Andrew: Empire is book 13. It is also the most complex in that it takes on political and social issues more directly than some of your most famous work to date. Making books takes tremendous energy (and money). Think of how many photographs you could take for that much time and money. Is it hard to stay motivated to make books?
Charles: There are more facilities to make book nowadays. First, we get a better control on the quality of the printing. Our files are more precisely corrected and we have the capacity to interact on different parameters of corrections without too much cost. When I think of the price of my scans (from 30 x 40 cm prints) for my “Rikishi” book + the test proofs to pay to the printer.... well, it makes me crazy (especially thinking of the final result which still did not please me at the end).
I have now found a better way to get my scans done, especially because it’s very complex… Color of the skin, uniformity of the colors of the uniforms, uniformity of the background. It may look easy, like factory work, but getting things similar seems more difficult than getting them different. After that, there are also more possibilities on the graphic design. In 10 years, a lot of things have changed, in my point of view. There have been so many photographic books that there is now a tone of references to deal with, and also an average “line”, which I don’t find so fascinating. Too many photographic books look like they have been made by the same graphic designer, printed on the same paper with the same style of cover. It’s a big paradox. On one hand, you may feel that we have the possibility of a real diversity, and on the other one, there’s a mainstream which I find pretty boring. We have all done some book with the ambition of staying “sober”, “distant”, “minimalist”, “objective”… which is sometime just a gimmick to avoid the risk of doing it wrong.
About money, my first four books were mainly financed by the publishers and most of the others were co-financed. Before launching the work on the book, the main work is to find finances, from museums, collections, galleries, co-publishers… At the end, the book is 70 to 100 % prepaid to the main publisher.
Books deal with ego. It’s a big ego story where the photographer gets the motivation in that feeling that he will print the holy bible. It takes a lot of energy to deal with all these steps. My last book took me two years of work from the moment we worked on the first pages of layout to the day I received my books… It’s been more complex than before (when I was doing my books with POC, taking control of the entire process… I was thinking) and every step needs some compromise, which are sometime hard to swallow. So the worst moment is when you get the final object, when you know that now, it’s too late, that you can not interact anymore, that the mistakes you find here are just definitive. For me, it’s like falling in a black hole. This definitive aspect and all the expectation we have on this object makes it very psychological.
I remember myself opening my “Majorettes” book for the first time. I would have jumped out the window that day… After that, I started to say to myself: “Ok, this is just fucking paper… In a few decades, all this will finish in a garbage, and nobody will care”… I often think that we do books only for ourselves, like a vanity act. I think of that moment you face the object and discover that the perfection you’re looking for is not here yet... And an hour later, you think of doing another book, another project!
A.P. I also think making books is a constant process of making compromises. You once called me from the printing press when you were doing Empire, a bit frustrated, and told me to imagine what might happen if we dumped thousands of euro into our home-pages, that we would reach a much wider audience, meaning more people would see the work. Isn't that the point? More viewers? So why not just make an awesome home-page?
C.F. Yes, but a website has nothing definitive. You may change your page every morning if you’d like to. If we talk about the book as a promoting object, then yes, I guess there are hundreds of other way to make your work exist in this world. The average cost of a book is 20.000 euros. You could also decide to go for a trip with your children or look at the seaside instead of spending your nights correcting your RGB files… That’s the big question: What is essential?
Having a webpage still doesn’t mean that you’ll have more viewers. You may have a telephone, but that doesn’t mean that people are going to call you! It depends on why you need a website, and what you’re showing on it.
I guess, and I hope that there are still people who like to touch material, who appreciate the physical relation you have with a book, its ink smell, its unity, its intimacy. Maybe combining a book and a website makes sense. And still, who has the time to spend time on the website of a photographer? I guess the visit is very short. Maybe two or three minutes. I know a lot of famous photographers who don’t have a website. And I know too many photographers spending more time on maintaining their website than on real life. Once you die, you’ll receive a bill telling you that you’ll have spent 5 years of your life correcting some files, photoshoping and updating your homepage… And 2 months only on having sex and good wine. Shame!
A.P. "Performance" is becoming more and more important in your work; you are taking on roles, entering inner circles, becoming a part of "the clan", is it safe to say that "books" and "performances" are at the 2 ends of the spectrum: one lasting possible forever, embedded into the history of art and photography by taking its place on the shelf, the second lasting only for the moment, documented but never again tangible? Tell me about books and performances and how the relate to each other, if at all.
C.F. I’m not really a performer. I’m a photographer, dealing sometime with other medium to expand the spectrum of my photographic possibilities. I think that photography is often reaching some limits. In my work, I felt that I needed to go further, to touch another sensible part of the “clans” while being a part of it myself or experimenting, for real, the life of my subjects. At the same time it is very romantic, and full of illusions. The more you try to get close, the more distant you get. I’ve had the sensation of being an outsider everytime I was discovering a community. And this frustration became bigger and bigger year after year.
In 2007, in Namibia, I suddenly jumped over my own limits. I was working with a Himba tribe in the Kaokoland. The Himba women are painting their body with a brown mixture, it smelled very strong. I wanted to have the same, also while risking to play with the fire of exotism, post-colonialism. So I did my first performance, in that way, documented with photography. In my work, performance is a sacred moment related to my sensation. I know how it feels to wear a uniform, I know the sensation of the painting on my face… I know the vibe, I feel it under my skin. I can talk about it and it’s very fragile. It doesn’t matter if finally, there’s not a definitive way to forward this sensation. At least, it’s inside myself and it’s made my life better. Photography is sensible, but less than before… I’ve been educated with this very mystical aspect of photography dealing with ghosts, ancesters… Watching a daguerreotype still makes me shake. Digital photography lost a bit of that. But the photographer has a body, which is sensible. We live our photographic experience with our body and the choice of our photographic projects are related to the capacity of our body.
My work is physical. I often carry 20 to 40 kg of equipment. It’s a bit like if I was carrying my cross. I need to have the sensation that there is a kind of physical sacrifice, that it hurts… I’m Latin, you know. I need to carry my territory on my back. And this attitude has a real impact on the result of my pictures. That’s a performance, in a way.
I’m often more interested in this sensitive part itself more than the photographic result now… which I consider more like a proof, a trophy or a “scalp” than just a good portrait.
It’s not exactly that books and performance are at the 2 ends of the spectrum. It’s just that i twill take a lifetime to tell what goes deeply in my photographic work. I bet there will be a moment I will feel ready to write this down, in a book.
But you know, I feel like more of a photographer now than ever…
Fréger’s series Empire is a long-term project (2004 – 2007) comprising portraits of a wide variety of elite troops across Europe, mostly Republican or Royal Guards, who stand out due to their historical and very colorful uniforms as to the draconic protocolary rule common in such units.
Authors: Prosper Keating
Artists: Charles Fréger
22 x 28,5 cm
170 color ills.