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Bernard Plossu on Movies and Mexico
An interview with the Jack Kerouac of photography in France, Bernard Plossu.
French photographer Bernard Plossu has traveled extensively throughout his life, visiting the jungles of Chiapas in Mexico, the American West, India, the Aeolian Islands, and Niger. From the 1960s through the ’80s he made four extended trips to Mexico to photograph people, landscapes, and a culture in flux. ¡Vámonos! Bernard Plossu in México, published by Aperture this spring, captures the bohemian adventure of this traveler’s journeys. In France, his pictures have transfixed generations of young people, who cherish him much in the same way young Americans celebrate Jack Kerouac.
Regarded as a leading figure in French photography, Plossu’s photographs have been exhibited internationally, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia, Spain; and Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, France. He has published numerous books, including Le Voyage Mexicain: L’integral, 1956–1966 (1979), African Desert (1987), Forget Me Not (2002), Bernard Plossu’s New Mexico (2006), and Europa (2011). In 2008 he was the recipient of the CRAF International Award of Photography.
Paula Kupfer spoke with Plossu earlier this year about the experience of reliving his trips to Mexico through his pictures, the influences of his youth, and the importance of cinema in his work.
Paula Kupfer: Your career has involved traveling and photographing all over the world. What is it like to revisit your work from Mexico through the publication of ¡Vámonos!?
Bernard Plossu: When I started photographing in Mexico in 1965, I was twenty years old. I was taking lots of pictures but I had no idea that it would be my future job. Looking at the book now is revealing: I see the way I was influenced by cinema, especially Westerns—especially Vera Cruz (1954), by American filmmaker Robert Aldrich. Veracruz takes place in Mexico and it was filmed on location; I didn’t know this until I traveled there myself. I think I was looking for the landscape I had seen in the film: the scenery, the marketplace. Some of my photographs seem straight out of the film.
The question is: have I changed in half a century? I may have changed age-wise, but style-wise I still use only a 50 mm lens, which is a very sober vision. I still take my pictures without gimmicks.
PK: Do you continue to have a rapport with Mexico today?
BP: I’m constantly connected with all my friends from Mexico by mail. I left Mexico in 1981 and the United States in 1985; I haven’t been back since then. I got very involved working in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Poland. But I stayed in touch with all my friends—Mexicans and Americans. A few years ago, I had a show at the Monet Museum in Giverny. Many friends came from America; we had a big meeting and we decided to meet every year. This year we went to Scotland. We’re trying to stay in touch and not disappear. By now some of our children know each other, also.
PK: Do you have any plans to visit Mexico again?
BP: Yes. I am planning a trip to Mexico in October. The whole gang wants to come along.
PK: What was the influence of the original photography book Le voyage mexicain when it was published in 1979?
BP: Many young people have told me they traveled with the small edition of Le voyage mexicain in their pocket—it was a small paperback. They looked to it as a model. But it wasn’t a fine-art book on Mexico; it was a book on being twenty and traveling and going anywhere and doing anything. Although it’s an important book for me, I didn’t take it that seriously. More than an art style, it was a lifestyle.
PK: What was the most influential aspect of your Mexico travels?
BP: It was the discovery of some of the Mexican painters. When I was in France I had no idea about painters like Siqueiros, Orozco, and Goitia. We all know about Diego Rivera in France—he’s big like Matisse, very decorative. Siqueiros, Orozco, and Goitia are more like German Expressionists, they’re earthier. Their paintings are less beautiful; they’re rougher and better at capturing the Mexican land. These painters really changed my taste in art. I went from very traditional French paintings to very gutsy painters and this is one of the lessons—one of the influences—that I got from my Mexican travels. And photography of course, with Álvarez Bravo . . .
PK: . . . and Tina Modotti?
BP: I’m very fond of Tina Modotti—I was just going to say that. To me, she’s the lady of the twentieth century. Not only a great photographer, she was also a very strong-minded woman. Her statements, her life, her involvement, her politics—she’s an amazing figure. How do I say this without being negative? Everyone talks about Frida Kahlo. Of course, she’s special, but I wish people would talk more about Modotti.
There are a couple photographers, Héctor García and Nacho López, who impressed me. They have the same style as Robert Frank, but I don’t think they’re known here in France. They’re known in Mexico; they’re major photographers—very, very strong.
PK: People have written that your work falls somewhere between two Bressons: photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and filmmaker Robert Bresson. Where do you see yourself?
BP: What means most to me is the influence of cinema. To make it short, I’m much more interested in the mood of the photographs than in the composition of the photographs. With all respect to Cartier-Bresson, many people tell me,“You are the ‘non-decisive’ photographer.” I don’t mean to pun the master—I’m not doing a copy of Cartier-Bresson. I’m more interested in the non-decisive: the little nothings that may not be very important, apparently, but that are important, in life and in seeing with the camera.
PK: ¡Vamonos! includes 35 mm black-and-white and color Fresson prints. What are your preferred types of film and processes now?
BP: In my days, in the ’60s and ’70s, I used the same film I use now: Kodak Tri-X. But the color we used was slides, Kodachrome. Very good quality, but there’s no Kodachrome left, so I use negative film. I use, like many people, Fujifilm 200 ISO. The printing is still traditional black-and-white, no gimmicks, no black skies, nothing fancy—when something is gray, it has to be gray.
In color, I’m very faithful to Fresson printing. I don’t know how much you know in the States about Fresson printing. It’s a fourth-generation darkroom in Paris, in the suburbs, with charcoal prints—very matte, very grainy. They give a mood to the photograph that is similar to that of black-and-white. This is why I don’t hesitate mixing them. Now I’m working with the grandson, who is forty years old. Before that I worked with the father, and the grandfather. It’s a mystique, the Fresson prints. The people who know about it and print with it know. It’s very special.
PK: How did your childhood lead you to a career in photography?
BP: I was born in Vietnam; in those years, there were many people living in the colonies and abroad. Some people need it—like me. I could’ve never spent my whole life living in France. The world is way too big. We returned to France after the Second World War, and I was raised in Paris, on the right bank.
When I was thirteen, my father took me to the African desert, the Sahara, and it opened my eyes—the different scenery, people, smells. He bought me a small Brownie camera and I began to experiment.
From sixteen to nineteen, I didn’t go to school very much. I spent my time at the cinémathèque in Paris. I was very attracted by the imagery of cinematography, so instead of working on math, I went to see movies. I got to see all the films by Bresson, Mizoguchi, Carl Dreyer, Buñuel. I learned about images at the cinémathèque.
At this time, my mother had one good book of photography, by Izis [Israëlis Bidermanas]. It’s a book about Paris, black-and-white pictures. And my godfather was married to a painter and for my birthdays, I got art books on Klee, Mondrian, Kandinsky. I made some oil paintings—they were not good. They were copies of Mondrian. Instead, it’s cinema culture that gave me my photo roots. All these together made Le voyage mexicain.
PK: Did you make any films yourself?
BP: I’ve made little films with 8 mm and Super-8 cameras. In Mexico, I filmed the markets, Oaxaca, the people. Before Mexico, in Paris, I filmed my girlfriend. She was very beautiful; she was my Monica Vitti, my Anna Karina—the actresses of nouvelle vague. I spent a lot of time with a great movie-maker my age; his name was Étienne O’Leary. He died a while ago, but was well-known. The Pompidou recently showed a retrospective of his experimental films.
He was making very abstract movies, influenced by contemporary music, like Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was just filming the streets of Paris and my girlfriend. But when I look at them now—the extracts from the films—they’re very good. I made a little book called 8 Super 8, published by Yale. I wish I could show you the book. It shows how my stills from my movie camera are just like my photographs.
Paula Kupfer is managing editor of Aperture magazine.