An exhibition always begins in disorder. As choices and selections are made everything becomes more coherent, things take shape, a worldview emerges from the chaos. The problem is deciding on just what shape it should all take, just what worldview should be expressed.
The first stage involves looking at contact prints. For the photographer, these are like a sculptor’s uncut stone: chunks of raw material from the quarry of reality. Then comes the essential stage of rough-hewing, trimming away unneeded material, making the first tentative steps towards an approximate shape, soon to become an actual outline. Unlike a sculptor, we do not remove unwanted material: this stage is about selecting and setting aside the images we do want.
It is in this state of semi-awareness, essential to the creative act, with our eye trained unflinchingly on the image, entirely focused, that we make some crucial stylistic and emotional choices. Once this operation is complete, everything remains to be done – but the die is cast.
From the mass of instants recorded on a contact print, only 10 %, at the very most, will be chosen and enlarged into working prints.
Sifting through contact prints is a unique thrill, akin to the pleasure a research scientist feels when he peers into his microscope. Our job is to find the glittering nugget buried in tons of black rubble. But a single photo has never been enough for a book or an exhibition. There’s a long way to go yet.
The working prints come back from the lab. We peruse them one by one, sorting the wheat from the chaff, viewing on a large scale what we looked at in miniature a few days before, always eager to unearth « the » photo that stands out from the rest. We feel a little apprehensive: will we be pleasantly surprised or disappointed? In fact, the experience makes us immune to disappointment, for we know that very few photos will survive in any case. In the mechanical discipline of photography, largely based on the principle of quantity, art photography remains the exception: here, the « success rate » will be lower than 10 %.
After setting aside the photos chosen according to a given subject, a form, a set of emotions, a view of life – criteria we try to make as objective as possible but which remain hard to explain – we put them in a box and let them rest for a while. From time to time, we open the box and let them back into our life. It is not just about us adopting the photos: they adopt us, too. This is the best test we can submit them to: as time goes on, we develop new points of view, our mood changes, we become happier or unhappier. The light changes and we can see more clearly, like a painter rediscovering canvases he turned to the wall days, weeks, perhaps even years ago.
Having repeatedly trimmed the selection of photographs, and after some inevitable backtracking, we are left with the pictures that have knocked all the others out of the running. Each of these photos has a different subject and possesses its own special quality; each carries with it a story we can only guess at, taking it beyond mere anecdote and distinguishing it from circumstantial detail, narrative, or factual reporting. All the pictures are independent entities, but even now they alone cannot make a book. The photographer’s style demands that a book or an exhibition should more closely espouse life’s inner movements, that it should be better attuned to the entire array of everyday feelings.
For this reason we rebuild a storyline around our selection, a kind of skeleton of the finished project. We find a beginning, an end, and a thread to link it all together; we create a rhythm; we introduce pauses and interactions; we insert sequences. Now the « big ideas » start to emerge: the title, the cover picture, an overall visual and narrative style. At the end of this intricate process, our aim is to produce a book that can be read both as a novel and an account of actual experiences and life trajectories, passed on through a filter we might refer to as art, or photography, or documentary – it doesn’t really matter.
This text was written by Martin d’Orgeval, published by Steidl on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog Perdre la tête which took place at the Académie de France in Rome, Villa Medici, from the 26th of October 2005 until the 9th of January 2006.