Guy Le Querrec Sees Everything He Photographs for the First Time

The Magnum photographer on being true to your roots and what makes a good photograph.

by Julie Le Baron
10 May 2016, 10:30am

This article originally appeared on VICE France

One thing that really makes French photographer Guy Le Querrec's photos stand out is his always fresh perspective. "I guide my eye so as to have the feeling of seeing things for the first and last time," he told me. "It comes from a place of intense curiosity and a desire to trigger the memory. I can't handle the idea of forgetting something I have seen."

He received his first camera when he was 13, at his mother's office Christmas party. The lens of his Ultrafex offered him some distance to the world around him, which made him comfortable enough to take the picture of a 17-year-old girl. He understood that photography would allow him to preserve his memories. Since then, Le Querrec has documented diverse subjects like the holidays of French workers or Lakota horsemen in the snowy mountains of South Dakota. He spoke to me about all that.

Paris. 9th arrondissement. Nina Simone at the Olympia. March 25th, 1969

VICE: When I was looking into your work, I noticed that there are a lot of mentions of your relationship with jazz. I have to admit that I'm completely ignorant when it comes to jazz, apart from a few Nina Simone albums that my mother would constantly play.
Guy Le Querrec: This photo was taken at least 20 years before you were born. I had just become the head of photography for the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique. That day, I went to see Nina Simone rehearse at the Olympia [a concert hall in Paris]. She'd left the stage during a soundcheck to listen to her orchestra and was standing in the middle of the room. She was completely in work mode, it had nothing of the glamour of the stage she had been on just before.

I think that if I had made that picture today, I would have been stopped by security guards. Artists today aren't very open to having these kinds of intimate photos taken but that's the bulk of my work on jazz for 50 years.

I'd like to talk to you about your series The French on Holiday, which is my favourite. What made you want to approach this subject?
I've always been attracted to this social environment – I'm an only child from a working class family and I observed these people as though they were my family. In 1976, I was selected to do a report on French people on holiday – it had been 40 years since the triumph of the Popular Front and the introduction of paid holiday leave. That particular victory for the working classes affected my parents hugely – especially my father, a militant unionist who would often discuss politics at the dinner table. This project was my only obligation at the time so I started taking photos in the south before I went to Brittany – going to Brittany was inevitable.

France, Var. On the road to Saint-Tropez. July 27th 1976

Why is that?
I spent all my summer holidays in Brittany with my parents, and it's where I would go to train my photographic eye. I never really had a plan when I did that, I just wanted to get a clearer vision of the world. I went to small parties, I documented the work of the peasants and workers. I also liked the idea that I was photographing my roots, I've always been interested in my origins. I think that we shouldn't neglect where we come from because looking into our background only enriches our soul. I'll have a triple exhibition on Brittany in the cities of Lannion, Lorient and Brest in October so it also pays off to stay close to your roots.

I was in the south of France when I received the grant so I started by photographing the creatures of Saint-Tropez. On the road there, I saw some Italian bikers by a bus stop where a guy was changing the adverts. It was one of those moments when I had the intuition that something really visual was about to happen, so I waited. Finally, one of the bikers grabbed a poster and made a hole in it to put his head through – and I took the shot. A lot of my photographs are the result of spontaneous moments like that.

That's what I find surprising in your photos – some of them seem to have been the result of careful compositions but it's never the case.
I have always loved observing people – their postures, their behaviour – and I like photographing them just as they are. I like explaining my approach by saying: When I photograph, I dance with the Truth while I try not to step on her feet. I wouldn't be able to take a good photo if I directed people in the picture.

Pyrénees-Orientales. On a beach in Argelès-sur-mer. August 1st 1976

Can you tell me the story behind the above photo? It's so beautifully balanced.
It was in Argelès-sur-mer. There were very few people at the beach because the sky was grey. Usually, you try to maintain the natural aspect of what you're presented with when taking a photo – but in this precise moment, I was alone and it was difficult for the people around to miss me. One guy asked me what I was doing and I explained that I was doing a report on French people on holiday. "You're French people on holiday and I'm a photographer. If you like, we can both go back to our initial positions." So he and his little group went back to doing what they were doing. They ended up moving into a certain formation which allowed me to capture this photo.

One day, there was an article in a magazine that said that this picture had the golden ratio, which wasn't planned. It's a notion defined by painters – a question of balance, harmony and the positioning of the eye; "the millimetre that makes the difference" as Henri Cartier-Bresson said. Sometimes it's all about timing, but with this picture, it was a question of space.

The sculptor Daniel Druet and François Mitterrand. Last session in the ball room, Tuesday October 18th, 1983 – between 11.30AM and 12.30PM

How did you end up photographing former President of France François Mitterrand and his sculptor? What made you want to do it?
I had an uncle, Edgar, who once took me to the Musée Grevin wax museum when I was little. He made me believe that the sculptures got up in the night to go and pee. One day, I was contacted by the sculptor Daniel Druet who needed a portrait of the first pilot to fly the Concorde, and I was the only person who had photographed him. I went to see him at the Musée Grévin – coming back after all those years gave me the same sense of wonder. There's a little back door there, which is the entrance to the workshop. When I walked in, it felt like I was in a fairy tale. That made me want to do a series on bust sittings. François Mitterrand was at some point sitting for Druet, while just starting his first term as president.

His sitting took place at the Élysée, and I was there for eight of the 10 sittings, taking place over a period of two years. There was something impenetrable about Mitterrand, which made it very difficult for Druet to capture him. He ended up destroying everything and making the bust from the eighth and 10th sessions. This is the final model on the photo.

Finally, what motivated you to go photograph the Lobi people, the subject of your most recent book?
For Magnum's 50th anniversary, each photographer was given financial support by the agency for a creative project. It wasn't a huge sum but it was enough to pay for the journey, expenses and the films. We could choose any location in the world as a backdrop for a series.

I'm very attached to Africa – I've visited about 30 African countries by now. Jean-Jacques Mandel, an Africaphile who worked notably for Libération, suggested I'd meet with the Lobi people. They've always had a particular type of autonomy, pride and fierceness to them – before, during and after colonisation. It's not a very big ethnic group but members inhabit parts of Burkina Faso – where I went – Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Burkina Faso. Pani province, Olkapoua village. Third day of the burial of Tediremana Palenfo – the mother in law of Dapouné Da, who passed away in December 1997. March 8th, 1998

We visited them during an annual festival where they have to pay homage to the people who have died during the year. When the family of the deceased has the means, they build big clay pots they fill with water or Dolo – a kind of beer. They drink it during two or three days. Children are very present during the festivities; they dance and play around a lot.

When people ask me what makes a good photograph, I would say that only one thing counts: The characters in the frame have to act just right. There must be a certain tension within the image. The more elements there are, the more complicated that becomes. So you have to observe the people up until they're doing exactly what you were hoping they'd do. The dancing children in this picture went around a tree a couple of times and reappeared from one minute to the next. I didn't need much time to have them exactly where I wanted them in my frame.

Thank you very much, Guy.

More photographs below.

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Paris 9th arrondissement, 8 rue de Faubourg Montmartre. The third Thursday of Lent, there's a party with the theme of the seven deadly sins at the "Palace". March 13th 1980

Vaucluse, Lacoste. During the festival of the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, a workshop that takes place at photographer Jean-Pierre Sudre's home. June 21st 1976

Brittany, Finistère nord. City of Plouescat. During a low tide, the bay of Kernic is used as a race track for horses. August 5th 1973

Paris. 14-15th arrondissement. Monparnasse-Bienvenüe station. Sailors celebrate "la quille" – the end of their service. April 20th 1973

Denain, Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Christmas with the family. December 24th 1983

Paris. 10th arrondissement. 10 rue de l'Echiquier. In the changing rooms of the cabaret Concert Mayol, during the show "Erotic aux Nues". February 22nd 1979

Portugal, Beira Alta. Campaign for cultural revitalisation and civic action near Viseu, conducted by a team of veterinarians from the section of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) of Castro Daire. Vaccination of pigs. May 3rd 1975

Villejuif. A woman living at Rue Georges Lebigot heads to the town hall for her wedding. November 29th 1975

Lakota on their eleventh day of a journey through the Badlands national park in South Dakota. December 25th 1990