The eye of Light
Interview by Olivier Ammour-Mayeur
1/ To begin, could you explain as detailed as possible how you relate your work with environmental issues?
So many facets of Nature have been damaged or destroyed. We have provoked climate change to accelerate, causing all sorts of problems, social and economic, species extinction etc. Other emerging issues will cause more migration, imbalance, strife, war, etc. it is all connected and forms a new and dangerous whole in which we will have to adapt. This has greatly influenced my photography.
Through my work, I try to convey a sense of Nature. Our busy lives have in many cases taken us away from the essence of nature itself. We have schedules and we have time frames to respect, places to go, deadlines to keep.
A lot of the time we miss what is right in front of us, like the way the light hits a stalk of grass, renders a flower petal translucent, the way the evening breeze affects a wheat field, and the little things of life that are soothing, calming, meditative, things that we tend to sometimes feel immune to, even on an unconscious level, in our modern way of life.
I attempt to translate a sense of slowing down to a more “natural” rhythm, and a chance to bring to the forefront what is often missed, and maybe in some cases unattainable. I hope to trigger a sense of belonging in the purest sense, because we are part of the whole, and we need to remember this.
The beauty of Nature is all around us, and by bringing to people images of natural elements in my landscapes and seascapes I hope to give rise to some peacefulness and harmony to the viewer, a reminder of the importance of the natural world, where we are kinder and more gentle, more caring.
I use my camera to convey the perception of what I am feeling and the vision I have of any given scene for this purpose.
2/ For you, how does the aesthetic work of photography support the idea of preserving the environment?
I live in the country, so I am naturally aware of it.
As far as I am concerned in my photographic field, our job is, of course, to convey something visually. I personally try to convey the beauty of nature, and therefore of the environment through my images. I could very well show images of pollution, of chemical waste, birds covered in oil from a spill, etc. But this is not how I’ve been working up until now.
Each artist has a way of depicting a given scene, and my depiction and choice in what to show is to bring forth the beauty, the perfection of nature defined, so we can protect it, nurture it, care for it, and preserve it. Aside from an intellectual thought process, and the technicalities of how to take a given image, it is also an emotional one in this respect.
Showing destruction might trigger a more violent and negative emotion, but I prefer to stay at the other end of the scale.
I’d like to mention that Ansel Adams, the renowned American photographer whom I greatly admire, was also a fierce environmentalist, and his compulsion to photograph the wonders of Yosemite, contributed to creating several national parks in America. This helped me to understand how landscape – and seascape – photography can be put to use to be helpful, to bring awareness, to protect, to raise money, and lobby etc., as far as Nature is concerned.
3/ Is there a deliberate spiritual dimension in your work? And if so, could you expand on that?
There is no deliberate spiritual purpose to my photography per say. However, the experience in front of breathtaking scenes, or how the light hits the subject in a certain way, how the composition works, say with dramatic clouds, or when all the elements come together to create what I can only describe as God winking at us, is extraordinary!
At moments such as these, I feel the magic, the wonder of it all, and it is very moving. To me these are spiritual moments. When a moment, a glimpse into perfection suddenly presents itself, in the way only Nature can. It is truly humbling!
The feeling of the magic operating is physical, I can feel it in my fingers as I manipulate my camera. It is a generous gift from what I’d like to think comes from the Universe itself, the power beyond. That to me is profoundly spiritual. Each time I set out for a shoot, I secretly hope that it will happen.
4/ What is immediately striking in your photographs is the intense use you make of light. Could you explain where the inspiration for this technique comes from?
Without light, there is no image. That is how the camera works. It’s as simple as that. And so the photographer uses the light, whether artificial or natural to create a given image. I like dramatic scenes, where the light hits a given subject a certain way. I prefer to work in the early morning or in the evening, when the light is gentle, with long shadows etc. Photographing at midday in the bright summer sun for example is the time of day I avoid if I can help it. The light is too harsh the contrast too pronounced at that time of day.
5/ To continue talking about light, is it your years spent in the United States, in particular, that fed this fascination? Or does it also come from other experiences?
There are of course, some amazing light situations in America, but that goes for everywhere else as well. I simply use the light that is available to me when it becomes special, noticeably beautiful, out of the ordinary, anywhere I am.
For me, light is like a tool, and with my other tool that is my camera, I can bring an image to the viewer that is worth sharing. There are light situations that are unique, and in different seasons and periods of the year, and of course different times of day. Each can be incredibly special. That, combined with the elements such as skies, mist, waves, vistas, etc., can bring forth something unique.
I look forward to each season for the magic of the specific light that each provide. Knowing which kind of light will emerge from a given situation in a specific time of year comes with experience, so one knows what to look for as time goes by. I find this really exciting.
6/ On your website you quote the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984), who explains: “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed”. First of all, did you have a chance to meet him personally? And was it this photographer that instilled your desire to become one yourself?
I had never met Ansel Adams. I only really discovered his work while I was studying photography, so no he was not decisive in my choosing photography. However, he was an important reference during my studies being one of the pioneers of modern photography. His photographs are masterpieces, and have influenced my own work. The beauty of his compositions, among other things, gives his images a balance that I find more than attractive, and this has helped train my eye. I have the utmost respect for his work, and how he got to creating his masterpieces.
7/ As a follow-up to the previous question, is it possible to say that working on color is for you a sort of tribute to Adams’ work in black and white, while at the same time detaching itself from it?
Digital photography is somewhat different from film photography, so my photographs are very different from his. Ansel Adams has indeed influenced me, if only by the remarkableness of his body of work, and skills in the darkroom.
However, he is not the only photographer I admire, I admire other photographers work. There are a lot of brilliant photographers out there today!
I try to create images that reflect my personal take on a given subject, while learning from the others on simply improving my work continuously. I try to use their examples of excellence, notably Ansel Adams’ in order to create the best images that I can, on my own, in order to be the best “image maker” that I can be.
8/ Finally, could you explain your work flow and process? What is your “photographic mode of operation”? Do you “hunt” everyday, or only some days? And how does the question of weather figure into this schedule. You are obviously attentive to it, but how much do you consider meteorology in your work as a landscape photographer?
One would expect me to take my camera wherever I go, always. But this is not necessarily the case. I plan my shoots, with a specific project in mind, and go from there. I am dependant on the weather of course, so if it rains, the light might not correspond to what I have in mind, so I wait until the conditions allow me to follow through what I intended to do.
I had a project a few years ago to photograph the megaliths of Carnac in the mist. I watched the weather predictions for a good week before getting a time frame in which to work. I needed warm conditions during the day, then a cold night to follow which would allow for the mist to shroud the standing stones at dawn, a time that would provide the mood I was after which would hopefully create the ethereal, mysterious, close to mystical atmosphere that I had in mind for the final images. When the time seemed right, I traveled down to the location and got the photographs I had been after.
I plan my shoots, and work with the elements to bring the project to fruition. It is not regular due to the weather factor. At times it doesn’t work out, and one has to go back to the drawing board, and plan again, go back to the location, sometimes several times in order to be successful.
I usually have a vision in my mind of what I want to obtain, like to the megaliths of Carnac project. The secret is patience, and then there is the time in the “digital darkroom” to create the images of the initial vision.
There are some purists who feel that creating an image this way is artificial, but if they only knew the tricks I learnt from Ansel Adams! His photographs didn’t just appear the way we see them. There were hours and hours in the darkroom to create the gems that are exhibited all over the world today.
I had already developed my own tricks in the university darkroom years before digital photography was invented, and I’ve had to learn to translate the same techniques digitally. I still have a lot to learn.
This interview is part of an article published in English concerning my work in the « Humanities » n°49 (December 2017) titled « The Eye of Light: Sophie de Roumanie and the Aesthetics of Landscape Photography » (pp. 159-179).
About the author:
Dr Olivier Ammour-Mayeur is teaching French & Comparative Literatures, Cinema and Gender Studies at International Christian University (Tokyo) since 2015.
Prior to this position, he taught in other academic institutions in Japan, but also in Belgium, France and Australia.
Interested in Literature and Arts in general, his research focuses on the inter-cultural dynamics and the issue of hybridity in arts.
He has published books on Marguerite Duras, Henry Bauchau, Michel Butor as well as papers on artists such as Olivier Debré, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein, Orlan, and the influence of Japanese Arts on Western Artists.