We met in early February near the Coliseum. On that day, it was sunny enough for us to have our conversation out on the patio at Santa Martino Ai Monti square. For nearly an hour, Alexandre Morelli and I discussed the photographers he admires and his own personal philosophy of photography.
How did you get into photography?
I’ve always been drawn to photography. I learned early on that it allowed me to freeze time. I loved the sort of “dark magic” side to it: “with just a press of this button, I will freeze this moment in time forever!” My parents’ pictures tended to wind up in photo albums or shoved into shoeboxes. I think it was the relationship to time that really fascinated me. Photography gives you the best “creation-to-durability” ratio. In just a few fractions of a second, you create images that can last for centuries.
Which photographers inspire you?
Obviously, the first name that comes to mind is Cartier Bresson, because of the composition of his images. The guy must not have been a whole lot of fun to be around, but what class, what talent. He left behind him a collection of works that are just incredible, modern, and intelligent. He invented so much, and he knew how to talk about his art. You’ll never get bored listening to him talk about his job. It’s the same when you spend time with his photographs: at first, they don’t seem very inviting, but once you really dive into them, you realize just how important they are.
There’s also Saul Leiter, whom I love for the harmonious colour and the furtive angles. You just feel like he’s trying to deconstruct everything that he sees. His images are a no-holds-barred visual dreamscape. And he did it all without ever leaving his neighbourhood. He really flies in the face of convention: who cares if the window he’s shooting through is dirty or all fogged up? On the contrary—it adds a bit of mystery. It’s very inspiring. His images give off a sense of poetry and grace.
I also really admire the first American photographers who used colour film for street scenes: Meyerowitch, Egglestone. It couldn’t have been easy for them at the time because in the 60s and 70s, colour film was really only used in advertising. It wasn’t seen as “noble” in by the photography elite. These guys created a whole new genre of photography: street photography, which turns out is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Just type that hashtag on Instagram and you’ll get an idea of the sheer magnitude of their influence.
You work a lot with blurred images. What can you tell us about that?
I’ve always been drawn to deconstructed images: Prévert’s photo collages, Man Ray’s solarized images, David Hockney’s “joiners”… I admire these techniques that are a way of reinterpreting the real world.
“Blur” allows you to do the same thing right from the moment you shoot a photo. It’s one of the most magical things about photography. You just adjust your camera’s settings to a “long exposure” and you can transform something mundane into something that’s truly strange: a monster, a sketch, a ghost. That’s what the 3 portraits of Andy Warhol taken by Duane Michals deonstrate: Warhol faces the photographer, he shakes his head faster and faster and in just three shots, his face is transformed. This triptych takes you from the figurative to the abstract. That’s what I love about blur. You never know exactly how it’s going to turn out; it’s a sort of permanent accident.
This triptych takes you from the figurative to the abstract. That’s what I love about blur. You never know exactly how it’s going to turn out; it’s a sort of permanent accident.
What kind of camera do you use?
I’m lucky to have found a little camera that creates a very soft blurring effect. I stumbled on it a little bit by accident. It’s a compact digital camera that’s starting to get old. I’ve been thinking about buying a backup one just in case it gives out on me. When you find tools that do exactly what you want them to do, that’s priceless. Especially since today, cameras are designed to take photos that are perfectly clear. It’s going to be hard to find a replacement.
What’s your technique for creating this effect?
I set my camera to long exposure: it can be anywhere from half a second to 10 seconds long. The diaphragm is always set to a small aperture. That creates better depth of field; it would be too bad to have a smearing effect that takes away from a blur caused by movement!
Once these simple adjustments are made, I go out for a walk and shoot whatever I see. Often, I do it while in movement. Sometimes I'll shake the camera as I take the picture, as if my hands had suddenly started trembling. It might be a little weird if you were to watch me do it. I try to deconstruct what I see in the world around me. I press the shutter release and I let the movement do the rest.
And it works?
Not always! I use the camera’s screen like a video minitor. Once I take the picture, I can view it on the display. I can correct the exposure time, crop it, or take it again. But it’s got to be fast. I don’t like spending a lot of time on one picture. Joseph Koudelka said that to be a good photographer, you need to invest in a good pair of shoes and observe. I try to live by his words. I walk at a brisk pace and I observe what’s around me with a watchful eye, as if I were on the lookout for something. It helps me keep a certain amount of tension and energy. I try to imprint my breathing on my photos.
Did you go to art school?
No, but a few years back I spent several months working on a cultural app. I oversaw the iconography. I spent a lot of time digging deep into museum image libraries. I spent whole days looking at da Vinci, Cézanne, Cranach, and lots of other fantastic painters. Thanks to that project, I realized that my graphic eye had gotten sharper. When you study a painting and start to notice the details, it’s kind of like you’re looking under the hood of a car. Paintings speak to you; they open themselves up a little bit more. You understand stuff about the colour, composition, the techniques that were used… I think it was a formative experience for me.
How did your "Dawning Presbyopia" series come about?
I got started on “Dawning Prebyopia” during a trip to Turkey. I came home with a dozen or so photos that were cohesive enough that I wanted to explore the idea some more. At the time, I was interested in poet photographers and I came across a video about Flore.
It showed her walking through the streets of Cairo and Alexandria at dawn. The space was deserted, but there was always just a little bit of life that she was able to capture with her Polaroid camera. With just a press of the button, there was her snapshot, capturing surreal images of things like a moped, a plastic chair, a sun umbrella/parasol. There was poetry in her images, and a lot of strength, too.Watching her work, I realized two things. First, that it doesn't really matter what you're working with. You can create powerful images with basic equipment. A phone is enough, or a small camera, but you don’t need more than that to take pictures.
The second thing I learned was that when you get up early to take pictures, you’ve got the world practically all to yourself. When you’re all alone with a monument, a street, or facing the ocean, you feel like it belongs to you. Try it yourself: go take a walk around Place de la Concorde on a summer morning at 5 a.m. You’ll be alone, but you know that the pictures you take then will be completely different from the pictures taken by the masses of tourists just a few hours later.
When looking at your photos, it’d be easy to mistake them for paintings!
For “Dawning Prebyopia", I would quite happily agree that my work falls into the category of impressionistic photographers. I’m thinking in particular of Antoine d’Agata and Sarah Moon.
Of course, their universes are very different, but their photos demonstrate that there’s a whole world of pictorial expression that's possible with photography. When you look at their images, you can see how you’re at a crossroads between photography and painting.
Both artists offer a sensorial form or photography that I’m very drawn to.
Interview by Marie-Laure Faussier. February 2019