Direct To Film – Interview with Artist Raymond Depardon
By Miriam Rosen, Originally Published, Artforum, February 2001
Raymond Depardon talks like he photographs, like he films, like he writes: profusely. And the torrent of words is intensified by the singular sound of his voice, always slightly hoarse, out of breath, and devoid of Parisian preciosity. Difficult to translate into print much less into English (imagine a French version of Peter Falk), but eminently worth signaling by way of introduction. The title of Depardon’s current photo and film retrospective at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris felicitously captures the pattern of his speech no less than the meandering of his career: “Detours.”
Photo reporter at the age of eighteen for a leading French news agency, cofounder of the pathbreaking Gamma photo agency in 1967, member of the venerable Magnum agency since 1979, the precocious foreign correspondent and sometime paparazzo turned photographer-filmmaker now has to his credit some twenty-five books (photos and texts) and thirty-five films (long and short, documentary and fiction), not to mention commercials and public service ads. An “incredible itinerary,” as he says, for someone who was born on a farm in Villefranche-sur-Saon north of Lyons, in 1942, completed his formal schooling at fourteen, and studied photography by correspondence before “going up” to Paris in 1958 to work as a photographer’s assistant.
Indeed, Depardon’s work, like his manner of speaking, is always remarkably simple in its form–frontal, symmetrical photos, films composed of long, fixed-camera sequence shots, and first-person commentaries that, like the uncropped photos and the unedited sequence shots, seem totally spontaneous. But it is precisely the incessant detours from one subject, one medium, one register to another that transform the individual elements into a complex but coherent body of work.
A small book called Notes (1979) is often signaled as Depardon’s first “break” with conventional photojournalism because of the disarmingly personal, diary-like texts accompanying images of a two-month trek from one war (in Lebanon) to another (in Afghanistan). But this first-person approach had already made its way into his early films, beginning with Tchad 1: L’embuscade (Chad 1: The ambush, 1970), an extraordinary twelve-minute account of an attack on Chadian rebels not only filmed but experienced from within (cf. Depardon’s voice-over: “Watch carefully–this is where the ambush is going to start”).
In the intervening thirty years, the films, the books, and the voyages have all gotten longer, while the lines between fact and fiction, history and memory, fixed and moving images have been progressively blurred, ignored, defied. War reporter Depardon’s trips to Saigon metamorphosed into the fantasies of seduction recounting his first fiction film, Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique (1984-85), and the book that followed, Les fiancees de Saigon (1986), just as his film interviews with Francoise Claustre, the French ethnologist held hostage by the Chadian revolutionary movement in the mid-’70s (in Tchad 2 and 3, 1975-76), resurfaced in fictional form with La captive du desert(Captive of the Desert, 1989), starring Sandrine Bonnaire. Counterpointing the deserts, the journeys, and the fantasies, he has constituted a sober catalogue of films (and, occasionally, photo-essays) on urban institutions–the political campaign (50,81%, 1974; Vues: Une campagne pour l’election presidentielle en France, 1988), the press (Numeros zero [Trial runs], 1977; Reporters, 1980), the mental asylum (San Clemente, 1980), the police (Faits divers [News items], 1983), the psychiatric emergency room (Urgences [Emergencies], 1987), and the court system (Delits flagrants [Caught in the act], 1994). And in recent years, the omnipresent man with a camera has returned to his rural origins as well, with a family album-cum-autobiography (La ferme du Garet [The farm at Le Garet], 1995) and a film in progress on French farmers today.
The most extroverted of introverts, the most nomadic of stay-athomes, the most cosmopolitan of provincials, Depardon has made his “detours” not only a way of life but an art. The remarks that follow, extracted from what was essentially a one-question, ninety-minute interview that took place in a Paris cafe in late October, are, on reflection, a perfect “image” of the man and his work.
MIRIAM ROSEN: You’ve often insisted that you don’t make “photographer’s films” and that the two practices, film and photography, are separate. Do you still think so?
RAYMOND DEPARDON: With experience, I can see that they’re even more different. Maybe in the beginning, I went from photography to film without really thinking about it, and with lots of false problems, like how to do a tracking shot. Today I can see that it’s not just a question of technique–the frame, the way you film. It’s true that sometimes I feel a Little frustrated aesthetically in film. At first, I was doing direct cinema. The American filmmakers played an important role for me because when I was working for the Dalmas news agency [1960-62], my editor, Claude Otzenberger, made me read Richard Leacock’s interviews and go and see the films of D.A. Pennebaker and others who were trying to extend journalism into cinema.
For a long time, my experience in film was like that, an extension of my journalistic photography, which I’ve abandoned little by little, even if I’m still at Magnum. Journalism as a lifetime profession is something I don’t think I’m capable of, and I even ask myself if I was cut out for it. I was curious about photography, I was curious about traveling, but I don’t think I was made to be a press photographer. It’s my family, I read the newspapers, I feel certain things, but to say, for example, that I want to go to the Occupied Territories right now, no. I’d like to go, but with something to create, not something to endure.
MR: But that’s photojournalism, war reporting even. You’re still doing other kinds of photography.
RD: I have the impression that I’m a survivor of something. My past plays a large role in what I’m doing today–I’m very anchored in the real, in the fact of never constructing something false, or if I construct it, if I intervene, of leaving things in a natural state. I’m coming from journalism, but at the same time I’m tempted by poetry, politics, and maybe the idea of being a witness, a belief that you can still change things with the image. Sincerely, deep down inside, I believe it.
Right now I’m in a period of stocktaking. You could say that my films are ahead of my photography because I’ve already positioned myself as a filmmaker for a long time: I have a point of view, I make films that are more personal. I’m someone who’s always looking around for something, and I don’t want to shut myself up in documentary film, so I look to fiction, or in between fiction and documentary.
In photography I haven’t positioned myself as well. I’ve always had this complex of being an ex-reporter-photographer, of being a photographer who was more of a witness than a creator. It’s stupid, but it’s like that. So now I want to make up for lost time and go for the things that seem essential to me, questions I haven’t really raised in my photography because I’ve raised them in cinema. I’ve always had a slightly strange attitude in relation to photography, which was to wait for a commission or, as a journalist, to follow the news.
MR: What kinds of questions?
RD: There are recurrent themes in my work that I haven’t really gone into deeply enough–mineral spaces, like the desert, a certain French rural life, a French quintessence, a relationship between pain and photography, politics. What I’m interested in today is really constructing, because that’s a luxury. I see the photographers at Magnum: They’re all reacting, they’re doing commissions.
I think that we photographers are behind in relation to other forms of expression. We’re still questioning ourselves, wondering, “Are we useful, or are we a little frivolous?” But these drawbacks are also advantages: Obviously, we’re not very serious, we’re not very important, but that’s the strength of the photo, precisely that it’s ephemeral. It’s somehow both ephemeral and superimportant. It can go back and forth, like a conveyor belt, I’d say, between the two things. Whether you’re a filmmaker or a photographer, you always have that guilty feeling–”Maybe I wasn’t in the right place.”
I think we have to move toward something that’s more distanced in relation to the event. When you look at the press, French or American, you see that it’s still extremely explicit. And as far as film goes, I want to do something different now.
MR: Which means?
RD: That today we’ve caught up with what’s happening in the big cities. We film everything, we know about everything–the police, the psychiatric emergency units, all the public institutions, we’ve filmed them all. There are still one or two that I hope to get authorizations to film one day, because I know there are a few hideaways like that, where they don’t want any movie cameras. I’ll do them, but I don’t want to do too many. I respect filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman who’ve zeroed in on these things again and again, but after the police or the court system, I don’t want to make another film like that.
Relative to the Anglo-Saxons, I’m more impressionistic. “So French,” as someone told me one day when I was showing them photos from Notes. And it’s true. Other filmmakers, if they’d treated the same subjects, would have zoomed in to the bitter end, done one big “close-up,” as they say in American journalism. “I’d have gone with the policemen to their homes,” people said to me. “Why didn’t you go?” But I’m more impressionistic. Is it the fact that I used to be a photographer? Maybe that’s where the photographer turns up again, in a much more subtle way–not in the frame, not in the way of filming, but in the way of being attuned to the minute, to the fraction of a second that’s not the same as any other. Which inevitably means that it’s subjective.
MR: Maybe that’s where we find Raymond Depardon.
RD: Absolutely. Because I’m coming from journalism, unlike Chris Marker or Jean Rouch, who are ethno or very political filmmakers. I’m closer to the Americans. But since I’m French, I’m more political, and maybe more of a loner. It’s like Errance [Wandering, 2000; Depardon's latest photo-essay], where I went off, just like that, wherever chance happened to take me. I have a few 35 mm films like that, where I didn’t have a subject, the same way I’ve tried to kill the subject in photography. For my short film New York, N.Y. , for example, I shot at the same time every day. The subject isn’t always a help to the photographer, it’s like handcuffs. And I think that with the cinema as well, we have to take back our freedom, set out to make images, to construct images.
I don’t have a press card any more, but deep down inside, I’m still a journalist. If we picked up a newspaper here, this morning, I could find a few stories to cover, but I feel like I should do things that are more advanced.
MR: More advanced?
RD: We have the right to claim the status of authors. I don’t think that the big photo-essays we knew in the ’50s and ’60s, even just after the war, are completely dead. We have to keep on doing this kind of thing. Continue to be free, to lay claim to a purely photographic form of expression. It’s paradoxical for me to say this, because I often use interviews, words, speech, but I see that as a photographic or filmic form of expression.
MR: You speak of being a loner and being able to take certain liberties now that you’re recognized, but I notice that with that recognition, the list of credits at the end of your films gets longer and longer.
RD: The maximum in my experience was La captive du desert–ten people. And it’s true that I’m not interested in that kind of production, but I’m glad to have done it. Having your own chair with your name written on the back and talking with the star–it was kind of romantic, like Cecil B. DeMille with his megaphone. So it’s something I wanted to do, and I don’t regret it, but I think it’s one of my worst films.
You’re always under pressure to have more money and more people working with you. I’ve worked on commercials where there were fifty people, but that didn’t interest me because I was too much of a loner and I was terrified of working with people. I was really unhappy the first time I worked with even a few other people, for Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique. There were just the three of us-me, Francoise Prenant [who played the title, and only, role] and Jacques Kebadian [a filmmaker, who later coedited the film with Prenant]-and they kept asking me, “Raymond, what are we going to do tomorrow?” And I’d say, “Oh, I don’t know!” And I made all sorts of mistakes because I had to come up with explanations to make them happy. That was the worst.
My dream is to go roaming around with a movie camera, to let myself be carried away by the images, to stay curious, free myself from the TV news, go and see what’s happening in other places, and be alone. And to come up with a film, to do the sound myself, like I did with the first ones.
MR: Do you have anything in the works?
RD: I have an advance from the Centre National du Cinema for a film that I’m supposed to shoot in the desert, and I really want to do it completely differently, to go back to my own way of filming, with a handheld camera. What I want is a form, a substance, something that holds up, and at the same time, a kind of urgency. I think there’ll be four Westerners. But first, to spot locations, I’m going alone, totally alone. No sound engineer, no nothing. Maybe I’ll take an old man as a guide, and somebody young to make the tea, because I’m used to it. But you have to stay free, in film and photography alike.
MR: Are there any other projects?
RD: I’m in the process of making a long film that’s going to take me about ten years. It’s about rural France, the small farmers and problems of transmission to the next generation. It’s an important subject for me because it’s something quintessentially French. There’s a word in Cevenol–that’s a local dialect-roumiger, and it means to talk to yourself, to grumble. When I go to Magnum from time to time, I see the photographers with their heads drooping, anxious, and they make me laugh. I say to myself, “My God, that reminds me of the farmers,” because they have this French quintessence, which is to grumble. It’s kind of superstitious–you know, like the farmers–because if you talk about too much happiness, you’re going to be disappointed. So I tell myself that, ultimately, my farmers in the countryside and the people in Paris have something in common–it’s this attitude (laughs), which probably comes from our past, our history, our rural culture. So I’m making this film on the rural world.
Given that I’m fifty-eight now, let’s say that I still have another period in my life, an important one, where I have to go slowly because I’m in a hurry, as Lenin would say (laughs). We’re in a hurry because the light doesn’t wait, things don’t wait, and maybe we have to think about our failures. Photographers are often proud, and coming from a farmer’s world, which is also very proud, I think I was saved, not by my will, not by my work, but by my pride (laughs). It’s true that the passing of time plays a role, like when I see two films that were made practically at the same moment and had totally different careers. Reporters, for example, worked very well, it was even nominated for an Oscar, but it really shows its age now. And then I see San Clemente, a film that was made just like that, self-produced, which had a tiny release, and it’s clear that this is an extraordinary film, because there was an incredible freedom. So today I tell myself, “Wait, let’s go back to films like that, back to the essential. Be careful! Be careful about the fact that I’m recognized, be careful about pride, be careful about vanity. Let’s go back to being a loner.”
Miriam Rosen is a writer based in Paris.
ASX CHANNEL: Raymond Depardon
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