographic cadavre exquis. Only after this assemblage is printed would the second and final image take shape – an image begotten of the first, with offcuts from Polaroids kept in boxes in the studio grafted on. Here, too, the process runs counter to the trend. At a time when production times are shrinking and post-production is usually subcontracted out and delivered rapidly, Lepage sets about the slow maturation process of transforming the image – sometimes minimally, sometimes radically – by himself and without a safety net. In this way he prolongs the process of making the image beyond the moment when the shutter clicks, taking it into a parallel dimension, a state of consciousness where time and space get stretched. He does not, however, systematically rework the image: “I often get a hunch about whether to rework it at the moment when I take the shot. I only do it when I think I can add an extra dimension – maybe it’s something to do with the vibrations; it’s a way of adding something to the photo. Once I’ve started on scratching and cutting up the negative, I have to take it to its conclusion. It’s a pretty hazardous business, and that’s what I like about it: interfering with a picture that you thought was finished when you took it, with the idea of reconstructing it, but knowing all the time that there’s a constant risk of destroying it.” The process is one of improvisation for Lepage. But although taking the shot always feels like an ordeal (there is a far narrower margin for artistic second thoughts in photography than in the free and solitary business of drawing or painting), when he sets to on the image with his engraving tools and his scissors afterwards, Lepage describes it as like “gliding on water”. He likes to talk about his “matter”; this is not so much a reference to reality, as to the material itself – the negative and the positive of the film. With his hands in the gelatin like a paintbrush in the oil and the pigments, Lepage practises photography with the touch of a painter.

“At ten o’clock the house began to die.” This is how, in a single stroke, in one precise, stinging line, Ray Bradbury interrupts the perfect ballet in that ideal house with its impeccable routines conducted by an army of zealous robots. With a similarly deft stroke Jean-François Lepage cuts into the polished surface of his image. Sometimes the interference is a tangle of lines whirling around the model’s head like a jumble of random twisted thoughts. Often he seeks out the model to get a glimpse of what her head, properly portrayed, might contain. The face, cut out, repeated and reconstituted (by superimposing, for example, two conflicting versions, one underexposed and one overexposed, of the same face), draws the spectator into a complexity, unusual in a fashion image, that goes beyond the model’s face to suggest the presence of a plural and contradictory being. The individuality of the figure emerges and creates an oscillating wave to trouble the calm surface of the image, making it hesitate between seduction and repulsion, sophistication and brutality. Caught in the blue light of a narrow kitchen, or in vast black stretches of volcanic rock, the solitary figure is lost in this environment which she inhabits but to which she cannot belong. Though perhaps not a hostile world, it remains irredeemably alien. The figure, usually female, moves quietly in it under the attentive direction of the photographer. “I pay great attention to the position and the tilt of the head. Everything happens very peacefully and meticulously, so that the person merges into the environment and becomes totally aware of their setting. It’s static but at the same time you can hear breathing. Of course the person is posing but I try to make it so you forget that.”

That figure, frozen in a mime that brings to mind characters from Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, says a lot about the author too – a man who, after working for Jill magazine and Vogue in his twenties, decided that he was not completely in his element doing that and gave up fashion photography to concentrate on painting and drawing in the 1990s, but then came back to it at the beginning of the new century; a man torn between two parallel worlds that he does his best to reconcile.
This painter-photographer proclaims his love for colour and, though the palette has gradually changed over the decades, there is one colour that returns constantly as a leitmotif. It is a fiery, blood-coloured red, the colour of life flowing out of the engraved surface of the image. Just as Bradbury brings destruction on to the house he has constructed over so many pages, Lepage carves into the image to lay bare a few existential fault lines, generously performing this open-heart surgery for all to behold.

Raphaëlle Stopin

All quotations are taken from conversations between the author and Jean-François Lepage (Paris, November 2012 – March 2013).

Translation: Jeremy Harrison