Mid-January, in François-Marie Banier’s studio, Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
Your photography is metonymical. Why is that?
I’m sorry, but I do not know what metonymy means. You are going to make me worry about my lack of reflection as an artist. My photographs, like my painting or my writing in my novels and plays, are a reaction to an immediate impulse. They flow like the water in a river. Sometimes something gets through. That is all that counts. This new life.
Are my photos a response to the disappearance or death of my model, or to our own deaths? Remember or die. We find it hard to get over the little deaths that everyday life inflicts on us.
So what are you looking for?
I am fascinated by other people. Each glimpse of a person’s passage on earth is unique and like an apparition for me. Visions, expressions, which suddenly plunge us into another life. The twin sisters I used to see around the 7th district in Paris were among my first models. I used to photograph them as they came out of their house, glued together like a single person. A living page from an Edgar Allan Poe novel. How did they feel when they woke up in the morning? What colour was the wallpaper in their bedroom? What colour were their dreams, their conversations?
And the woman with a pipe leaning in the doorway of the café in Madrid, like a may-bug which has dropped off a page of The Ballad of the Sad Café, who has a look of determination in her eyes. I wonder why? I have always hunted down the unknown, which is brim-full of stars invisible to the naked eye, hopes and regrets that photography exploits, like so many gold mines. Each time, I hold out my hat to these anonymous people whose feelings move me so—my hat being of course my camera…
If by metonymy you mean an association of ideas, an inner construction, (which you may find more reassuring than an inner convulsion) then, if you like, my photography is metonymic. In any case, it is whatever you want—it is what you make of it.
Each one of my photos responds to a particular point of interest, which perhaps seems confused when I capture it with my camera, but over time the unknown emerges and a dialogue takes place. Each photograph expresses a feeling, explores a world, discovers another one.
Do you direct your sittings?
You mean, do I tell the sitter to smile at the camera? Lift his head? Certainly not. Taking a photo means having a sensitive plate in your hands. It is not an execution. Whether I’m taking photos in the street, or on assignment in Sarajevo, or working in the studio for an advertising agency, the subject of the photo always does a good half of the work.
The quality of the photographer is measured at the moment his finger presses the shutter to freeze that instant in time. He says: that is how it is, forever. If he makes a mistake, he is an assassin. Worse still, a traitor. Even worse, a fool. You see, with words you can rectify. With a photo, you can’t. That is the test.
A woman is having a stormy love affair with a man: in the same day she cries, shrieks, laughs, waits and so on… always in his arms. What photo do you choose? I could have chosen a subtler example. Up to you to vary it, to find another situation. Choosing the crucial moment…
Do you think that the photo of Madeleine Castaing without her wig is worthy of her?
Certainly, I have taken tenderer, more melancholy, more comic photos of her. A lifetime is terribly long. In that photo she was over ninety; but she had spent her life with Picasso as a young man, Derain, Soutine, whom she encouraged to paint, just for her, for over twenty years, and she did not take Remembrance of Things Past in small doses… in short, she had pondered on art and human feelings and she went beyond appearances. She was the one who wanted this photo taken. She even set it up. I have never asked her why she wanted to leave such a strong image of herself. We should reread her portrait in Le Sabbat by Maurice Sachs or watch the film that David Rocksavage made about her.
The sitting took five minutes, three minutes more than the sitting for the photo of Princess Caroline of Monaco with her bald head. Madeleine Castaing was lying on her bed in a lacy night-gown. “Have you got your camera? Come with me.” She took her cane, walked through her flat, out on to the landing, then stationed herself barefoot in front of the door. “Stand over there.” She then took off her wig, the first time she had done so in front of someone else for nearly a century: “Go on! Take it!”
Later, on the back of the photo, she wrote: “François-Marie Banier is to photography what Goya and Daumier are to painting.”
When Alain Sayag hung it in the Pompidou Centre in 1991 she came to see it. After staring at it for a long time, she muttered: “I’ve got courage, you know, but that’s how it is.”
What relationship do you have with your models?
It is up to the photograph to find a dimension that we are only half conscious of in daily life. We are caught up by our worries, immersed in our relationship with ourselves, often more intense than our relations with others, and the way we look at the world around us is often superficial, full of prejudices and worn down by habit. We are so easily content with our own limits. Truth seldom corrects our mistakes; I have yet to see it come knocking at our door to say: “You are wrong. It is not like that.” Photography establishes a dialogue. Photographs are inexhaustible. Look at Carjat’s picture of Rimbaud, Avedon’s portrait of Marylin Monroe—they are like the great letters you can reread a hundred times over; each time you find something new.
The photographer is the witness who just happens to be in the street when the crime is committed: he sees for eternity. In any case, he gives an answer. More literary-minded people will say he gives perspectives. My obsession is capturing each person’s life story. In Flaubert’s writing, the meaning of the whole book is implicit in each sentence. In the same way, the whole of me is contained in each photo.
The whole of you?
When I take a photo, I cannot separate myself from my life. I cannot set aside the child I used to be, the people I have known, my identity when I press the shutter.
Once, with the relish of an Old Master, Henri Cartier-Bresson reproached me for putting my own portrait in every shot. Even when he photographs a doormat in the shape of a hedgehog, the photographer is not impassive, like the mirror over the fireplace. The whole of the tragedy of the Treaty of Versailles, which made mincemeat of Hungary, is contained in the photos of Kertész, a master of melancholy who taught generations of photographers just to look through a window at children scattered in a square, and made us recognise a woman’s body carried off by a distant cloud in the mist on cold window panes.
Every artist is responsible. For history, Art and the World. I do not know everything that is happening in the world, but I do know about injustice and torture. Bearing witness is a duty.
Last year, I saw photos of missing people in the Recoleta Centre. I was really shaken. We can no longer photograph a man in Argentina without being aware of past atrocities.
Certain photographs have changed our perception of war. Minor White’s photographs of badly disabled soldiers did a lot for the cause of peace. You make me think of Federico Peralta Ramos, a great artist and a personality in Buenos Aires who used to say: “God directs the traffic.”
Your friend was some optimist—God has been resting for ages. As for the dead, I am not so sure… In any case, the ones who have apparently left us on earth are looking after us. They guide us, make their presence felt, accompany us, and from time to time give us other links in the chain.
Do you consider yourself as an expressionist?
Emotion is the prevailing force in expressionism. For me, emotion is the trigger. The reason for creating something. After that, other mechanisms come into play: narrative, spiritual, political, aesthetic mechanisms which we don’t fully understand, although a photographer has less freedom than a painter. When I paint, I am alone, so I am infinitely freer. Whatever my taste for the shape and spontaneous movement of the subject, my photo is inside me. I have read too much Freud, Proust, Joyce, Kipling, Borges and wonderful Sábato, whose books are like so many suns, to think only of expression. One could even say that I do not believe in it. It is just one more obstacle to reaching the elusive reality which is buried more deeply inside us. Human beings hide behind so much falsehood and so many automatic reflexes—which can become our real prisons; to make an accurate portrait, we have to get past all these dead ends and find the miracle: the expression of uniqueness. That does not mean being expressionistic but being the jealous guardian of the singularity of others. Everyone has his own obsessions.
How did you come to photography?
It chose me. I did not realise what I was getting into. It was a time when writing was still too slow for me: problems of syntax, the planning of a novel, building a character, “non-characters”, “non-narration”, the question of the “point of view”, of where to put a semi-colon! I was in a rush to show my idea of the world, and all that happens in it, as I do now through my painting. Which means that sometimes I use both hands to paint all these stories before they fade into the distance.
In Balthazar, fils de famille, I tell the story of an unhappy, but inventive little boy. In my childhood there were already people who smiled at me in the street, people who delighted me, and it was them first of all that I wanted to preserve.
No, on my eighteenth birthday I did a self-portrait. I am standing on a chair, as if I would have more light higher up. It is a photo that I cannot bear to look at now. It reminds me of all the sadness and pain of that time.
Who were the first photographers to influence you?
My father was Hungarian. He took photos himself, but using a camera held waist-high, with an eye on the stomach which forces the subject to crouch like a rat if he wants, or has, to be photographed. There are always forced smiles in these photos; even the furniture seems to have shrunk. My father was in advertising. He admired Kertész, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt. We regularly took magazines like Connaissance des arts, Réalités, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, etc. One day, looking at photos by Moholy-Nagy, I understood that a photo could express movement within a fixed frame. I also discovered that every good photo obeys its own arithmetic. I never talked to my father about anything, but every time he opened a newspaper he fed me with his obsession—page layout. I thought about it for nights on end. In my head I recomposed images by Man Ray, Lartigue, Peter Knapp, Cassandre, Guy Bourdin. I tried to understand why their works or world were incomparable.
What were your first motifs?
One day in 1970, when I was close to Yves Saint-Laurent, who lived a very secluded life, I spread out in front of him, to make him laugh, my first photos of people walking alone in city streets: old women with shopping baskets, crazy people rolled in blankets like big snowmen… I wanted to show him that we were not the only solitary beings on earth.
He was very responsive to this world. It was a period when he was writing a great deal, remarkably well. His characters—a caretaker hosing down the courtyard; an idiotic woman ticking off her sad, hollow lover; a muddled actress pouring out her woes to her wardrobe; Yves himself in a far from flattering light—were as strong as the everyday heroes that I brought him week after week, like so many treasures.
Did you photograph him much?
He is one of my models. Like Beckett. Like Horowitz. Like Silvana Mangano. Like Isabelle Adjani. Like Pascal Greggory. Like Johnny Depp, Madeleine Castaing, Nathalie Sarraute…
A whole portrait gallery…
No, just the opposite. The point of my work is not to accumulate portraits of people. Most of my models are artists whose lives I share, friends I love and whose world, art and manner I admire. What they do touches me. Sometimes more than that. I am also conscious of the fact that my closeness to them—except with Beckett, whose monologue made any incursion very difficult—obliges me to show expressions, or words, that people would never know about.
You took only one photograph of Borges.
I would have had to tear myself away from his conversation. You cannot escape from inside a diamond like Borges. And I feel it is indecent to hold a mirror in front of a blind mind. I took only this one photo of him, because he was not alone—María Kodama was on his arm. Or rather, she was leading him towards our breakfast table. The couple they made was so right that taking this photo, which is not very good, was a necessity. I took it for myself. I often take photos of couples. The double. Finding your double… If for Rimbaud, “Je est un autre” (“I is another person”), for me I is often the other. A novelist’s weakness.
In your novel Balthazar, fils de famille the little boy was a painter and sold his drawings in the street. What kind of drawings where they?
It was 1963, perhaps 1962. I was as big as a dwarf, with a head like a watermelon and protruding eyes. I flicked ink blots on sheets of drawing paper. Pollock did that a lot earlier, but I didn’t know that. On the other hand, what I did know, and feel, were the vibrations the drawings gave off, the life they contained. Those were the drawings I took to Salvador Dalí when I went to see him for the first time.
Dalí did not see Pollock in my splotches. But he saw me. Someone he could have fun with, and we had fun for fifteen long years. I posed for him, and followed his drawing classes, which taught me nothing, but I did learn a great deal from his unusual way of seeing others, listening, then interrupting to pursue his own idea, to invent. His way of looking at art, his culture, his bizarre tastes, strengthened my spirit of freedom.
In painting you allow yourself more games, more freedom, more ambiguity, with an intuition which is sometimes childlike, sometimes like a madman’s.
As soon as people do not know who they are dealing with, they talk of children or madmen. Things happen on many other levels.
How do you paint?
Very fast. I have to be in top form to paint. I must feel like a clairvoyant, or rather a medium. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about photography? I have no idea where or how I begin a picture or the feeling that drives me. The starting point appears by chance, which as you know is made up of a million observations, lightning thoughts, words which appear between two brushstrokes, signs of worlds which rise up before me. The first colour I use almost always comes out of one of the paint pots nearest my hand. When I write or speak the word which comes to mind, I discover it at the same time as… myself. The same thing happens for shapes. They come from a long way off and bloom in my hands and are transformed as I go along. A line crosses another, it plays with the down-strokes of a word written there or a sentence going by. A head of hair appears, or a mountain, a lake, a superstition, a memory, a tender gesture. That is how a story—sorry, a painting—takes shape.
Are paintings often joyous moments?
No doubt you are referring to the painting of the little girl who committed suicide on the beach. Her parents in the foreground are asking each other in the most ordinary conversational tone whether she will jump into the water again. This tragic picture was inspired by the silent presence of an unknown woman standing beside me, watching me paint another picture; one that was burning, more yellow, very long. I stopped working on it to pain the story that this woman had lived trough, although she said nothing about it. How did she land on this canvas, before her own eyes and mine, without saying anything to me?
Where did you get the idea of painting your photos, just leaving a bit of the subject here and there, to remind us of the reality it has been snatched from? The spectator no longer knows quite what is photography, what is painting, what is the real world and what is you.
To start with, I wrote on my photos. Not really to tell something but because some of the blocks of white or black which I found inside other shapes seemed to me to have an individual character. They have their own life, like some of Arp’s sculptures, which we do not recognise at first glance. Something fundamental and exciting slips into every experience. In the epic chaos of all the lunches and dinners of my childhood, angry scenes worthy of the family dinners in Fellini’s Amacord, there were flashes of dream and truth which, in the midst of all the shouting, should have been saved. A poetry, a rightness, a moment which at last made sense. In any case something else, something more that the desperate logic of respectable middle-class family life.
Let us take the photograph Trois piquets dans la neige à Saint-Pétersbourg. Unlike Daniel Risset, an admirable printer on whose insistence I exhibited my photographic work, I find the subject of this photo boring. Nothing looks more like a snow-covered landscape than another snow-covered landscape. Suddenly, to liven it up, I wrote a few lines about my life at the time between the stakes. While I thought that the interest lay in the confidence itself, in fact it was the lines of writing cutting across the snow which showed me how photography can be turned into another world of forms.
Encouraged by the life my writing suddenly gave the photograph, one evening I wrote the story of my meeting with Vladimir Horowitz all over an image of him at the piano. I did not calculate the areas written in white and the areas in black, leaving it to chance, but behind this new “sheet of music”, this essentially mysterious pianist regained something of the distance he put between himself and the world.
Your first painted photographs are monochromatic.
At, first, out of respect for black and white photography, but I soon broke this rule. On a photo of French cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge, behind the dancers, instead of the stage curtain, I put a blue bookshelf. With the brush I wrote: “That’s life—you slap on a bit of blue and all of a sudden you get tired of it.”
You rendered the photo of Yves Saint-Laurent lying on his bed quite illegible with big strokes of a Chinese Brush.
It turns it into a bed of secrets, like a bed of black and white lilies, a film which goes beyond reality and memory; it is no longer the stream of confidences which concern us alone.
In the photo of La femme aux perroquets the subject is a woman with feathers on her head. She wears a very low-cut white evening gown and is smothered in a cage full of parrots. You add words which fly about this composition, which are as strange as the scene itself.
It is a circus scene. This woman is passionate about what she does. She has been taken over by it, the way the photo has been taken over by the signs I make. Don’t we all have, in our heads, things that spill over and take up our entire mental world?
Sometimes the whole photo disappears under the lettering and the paint.
But the photo was, after all, my starting point. It disappears just as the portrait of Charles Haas, a society hero, is effaced by that of Swann, the hero of the book. The novel takes over from the narrator.
Each painted photo is an adventure…
Like an encounter. The struggle between the form of the subject, the instant in which the photo is taken, and the shapes which I create spontaneously; like people who come to your house, sit down, interrupt what you are saying to fill your life up with their loves, their ideas, their stories, their nonsense and, thank God, sometimes their laughter. Although I have all the colours on my side, it is not me who will have the last word, but the public.
Are you conscious of what you are painting through the photograph, or perhaps I should say on the photo, with photography?
The colour, signs and writing surge up from so far away.
But so powerfully. Where does your energy come from?
The photographs paint themselves, as if the shapes suddenly cried out. As if they needed to drink from a river of red or blue. Nobody believes anymore that matter does not think and act. Even rebelling against thought, it rebels.
It would seem that some photos are just waiting to be painted, because the image tries so hard to reappear behind the brushstrokes and the colours.
The twins in the rue de Rivoli, whom I have painted many times, hiding them behind a swarm of signs and blots—painting them only once would be to leave them too soon—exist perhaps more for me daubed in this way than in their plain grey overcoats, hand in hand on their daily walk. They repeat their story. Naomi Campbell entirely painted green or gold reveals perhaps more of her character than in the photo with sleepy eyelids which was the starting point of this explosion of signs. The wild romanticism of the love between Daniel Day-Lewis and Isabelle Adjani is more eloquent with these flowers tossed into their arms than in the picture of absolute tenderness underneath. The single stroke which divides the trousers of the headless man walking along the street keeps moving before your eyes, even though the image was frozen by the photo. Colour without contours, words left in the air, upside down or cut short, all heighten the motif which prompted me to intervene. You know the expression “He worked himself into a state…”. Yes, some photos work me into a state. I paint it.
You often refer to the novel and its characters when you talk about photographs, painted photographs and about your paintings.
When I say novel, I mean life. Writing, taking photos, and painting are the same thing for me. Only the method changes, but the taste for certain truths, certain balances, certain dreams, certain spaces is always the same. All that is sculpt, build, pass on before you die.
Banier the photographer is a clairvoyant. But Banier the painter is too.
What does each human being carry inside himself? What do we look for? This moment of private life which we keep to ourselves is the entire mystery of the individual. What is the meaning of this balance or imbalance in the shapes we create? What does it say? “Tenderness”? “Hope”? “Courage”? “Mary has fallen in the well again”? As the tango teaches us, we have many strains of nostalgia within us. Nights and wars are made of it. I have photographed thousands of individuals, but many more who are not really there. Their eyes are absent, but not their hearts. I have often wondered if people who ask me to do their portraits, do so to find that other person they miss, whom they see without seeing, whom they would love to preserve the way the taxidermist in the rue du Bac preserves the wolf from the forest. There is so much invisibility in art. And what about in life?
This interview was conduced by Raúl Santana on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog Fotos y pinturas which took place at Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires from the 17th of april until the 21th of may 2000.