September 14th, 2010Par Jean-Luc Monterosso
Introduction to the exhibition
by the director of the the Maison Européenne de la Photographie
September 15 – October 31
Maison Européenne de la Photographie
5-7, rue de Fourcy
Does one become a photographer through vocation or through necessity?
In the case of Karl Lagerfeld, the answer is simple: he became a photographer through challenge.
It all began over twenty years ago when, disappointed with the press photos of his collection, Karl Lagerfeld decided, under the benevolent pressure of his colleague and friend Eric Pfrunder, to go behind the camera, to look through the lens and make his own images.
Photography " is an adventure, just as life is an adventure", wrote Harry Callahan.
"Whoever wishes to express themselves through photography must understand their relationship with life."
This 'Parcours de travail' is thus a retrospective illustration, among many others, of the brimming activity of a man of taste and culture who has chosen, through fashion and photography, to highlight the beauty of lines, forms and colors. A man for whom it can be said that he has committed his life to images everyday, with his only concern being to invent, in the lightness of a moment, new ways of seeing.
His creed is to see, to see everything, relentlessly, with great curiosity and appetite, and in this seeing, choose what should be looked at. From then on, he can take portraits, landscapes, architecture, nudes and even still life.
Karl Lagerfeld works a lot in the studio for fashion. The device has little importance in his eyes: he works just as well with a 20 x 25 or 24 x 36 camera, or with a digital camera, surrounded by devoted and motivated assistants. He selects his models carefully and tries to give them the best role. "We must not consume models", he says. "We must give them an air (1)."
When Karl Lagerfeld has an order, he behaves, according to his expression, like a serial killer. He moves ahead, whatever the difficulties or obstacles. But this serial killer only tracks down and executes imperfection. This is no doubt why, once the moment has passed, many of his fashion photos do not go out of fashion. They change, improve, and end up escaping their context, such as those by Avedon and Peter Lindbergh.
His nudes are always clothed with a certain grace; they are modest, never indecent.
With Karl Lagerfeld, there is no desire to shock or provoke. We are far from the world of Wolfgang Tillmans, or the infamous History of Sex by Andres Serrano. The transgression, when it exists, is always mental - as in the series entitled The Beauty of Violence, where in a Dionysiac dance, the young Baptiste Giabiconi exhibits the most profound impulses of desire, while constantly stealing away from the lens and not revealing his nudity.
Karl Lagerfeld makes most of his images in a massive studio that resembles a cathedral, lined with books neatly laid out and classified. The place has often wrongly been compared with Warhol's Factory, as nothing is further from the practices and ethics of Karl Lagerfeld as the universe of the one who wanted to be a machine.
The Factory in New York was a venue for wanderings; it was the dream of an anonymous creation enterprise founded on repetition and stereotype. Nothing like that here. Karl Lagerfeld's model remains the haute couture workshop, where a collective work is produced, where everyone contributes their skills, their know-how, and where sewing a simple button becomes a true work of art. Aside from a bottle of Diet Coke sitting on the table, we are very far from 1960s America and its disillusionment.
Studio 7L, in the heart of Paris, is tidy and bright. A small team evolves at its own pace in a warm atmosphere where humor often takes over from the seriousness and concentration. It is a photographer's or rather an image producer's workshop. It is really an Image workshop, where a unique work is produced.
There are many examples throughout photography's history of artists with parallel activities.
Degas, Lewis Carroll and Brancusi, to name but the most famous, have each used photography in their own way and created original and innovative work. However, where Degas used his images to document his pictorial work and Brancusi to highlight his sculptures in space, with Karl Lagerfeld, drawings give the impetus. Line precedes form and form embraces light. "I compose a photo in the same way as a drawing, but the lighting gives it a new dimension (2)." Thus, taking a photo is not only writing with light but also and mainly composing and drawing with it.
For many photographers - photo journalists in particular - exposure is taking a risk. Not only in terms of danger, but also because the moment captured will not, or will only rarely repeat itself. There is however a family of photographers for whom exposure is only a stage in the photographic creative process. A process which includes the laboratory, developing and printing. For those, the choice of paper is often essential, as are the inks and colors. Karl Lagerfeld excels in this field. "Paper is my favorite material; it is the starting point for a drawing and the final result of a photo (3)." As for all processes, be they old, modern or new: gold and silver printing, resinotype, Polaroid transfer, screen printing, digital printing, etc. As Anne Cartier-Bresson rightly points out in her Notes on the material of Karl Lagerfeld's images, "The time period for his photographic work, from 1987 to now, has seen many significant changes in exposure and printing. Karl Lagerfeld has relied on this change but also on the parallel development of an alternative film photography which, as with haute couture, is capable in terms of image of highlighting the manual aspect and craftsmanship of printing, which in turn becomes a unique piece (4)."
Karl Lagerfeld admits to a passion for Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Clarence Hudson White, as well as for 1920s German photography. But his work also refers to other areas such as painting, cinema, architecture or comic books.
The "Homage to Oskar Schlemmer" combines series inspired by Metropolis by Fritz Lang and films by Murnau, while other images are a reference to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema or to Caspar David Friedrich as in his admirable landscapes, or even to Frederic Edwin Church.
Karl Lagerfeld evolves with great elegance and humor in these various fields and, in the same way that he is still as interested in still as in moving images, we can consider that his photographic work is in perfect harmony with that of the younger generation, which is also challenging boundaries and equally combines the practice of arts, photography, cinema, video, etc.
Nourished with a near-encyclopedic and resolutely European culture, his work is perceived both as a relentless search for forms and materials and as a tremendous lesson in photography. A lesson which is neither heavy or academic, rather light and full of fantasy, in the image of a man longing for freedom who likes, above all, to venture off the beaten track. A master, who would really happily and constantly skip the image school.
Director of the 'Maison européenne de la photographie'
Paris, August 25th, 2010
(1) Interview with Eric Pfrunder, Paris, July 20th, 2010.
(2) Preface of the catalogue for the Galerie Boulakia exhibition, Paris, 1992.
(4) Anne Cartier-Bresson, The 'skin' of photography. Notes on the material of Karl Lagerfeld's images, see below p 215.