Les photos ne seront pas les mêmes, car la technologie et l’environnement ont évolués, mais la lutte pour la dignité humaine n’aura pas changé.
Q1: Please state your name and occupation, please. Where do you live?
A: My name is Bernard Jolivalt. Currently, I write and translate books about photography (and sometimes about computers). In a former life, I was a photoreporter. I live near Paris, in the heart of a deep forest. It’s not the best place for street photography, unless you meet some wild boar wandering in the village.
Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview, by the way. It is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?
A: I guess I don’t have a choice…
Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Bernard?
A: When I saw this man carrying a curved line and walking along à straight line, I was frightened by the idea that the man could leave the line. One step aside, and the picture had lost all his interest.
Q4: Is this you style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?
A: I don’t know if I have a style – it’s up to others to decide – but I recognize myself in such a picture, and in some others, of course. I have always been interested by the Surrealist movement. When I rover in the streets, it’s always in the search of an unusual situation. The French writer Lautréamont, author of Maldoror’s Songs, said : ” Beautiful like the fortuitous encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table “. It is this fortuitous encounter – in one way or another – that I expect to meet while I wander in the streets.
Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!
A: Street photography is a look on the humanity, but with an aesthetic requirement. “Aesthetic” doesn’t mean “beautiful”. A geometric order, an attractive arrangement of lines and shapes, exist in the most egregious situations.
Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?
A: You have to be receptive of the life that flows all around you. Otherwise, you won’t see anything. I have done street photography since I had my first camera. For me, street has always been the right place for a camera. I try to practise what the great surrealist André Breton called the “hasard objectif”, “objective chance”. It’s a wandering – another important surrealist concept – during which we let events occur. And we let ourselves be driven randomly : you plan an itinerary, but something takes you in another direction. At another moment, you wait without reason. And because you let yourself be carried by this flow, you encounter strange situations. I learned street photography mainly by looking at pictures from others, the whole bunch from Magnum, but also many other photographers. I never really had a mentor. Mentor – the word is the same in French – is phonetically very close to the French word “menteur”: “liar”. Mentor-menteur… That’s why I prefer to have no god, no master.
Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.
A: I use the camera I’m comfortable with. For some pictures, I love the rangefinder, for some others, particularly those taken with a telelens, I prefer a DSLR. I’m not afraid to shoot street photographs with a 300mm. Not to be closer from the subject, but only for the very graphic compressed perspective.
Q8: Are there any particular reason why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo. Or similar non street themes. Do you?
A: I never called myself a street photographer. When I began my career, the word “humanist photography” was used in France. I like to take all others kind of pictures, but what I feel is not the same than for SP. In fact, I feel a lack of wandering. There is no “objective chance” leading to a fortuitous encounter.
Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.
A: Photography, it’s the full and deep conscience to take a picture. Plain picture, it’s just to press on the shutter to capture something.
Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?
A: I don’t think that. Some very good street photographs are in colour. And many bland street photographs are in black and white. The opposition between B&W and colour is for me a false problem. Some pictures are worth only by colour, some others only by lines and shapes. I do both.
Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?
A: HCB said that “photography is a little weapon to change the world”. In his time, with no television and no Internet, that was perhaps true, but today, I’m not that sure… I think that street photography is rather a testimony of the current way of life. We are not photojournalist, as before, but what I call a “photosociologist”. And that’s fine.
Q12: Are there any value in street photography you think, besides your own enjoyment?
A: …the value of the personal vision you put inside.
Q13: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.
A: Europe was built on the concept of “common market”. We can now build a “common vision”. For the future, I see pictures in the spirit of those taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others, because we return to the dark ages of slavery. The photographers will have to testify as did Lewis Hine one century ago. The pictures will not be the same, because the technology and the environment have evolved, but the struggle for human dignity will be the same.
Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?
A: The story. A photograph without a story is as boring as a phone book. Unfortunately, I see too often a lot of ”phone book photographs”. People doing nothing on the picture, going nowhere inside the frame, a picture without any vision, a lack of composition… “Poor’s houses, houses like empty books” wrote the French poet Paul Eluard (“maisons de pauvres, maisons comme des livres vides”). We could also say: “Poor’s pictures, pictures like empty books”. Any worthy photograph must express something.
Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?
A: It’s difficult to say where and when street photography was invented. Many amazing photographs taken in the second part of 19th century are true street photographs, and most where taken by European photographers. But is that really so important ? Talent has no frontier, no continent.
Thank you very much, Bernard Jolivalt. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?
© Bernard Jolivalt / Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.
First published March 3, 2013.