Diary (archives) - Claude Lavoie Photo

Photographic chit-chat

Photographic chit-chat (image unavailable)

Wednesday 2008-06-25 :

A strike of luck in Nice. Billboards all over the city advertise a photo exhibition, Casting de stars, currently taking place at the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l'Image : a selection, by Henri Chapier, of photographs from the collections of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, in Paris.

On the poster, an enlarged black and white portrait, by Bettina Rheims, of Charlotte Rampling : majestic in an elegant black dress, one jewelled hand on her hip, the other on her breast, in the deep of her decolletage.

The visit of the exhibition is a pure delight. Works from the greatest portrait photographers : Richard Avedon, Sam Levin, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Bettina Rheims and Jeanloup Sieff among others. The relevance of the selection is indisputable, the prints are masterpieces, and the presentation is irreproachable. I had seen most of the images in books before, but the beauty of original prints on fiber-based photo paper is unequalled. I walked around the halls for hours, admiring the mastery, technical as well as artistic, of the execution, gaping in awe before Helmut Newton's Big Nudes and Jeanloup Sieff's four contributions : portraits of Yves Montand and François Truffault, a nude of Charlotte Rampling, and Alfred Hitchcock hovering threateningly behind Ina, on the shooting location of Psycho.

Then, in an adjacent room, I watched recordings of Le Divan, a televion programme aired during the 1980's, during which Henri Chapier interviewed prominent visual artists. I particularly appreciated two long conversations with Bettina Rheims and Helmut Newton.

I spent more than half a day touring the exhibits, unwilling to leave. What a chance to be in town during this event, the greatest photo exhibition I ever had the chance to visit.

Sunday 2008-06-22 :

I seem to remember that Vincent Villano and I first got in touch long ago about a photography book he referred to on his Web site. Over the years, we sent sporadic messages back and forth across the Atlantic. But up to this day I only knew him through our infrequent written exchanges and his site, wherein he mentioned living in Marseille. Although I always admired his photographic work it never occurred to me, during previous visits to France and numerous passages through his home town, to arrange to meet.

This time, travelling by train from Lyon to Nice, I scheduled a few hours stopover so that we could get together. Camera in hand, he was standing at the end of the platform when the train pulled in at Saint-Charles station.

We walked across the city to the old harbour. Marseille, with its soot-stained house fronts and its cafés spilling onto the unswept sidewalks, where regulars talk indefatigably while sipping coffee. An ever lively city to which the sun of the Midi imparts an irresistible vitality.

We sat down for lunch at a restaurant on the quay and, for a few hours, discussed photography and its relation to life : the how, but mostly the why of it. At times we spoke simultaneously, at others we fell into silence. Suddently, it was late afternoon and I had to walk back to the train station.

We shook hands in the hall, promising to meet again at a later time, either in Europe or in America. I keep a vivid memory of our pleasurable conversation, one of the highlights of my stay in France.

Saturday 2008-06-21 :

Some four thousand miles from home, its back against a crumbling stone wall and in the shade of a chestnut tree that gets pruned every year, is an old wooden bench that once was white. I am sitting on it, still surprised to find the garden unchanged since the last time I was here, nearly two years ago.

As in the past, I came over for work . . . but I worked little this time. I will when I return home.

I enjoy myself instead : conversing with Dominique, still cheerful despite some worries; riding my bicycle atop the vine-covered hills overlooking the Saône; visiting the villages I have become familiar with; walking at sunset on the shady narrow road that borders the Azergues. Pleasures I missed and gladly find again, for which I preferred staying around instead of going to faraway places.

I knew all along there would be a time for travel : I got here two weeks before my beloved; she will be arriving tomorrow and we will backpack across the continent. I reduced my baggage to the very minimum; but as I could not convince myself, in this unanimously digital era, to leave without black and white film, I took along a small film camera and a few rolls.

I just decided to spare my steps before setting out on this journey. I have therefore sat often on this bench, at any time of the day and even of the night, to take a good look around and imprint in my memory the pleasure I derive from being here.

Thursday 2008-06-05 :

Feeling tired, my beloved decided to go to bed before dark. Wanting to stay near her, I proposed reading; she asked me to read aloud to her instead. So I propped up the pillows against the headboard and, reaching out, picked up Les Indiscrètes.

I started on the foreword by Christian Caujolle; slowly, keeping the eyes ahead of the voice, so as not to stumble on difficult syllables, careful to pronounce liaisons between words when appropriate.

It is a six-page long elegant flowing text in French, an insightful comment on Sieff's art. After four pages my fiancée had the deep regular breathing of a sound asleep person. I stopped, saving two pages to be relished in the future.

I closed the book, put it back delicately on the floor by the bedside, switched off the light, nestled myself against her and closed my eyes, in a peaceful wait for sleep to come.

Tuesday 2008-05-20 :

During the whole preceding week, I felt increasingly anxious about yesterday's photo shoot, unconvinced that an outdoor downtown session on the theme of martial arts would yield interesting results.

To complicate things further, a cold rain was pouring down. Despite of the weather and apprehensions, it was a pleasant half-day : she is an expert in her discipline, artful, energetic, and loquacious. I came home drenched but happy; and one day later, the pleasure is still vivid.

The pictures are good, some even spectacular. You never really know beforehand . . .

Friday 2008-05-09 :

With knowledge comes doubt.

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A few get celebrated as heroes for a solitary sail across an ocean, while crowds who spend their whole life by themselves get unnoticed.

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A friend I admire, for his clear-sightedness did not turn him into a cynic.

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The relationship between «conformity» and «anonymity» is not only synonymic, it is also causal : from the former results the latter.

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Did Cioran's mind ever take some rest?

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One's native land is someone else's dreamland.

Thursday 2008-04-03 :

I came home later than usual tonight : after work, I met a dancer to give her prints from a recent photo shoot; then I scuttled towards my favourite bookstore to pick up a special order that had just arrived today.

So I sit before a late supper I can hardly resist the urge to expedite. All my attention is drawn to the brand new book, still in its plastic wrapper, laid flat on the table just a few inches to my right. I have not opened it yet : I want to prolong the contemplation of its intactness and, by masochism undoubtedly, enhance the desire to browse its contents.

Les indiscrètes, hitherto unpublished photographs by Jeanloup Sieff. I ordered the book from France as soon as it became available last January (it had been announced for more than a year). The store called this afternoon to say that it had just landed on our side of the Atlantic.

A beautiful book. The front cover photograph is of a lady in a black dress; it is undone at the shoulders and the bodice is coming down, baring the whole of her back and part of her chest. Since her arms are crossed over her breasts, the image is decent. The plain grey backdrop has been overexposed in the darkroom so as to form a halo around her. Very sieffesque : deep blacks and high contrast; a tribute to the beauty of women, respectful, without familiarity.

After my meal, I will make some tea, sit under my favourite lamp, cut the wrapper neatly at the top, slip the book out, fold the wrapper, and open the cover with deference . . .

Now, if you will excuse me . . .

Thursday 2008-03-06 :

The photo shoot had been pleasant and productive : she was cheerful, creative and serious. And although the theme entailed technical difficulties, the pictures were good.

So I was eager to show her the results when I walked into the café where we had agreed to meet. But as soon as I got to the table she already was sitting at, I sensed that her habitual lightness was gone. She leafed through the pictures and made half-hearted comments, but her mind was not completely taken in. We soon were done with the prints.

We had in the past exchanged a few words about our respective lives; she had told how teaching a class of adorable children in a primary school made her happy. I enquired about her work.

Her heart poured out : she had grown increasingly distraught in the last weeks, to the point that she could not sleep at night. She could no longer bear the weight of the routine; she felt like her daily life had become a featureless landscape.

She had resigned two days earlier, and more torments assailed her since : guilt towards the children she loved but left and the school personnel who had trusted her, uncertainty about her capacity to uphold a commitment, faltering self-esteem. I was among the few who knew about her decision; fearing their judgement, she had told none of her friends and family yet.

She then fell into silence. Her sadness was deep and genuine, and I was worried about her. I proffered words of comfort and asked what her plans were.

On previous trips, she had befriended people who grew vegetables and fruits on a small farm, at the other end of the continent. She had been happy there; work was hard, but life was simpler than in this city. Help was always welcome on the farm, and there was a little cabin she could settle in for the summer. As spring arrives earlier on the west coast, she was planning to board a bus in the first days of April and ride it across the land for four days to rejoin them.

We talked some more about her project, then walked towards the subway station. We bade farewell on the sidewalk; her voice was faint and she lowered her gaze as we reservedly shook hands. I have not heard from her since.

I salute her courage, and hope happiness awaits her in this distant place, three thousand miles away from where life mistakenly dropped her. I hope also that, as she rolls over the prairie towards the mountains, her heart empties itself of all its sorrow, making room for the peacefulness she seeks and might find there.

Tuesday 2008-02-26 :

Earlier this month, my beloved and I set out to visit my mother. Cold day, heavy snowfall, gusting winds sweeping over the flat land. He loomed in the blizzard, standing on the roadside, just a few kilometres out of Montréal, thumb up, his other hand waving a small French flag. We stopped to let him in.

His name is Jean-Paul; he lives in Normandy. He has been coming to North America almost yearly for nearly two decades, for four or five weeks at a time. Always by himself, always in the dead of winter, always hitch-hiking, with a backpack no bigger than the one taken along for a one-day hike.

He told us of his previous visits and of the route he intended to follow this time. After chatting for three hundred miles, we left him at an hostel in Jonquière.

Few foreigners visit us in the winter; fewer still travel like bohemians when snow and wind often make the roads impassable. Curious but impressed by his audacity, we often mentioned his name during the following days, wondering how he was faring.

He came back to Montréal yesterday, and we joined him for a meal. He showed us photographs and talked about his journey. Social interaction is easy during these quiet months; he meets many interesting people in unusual circumstances. He then unfolded a map of North America on which he had traced all his trips : over the years, he has travelled over Ontario and criss-crossed Québec and the Maritimes in all directions. He likes the cold and the snow, and intends to go further north still in the future.

As we Québécers do not go out much during winter (except to the Caribbean islands), he knows a lot more than us about the art of travel in our own country in this season.

We nicknamed him «the snowy owl», in reference to this large bird that lives in the northernmost part of the country, and flies down south to us to warm up in the coldest of winter. The more rigorous the winter in the high latitudes, the more abundant it is here; but its white plumage makes it almost invisible over a backdrop of snow.

Jean-Paul and the snowy owl share the same grounds during the winter.

Sunday 2008-02-10 :

The early Sunday morning subway has a special air about it, as though the torpor of the previous night was lingering into the following day to envelop the scarce riders in calmness.

Churchgoers in their best clothes, missal in hand; whole families sitting silently, imbued with the solemnity of the ceremony they are about to attend.

Teenagers slouched low on their bench, feet propped up against the brim of the facing seat, arms crossed, eyes closed, head inclined forwards, chin resting on the chest. Some going back home, exhausted after a long festive night; others on their way to work, still drowsy after being pulled out of bed too early.

A sample of mankind in a state of relaxation.

Saturday 2008-02-09 :

I am now half a century old. I dare believe time has made me wiser in some respects; yet I must admit it did not benefit me the least in others.

I do not expect people or things to change any more. Not in a fatalistic way; in a realistic one. I have not been able to change my own self in years, even with plenty of good will. Expecting it from others would be equally futile.

I become more acutely aware, with every passing day, of all that still has to be done with so little time left. And I grow restless, feeling urgency rather than peacefulness. I cram my schedule in search of greater productivity, but everything moves so slowly and takes so much time. This quest rejuvenates the mind, but exhausts the body.

I have a clearer idea of my goals, and I am more determined in their pursuance, as well as better able to recognise whether what I find is what I set out for. And sometimes, when looking back, I get a bit of satisfaction from a few modest achievements. And for that I am grateful.

Maybe is it what all acquired experience ultimately boils down to.

Thursday 2008-01-31 :

If I were granted three wishes by a genie :

So, we said three?

Saturday 2008-01-12 :

People sometimes compliment me about a photograph, ascribing its pleasantness to me.

This makes me ill at ease. Not that I am modest by nature, far from it : hearing that my work might please flatters me and is music to my ear (although I strive not to let it show).

This discomfort rather stems from the conviction that these words are erroneously directed to me. The models actually make the photograph good; the compliments are therefore for them. In their absence, I accept the praise in their name; but it is not mine.

The photographer has indeed an important role. It requires, on top of an enthusiasm that uplifts and animates, a variety of personal and technical skills at all stages, from the recruitment of models to the framing of the prints, as well as mastery in the darkroom. Still, it is the subsidiary role of an interpreter; it is the model who breathes a part of her soul into the picture.

Rather than the author, the photographer is the agent who brings together the wills and circumstances the work is born from. He gets the congratulations, for lack of anything better, just like the gardener gets the congratulations for the roses, as though he had created their beauty.

Tuesday 2008-01-08 :

Cello is becoming more popular. While it seldom ventured out on the street, it is now frequently seen, riding cosily on the back of musicians. And it has gained self-confidence : no longer satisfied with the second roles it was relegated to in small and large ensembles, it now insists on being heard solo.

Many will ascribe the phenomenon to its register which, neither low nor high, as discreet and calm as a friend's voice, soothes and reassures. They are but partly right.

The pace of our lives accelerates. We rush onwards, head down, drifting off course sometimes. Cello, an unobtrusive observer amid the swirl, subtly indicates where we go astray.

Its practice in seated position reasserts, in an era dizzy with speed, the precedence of reflexion over action, the latter being mere pointless hurry without the former. And its stature and shape make its presence almost human, a welcome touch of comfort in times of loneliness : doesn't the nestling of its back against the musician's body evoke the tender embrace of two lovers?

Man and instrument have similarities, as though they shared common aspirations in their essence. When the former forgets, he is reminded by the latter.

I ask the cellists I meet to participate in making pictures for this site. Maybe they will be grouped within a portfolio proper to the cello and other related instruments, titled "Cello : in homage to the instrument and its accompanists" (or vice versa).

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