In the summer of 2017, noted Quebecois photographer Benoît Paillé and three other artists were exhibited at the inaugural show of an open-air gallery in Montreal’s Gay Village. People could wander from the street into the urban art park, where large-format photographs were mounted on lightboxes and fixed to free-standing white walls. Paillé arrived to the opening dressed in clothes he’d found in the trash on the walk over: a red plaid kilt, an open vest with faux fur trim and a hood he’d cut holes in to accommodate long braided pigtails, a nurse’s cap. He had also fished a book out of the garbage that seemed to show a testicle massage and was eager to share it.
At one point, Paillé and his other friends and I left the exhibition and went for hot dogs; he’d refused to pose for the journalists at the press conference or shake the mayor’s hand because they’d initially taken him for a vagrant and waved him off and he thought they were “fucking hypocrites.” When we came back, it was dark, and only a few passersby were moving around the gallery. Paillé sidled up to a couple contemplating an image of hot-pink palm fronds waving like hand fans and said, loudly, “I’m the photographer. I swear. Do you have any questions?” They shook their heads lightly and backed away.
Paillé, 35, is a photographer’s photographer, which is to say that he’s best known and esteemed by other people who make pictures. He’s recognized for using neon pink, green, and blue flashes to aestheticize post-industrial landscapes and portraits of strangers, and to point, as with his own middle finger, to the fallacy of documentary photography and art and beauty and everything else.
His work has been shown in galleries around the world, most recently in France and China, and featured in international publications; in December, he was sent to Vancouver by the New Yorker to photograph speculative fiction writer William Gibson, who had never been captured by a camera and flash held together by duct tape before. He has an energetic fanbase of 75,000 Instagram followers, but swears that the algorithm is interfering with his visibility because he’s called out and been blocked by too many accounts that run photography contests and charge entrants. “They’re the new gods, the algorithms,” he told me. “They decide if you have power; they decide if you make money. It’s terrifying.”
Photo editors, marketing directors, and magazine people find Paillé, not the other way around, and some of the time he tells them, in broken English or French that’s only slightly less mangled, to fuck off. “I don’t ask for work,” he said. “I don’t chase jobs or grants. I’m an anti-productivist. The idea is to do as little as possible for a lot of money so that I can get back to my own stuff.” He maintains that anyone can produce what he does with the same materials—a compact camera, a hot-shoe flash, and coloured gels—and he’s asked constantly about process and equipment. He doesn’t use models or schedule shoots. He gets high and takes photos of his immediate surroundings quickly and when he feels like it, and he feels like it less frequently than you might imagine. He likes to photograph poles and electrical wires, objects imagined as blights on nature, and through lighting and composition to make them extraordinary. Because when you’re lying anything can be extraordinary.
'The idea is to do as little as possible for a lot of money so that I can get back to my own stuff'
In one popular series that has been referenced repeatedly in the art of others, Paillé hangs a plastic square the incandescent white of the sun in the centre of empty landscapes (ravaged forests, snowy fields) that look as though they’ve been conjured by dreams, or by drugs. In another, titled “Surreal Mexico,” the sea off Quintana Roo is radioactive soup beneath twisted pink branches; Paillé’s camper van drifts amid a herd of bioluminescent sheep and bounds across a scrubland in the electric dusk. Sometimes disordered limbs jut out of fluorescent bushes and drops of rain hover in the air like fireflies. Sometimes fences and traffic poles rear up, brilliant and immense, from the earth like primordial totems. Unknown people at a rainbow gathering, or a beach resort, or Kumbha Mela, or in their own yard, dispassionately inhabit the artifice. The scenes are in many ways perfectly mundane, only they’ve been filtered through the mind and come out on the other side of the camera as a psychedelic wax museum.
On Valentine’s Day, I visited Paillé in his home, a 20-foot cube truck from the 90s that twice this year has gotten stuck in my parents’ driveway. He was parked outside of the Cirque du Soleil’s massive Montreal headquarters, where he’d spent the previous two days shooting on assignment. The truck is much bigger than his last one, an old Toyota camper, and it took him a year to turn its interior into a plywood hovel that is also a feat of DIY engineering. There is a heated floor, a lofted bed that he shares with his service dog, a counter encased in many uneven inches of lacquer that pops up to reveal a stovetop on which he cooks the cheapest food available to him. All of his photo equipment is tangled together in a single Rubbermaid bin.
Paillé showed me the contraption he developed, in a plastic bucket, to stir his feces into compost; before, he used a sizeable tank that once hit a drop in the road, smearing shit across the concrete. Hanging by the makeshift toilet is an exhaust pipe that he exhales into after he’s taken a bong hit or smoked hash off a knife lit with a blowtorch.
'I've been told that if I don't seem homeless it's only because I have nice skin'
He received me in pizza-print leggings and a belted navy-blue coat that’s seen better days. “I’ve been told that if I don’t seem homeless it’s only because I have nice skin,” he said, stroking his own face. Often Paillé wears grimy construction or mechanic uniforms, or pieces of vestiary art—T-shirts grafted onto other T-shirts—made by an ex-lover, and fantastically shaped and coloured prescription glasses ordered online from China. He occupies space chaotically, testing the limits of people and objects, destroying things that don’t stand up to his restless prodding. Occasionally he will laugh so hard that he starts to wheeze and spit and roll around on the ground, but mostly he’s quiet and alone. His truest love is reserved for his dog, Pulga, a blond mutt whom he trained with great care so that he would never have to go anywhere without her.
A few years ago, the New Yorker published a piece headlined “Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement,” about how living in a van has become not just an aesthetic but a lifestyle brand. “This is such bullshit,” Paillé moaned when he read it. A month earlier, he’d been parked on a stretch of beach in Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where, according to the police report, two men crashed with harpoons through the windows of his camper and stabbed him in the eye, ribs, and shoulder. He chased them with a machete and claims that he severed someone’s hand, though he never bothered trying to look for it. My boyfriend and I picked him up—we’d met him at a rainbow gathering, a remote and nonhierarchical assembly of people who live freely and communally for up to a month, on the Pacific side of the country—and brought him to the house we were renting outside of Mexico City so he could rest.
But almost as soon as he got there things went wrong: a couple of locals who wanted him to move the van pounded on the door and then made as if to kick his dog. Paillé threatened them with a giant rock, they took the rock and hit him in the side of the head with it while another man held a machete to his neck. I found him in the camper later that day, bleeding and crying. “It never stops,” he said. “It’s one thing after the next. I don’t know why. I just can’t take it anymore.”
Paillé’s mother was exhausted and her partner lit their apartment building on fire and went to jail for it, so when Paillé was 5 she put him in a foster-care facility in Trois Rivières, between Montreal and Quebec City. A year later, he was placed in a foster home and he stayed there until he was almost 18. “My psychologist said I have a fear of abandonment,” he told me and then made a dumb face, because the diagnosis is easy and cliché and surely very true.
I asked about his half-sister, who continued to live with their mother even once he was sent away. “She’s mad at me,” he said. As a child, he’d participated in the killing of her sick and suffering pet bird—first they’d put it in the freezer and when that didn’t work they’d snapped its neck—while she was living with her father in New Brunswick. She warned him never to speak of the episode; when they last talked, some years back, he made a joke about it. “Anyway, I’m not going to reach out to her. I’ve never reached out to anyone in my life.”
When he was 12, Paillé collected stray golf balls and sold them back to the club for a dollar apiece. Then he washed dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant for $5 an hour. He spent two summers working at McDonald’s. At that point he was taking Ritalin and attending a private high school on scholarship—he was gifted, particularly at science—but was kicked out months before graduation for disrespecting a teacher and, as a consequence, was asked to leave his foster home. He kept studying, enrolling in night classes to catch up, in the aim of becoming a doctor, “the rich kind, the most prestigious kind. I just wanted to be the best. I was still polite then. I was still in the world. I still thought that wearing nice shoes meant something.”
One St-Jean-Baptiste weekend, the province’s national holiday, he went to Quebec City with drugs he hoped to sell. He was 20 and needed the money, he said; “you can’t work a normal job when you’re doing eight hours of math a day.” Just as soon as he arrived, he approached two men outside a corner store and asked if they were interested. The men were undercover police officers. Paillé spent four days in a holding cell and was found guilty at trial, which likely meant that he could no longer become a doctor and certainly meant that he could no longer step foot in the United States. His neighbour, who’d given him the narcotics, killed himself some months after that.
Meanwhile, Paillé had been taking photographs with a borrowed camera and was amassing a following on Flickr. Shortly after the first consumer photography drones were released, he was already fixing flashes to them and illuminating giant piles of trash; his crotchety impatience extends to his own work and frequently manifests as avant-gardism. After the artistic director of a publicity agency found him online and sent him to France on a hefty contract, he abandoned a degree in medical biology and started to travel widely, sleeping on the sofas of his Flickr enthusiasts. He also, in his mid-20s, gave up Ritalin, which he credits with his knowledge, drive, and patience. “I started smoking weed for my depression and reading postmodernism and taking long walks and doing a lot of nothing, and it felt so good,” he said.
Sometime in January I left the house to go on a grocery run. Paillé, whose truck was leaking grey dishwater in my front yard, asked if he and Pulga could walk with me to the store; he felt like taking pictures. We ambled there in the snow, through a plain residential neighbourhood and toward the businesses that serve it. Paillé brought a blue flash and stopped to shoot cables running over shingled roofs, a bank’s signboard at the foot of an isolated mountain, a series of metal posts in front of a gas station. Click click, and then he’d move on. It seemed so haphazard that I laughed. “It’s easy to be an artist,” he said, looking through the camera’s viewfinder. “You see something you like; you say, ‘Wow, wow, wow’; then you press the button.”
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