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More about Stéphane Bienfait

How did you choose your means of expression?

When I was little, I loved observing reflections through materials, I liked the changes in colour and I watched walls at night… I absorbed a mass of visual information. I later had the opportunity to study at art school where I presented a photography thesis with my texts in the form of a magazine. I love dabbling in many things and trying to make a choice is a real problem for me. So I tried to bundle my interests together into one. Photography encompasses a wealth of professions from the simplest to the more sophisticated. Even if preparation and post-production is time-consuming, the moment is magical. A number of parameters materialise in no time at all! Teams work together on a project, it’s really great working in a group; you meet people. I like combining reactivity and control.

Is this medium secondary to your intention or is it closely linked?

It’s closely connected to my laziness. When I create I can’t be bothered to paint so I take photos instead. That’s an illusion however. There’s a huge amount of work behind it all, layers of skill. Photography is without doubt painting of yesteryear. Art is always a precise moment of something. It portrays historical, scenic or contemplative details.

What material do you use and why?

I began with a Nikon FE, the indestructible reflex camera chosen by photojournalists at the time. I loved this camera; it was mine. I photographed at night a great deal, even if the camera wasn’t suited to fluctuations in temperature. One thing frustrated me however, I was never happy with the acutance in enlargements. The material of things fascinated me. I was attracted to objects and bodies that could be read like geographical maps. I wanted to see the soul of the anecdotal. I stopped. Some day I had to take pictures for jobs. I chose Nikon again but this time digital. My frustration was even greater with the pixels. It was impossible for me to obtain the details in the same way as with film when magnifying. Your camera determines your options. You’re a victim of technical progress. I therefore moved onto medium format with a Mamiya Phase One 645 AFD III with a digital back. The image quality is lovely. It’s not only the millions of pixels that count but the size of the photodiodes that achieve this great analysis of the subject. We can finally peruse the stigma of life. Of course, the best camera won’t necessarily take the best photograph, it helps but it should not be a stumbling block. This is a level of working comfort to fulfil the job required.

How do you prepare for a work session?

This may seem fastidious. My photos are fuelled by my questions, images that describe our world, referring to things known. I widely use the collective unconscious. It enables a better grasp, a better understanding of a subject. It moves viewers more deeply as they participate to a certain extent. We can broadly say that I give back part of their image to them. I dream up my photo. It’s a starting point. I gather photos that make up my subject, or not. In short I absorb everything. I classify my documentation. It enables me to establish the semantics of the subject, a narrative or to find what I might have missed. When you write like that, you draw. You detach yourself from your image before it comes into being. You are already censuring it. In parallel, I choose a model. When everything is ready, I send her the résumé of my dossier. I adapt so that it is also written regarding the model. She’s my teammate, an integral part of my ‘talent’. It’s an important stage in the creation of the image. In order to demarcate a space and context we form a mental image of the shoot. The more the session is framed in advance, the freer the shoot will be. It’s a like dance where everyone finds their bearings in order to express a moment in time. Indeed I have a particular angle, not strictly speaking from the world of photography. I make the photographic expression neutral, I create an object. With the viewer the image is a object of transition. They can embrace it with their feelings. It refers to movement without being a movement. No differentiation is made between the background and the subject and as the eye wanders, the viewer comes into being.

Can you describe to me what is different about
when you started out and your current work?

In the beginning, I think that I was too young and awkward. I’m thinking about the time that I turned the light back on in the room after being immersed in the intricacies of the session. It’s unsettling. That day I understood that when you draw upon someone’s resources, you have to embrace their rhythm. The model is the boss, we are just there as a guide. As is the belief of Indians, we steal souls. I would say that we take reflections of the soul. The intimate deserves the greatest respect. I mean models as well as objects. Everyone has a story. In the beginning, there’s a period of provocation then after having stirred everyone up a little, screamed and shouted to make yourself heard, you calm down. You meet others halfway before taking them with you. That’s what I did. When I resumed photography, I was able to purchase sophisticated equipment. I now consider that I am at peace with what I am addressing if it combines the almost sexual violence of our society and the beautiful image that embellishes all that. I think that I’m beginning to control certain things. Art is a long journey recognised by the public when you reach maturity.

ON A MORE
PERSONAL NOTE

Do your origins and culture play a role in the work that you produce?

Yes definitely. I was born in Tunisia to French parents. This resulted in me suffering from a feeling of uprooting or maybe non-integration. It enables me to have a better understanding of people regardless of their origins, to be interested in that. Perhaps I’m seeking a part of myself through them. I crave others. Their stories and cultures fuel me. I go out little. As a result, when I’m outside, society for me is like looking into a sweet shop window, it’s an open-air theatre. I loved my paternal grandfather deeply. He didn’t have enough money to study art. He was quite gifted but he had to stop. He became a guilder/bronzer after qualifying as an aircraft technician. Then came the war. My observation is that he didn’t have the luck that I’ve had. This is the whole paradox of a society that marvels at success and condemns gifted people with no money, what a waste. He took refuge in his magnificent cellar. Little boxes carefully piled up, the type that people collect today, a light bulb, clay, a workbench and brushes that he cherished. Brushes that I have salvaged, with patina on the ferrules and bristles in perfect condition after all these years. His credentials. I think that I look after my materials partly thanks to that. This is where my love of beautiful patina originated. It is closely linked to the beautiful souls of those who create it. My other grandfather passed on a phrase to me. He didn’t speak much. However one day, what he said remains etched on my memory, ‘You must not confuse Germans and Nazis’. At the time you don’t realise the power of words, of transmission. They might be a little clumsy but they were powerful. Today and in my eyes, other people are essential, you are nothing without them, without their story or history. These are images of life that have been passed down and that have shaped part of my sensitivity. From my great aunt I salvaged books with real questioning. I contended with philosophy, alchemy and the realm of the enigmatic. This enabled me to better comprehend and to build solid foundations that at times saved me. These people fuelled my thinking and my perceptions, experiences enabling me to retrieve what is good all around, to intrinsically read between the lines. My maternal grandmother had a lingerie/hosiery shop. Now you have a better understanding of the tights and stocking in my photos. From a young age I saw her selling delicate items with her slender fingers. Hands are important in an image. They are the far extremes of your soul. They are an extension of you in space and your internal expression, refinement. Indeed, tights go hand in hand with femininity, or even masculinity… thinking of Pierre Molinier. They work in terms of fashion but in terms of everyday, they’re vital under jeans when it’s cold. It’s less glamorous but interests me all the more. The gestures remain in our minds, taking them on and off, spanning eroticism to awkwardness. They’re a delicate skin between oneself and others. They’re really interesting for my shoots and not expensive. My godfather is like a second father. We did everything together, like real kids at times. He hugely contributed to developing my curiosity. He inspired my first cultural grounding. He introduced me to the world of art. In him I found a framework, a refuge. I didn’t always eat my fill while studying, but we never spoke about it on, we were joyful, we celebrated life. Humour acts as my armour. We didn’t care about a thing. All these stories are behind my images today. They accompany me all the time. Society is a suffering of which the forfeited, hidden beauty should be revealed. I construct my images like layers of onion peelings. When a photograph is a success, I can visualise what I’m thinking.

What events have influenced you most?

As the world is perpetually in motion it’s difficult to choose particular parts of it. Everything is inter-connected and complemented. Two events however marked my youth. Experiencing my great aunt’s spirituality and the suicide of a group of Italian philosophers in 1975. The latter opposed what humanity had become, I realised that I was not alone in asking myself questions, even if these two examples are diametrically opposed. When you are little, you don’t count regarding society. You look and listen. In fact, we are cameras with two legs. We take shots of life while waiting to grow up. Then computers were introduced to me, and Apple par excellence. I am mindful that if everything originates, then everything can disappear. So I have always made sure that I know how to do things myself just in case. Even at home, everything ran smoothly. Some time has passed since then… Major events that ultimately influenced my life the most are my life and meeting my wife, the illustrator, Eugénie Lavenant. We built Ultrashop it seemed natural. She skilfully keeps me in check and as a result, I am more settled in my work. I learnt to let things go. Ultrashop is a utopia that has become a reality. Huge sacrifices are involved. She has put a lot into it. She really impresses me. We’re a good balance with her fresh approach and impertinence and my dreamy yet technical side. She has enabled me to overcome artist’s block when it occurs.

What are your sources of inspiration?

I was thirteen when I discovered the Collection de l’art brut Lausanne in Switzerland. What an eye opener! You can throw out everything you know. The art there is the language of mad spirits, pure spirits in the literal sense of the term, taking you away from yourself. What is an artist, if not someone who has succeeded in liberating themselves? Of course I can mention people like Irving Penn, Alexei Brodovitch, Erwin Olaf, Paolo Roversi, E.J. Bellocq, Karl Blossfeldt, Pierre Molinier and more recently Gilles Berquet, Franck Horwath, etc. my friend the photographer Felix Lammers. He started his career with film based, then digital photography. He’s now trying his hand at the Internet, artistic direction and video…everything I love… people reinventing themselves. ‘The best school is the school of life’ he said to me during discussions. I find that quoting names invariably involves forgetting others. But more simply, inspiration is on the ground or in a fridge, at the bottom of a sink or in the disgusting toilets of a sordid bar. Everyday life is THE source of inspiration par excellence. Things that have been squashed, dirty, stained, soaked, real life is great! Otherwise, as a kid I wanted to play music. At least this was the activity that closely corresponded to my sensitivity. But I wasn’t able to for various reasons. Subsequently, I discovered music through typography at art school. Each letter in a font is a note. Each adjustment becomes the musicality of the text, the acoustics of the words. It creates an incredible compositional space. I learnt about how things are interwoven, that content and form were indivisible. Barbara Meyer-Reinhardt was one of my teachers, from the Bauhaus. Then I understood that letters were nothing other than a presence in a frame that itself was nothing other than a scene of life. It was sufficient to draw near or to distance oneself to get as many compositions and rhythms as required. Doesn’t that sound like photography…Major figures in Russian constructivism have fully understood this combining typography and cut out characters in their compositions. Fluxus is another example. These are almost kinetic experiments like those carried out by Nevil Brody later in 1995. To return to music, it also helps me to establish a context during my shots. Sounds are a real source, all the more so as I am dyslexic meaning that I hear the sound more than the meaning of words. When you walk, there are materials everywhere, a patina. A light revealing an object is beautiful especially at night when society is asleep. The truth of things can be revived through the materials. It’s a broom biding its time, like photographers waiting for the moment. It values the human hand in all its operative grandeur. I’m talking about workers, a labour brotherhood. A piece of work that the low-angled light of the streetlight caresses and that the moon polishes as night falls. Finally, I read books like Aldous Huxley, Jung, Titus Burckhardt, etc. Books specifically gleaned from my great aunt. This greatly fuelled my reflection and my imagination, my desires to put it in my own way. It takes at least all these things and these encounters to take photos. To talk about life, you need to begin by living. You don’t find a photo you identify it. I forgot to quote what I consider a major reference, Paul Klee’s lessons from 1921 to 1922 at the Bauhaus school. I had finally found someone who thought in a similar way. It stabilised my intention and determined the path that I took…

Do you have an anecdote to illustrate the origins of your work?

Perhaps light through the reflections on the edge of a pot of strawberry jam when I was little. It was fascinating. I was convinced that I could enter another world if I concentrated hard enough to see through to the other side, like a passage. As a result, I learnt to observe tiny details. I find that in the acutance of the images but also in the viewer’s relationship with the image. I make sure that each time from close-up, very near or far, you can find additional information. Sometimes it lacks ambiguity; it’s not very mellow. But I love to interpret an object, a body like a map of the world. And I’m still never satisfied with the sensors, even if multi-shot exists. One day I hope to walk in skin pores like in the craters of Verdun, exploring their stories by looking around. The skin of a woman or of an object then becomes a painting by Jérome Bosch, a walk in a scene by Pieter Brueghel. I remember when I was little, I stripped down everything I approached, I observed. I wanted to understand how things worked. Finally, I kept an analysis of the mechanics of things. It’s essential for my work, especially as I mostly only make fabricated images. In my studio, I like to be isolated in a bubble. I’m with my objects, my references. I compose in my corner and at my pace.

Do you take the news into account when you work
or on the contrary do you detach yourself from it?

News a posteriori yes but not current events, it’s too new. The present is dough that needs to be left to rise. The present produces the past. I draw from the residue, stigmata, the wear and tear and trace of the elements that it consists of. I like the patina that polishes the details, keeping only the essence. The present needs to be digested or even refined. I’m quite distant, cold when I work. You cannot instantaneously become embroiled. This comes back to being part of the action and I’m just an observer, I relate the information in my own way. While shooting I guide, analyse and shape my images. Only the models are an action. They are the ‘news’ of the image. They are a link between what the subject conveys and the viewer. The eyes and the memory go back and forth between an old painting and present-day detail.

ON A MORE
PHILOSOPHICAL NOTE

Are your works more of a dialogue, a trace or a denunciation?

Traces are vestiges of society, they can denounce but I would say relate in most cases. The dialogue takes place thanks to the mirror effect with the viewer. The model forms the link, element the viewer identifies with. This enables communication with the theme of the image. In fact I produce resources for reflection. All these images are a stack, and as a result we can navigate from one world to another in the image. These are layers of which the image is the cross-section, the interpretative thread. It creates an emulsion that makes the viewer active, sometimes denounced and sometimes interrogated. If you look at cave paintings, these are traces in the history of mankind that can relate that man has had a history. They wrote information about their lives, the need to say more than to communicate. It was a projection of great moments. This ineluctably led to dialogue. It’s all the same whether cave paintings or an amateur photo of an aunt in front of the Acropolis! Mankind needs to exist by relating what is good. It’s a final cry of life in the face of death. I don’t really have the impression of ‘doing art’. Photography is a way of writing, that’s all. Art is a place where we put what society doesn’t understand, what is different. An alternative proposal to whoever wants to hear it.

How do you view human beings, and through your work as a result?

Mankind has buried the human being that was in him. I create objects from my models and I make objects more human. I create a neutral position where the two meet, a precarious equilibrium. My digital patina forms the bond. Life is a mediocrity the beauty of which we snatch. Everything is beautiful to those who know how to look for it. I don’t like anything shiny, it’s too lurid and superficial. This came be sensed as I flatten my images, I virtually do drawings for some of them. A shot is a moment, while a painting is a period. I try to immobilise all this information. Through this uncertainty it’s a means of keeping a keen eye on things surrounding us, to make my tableaux photographic.

TO
CONCLUDE

What projects do you have in progress or forthcoming?

I’m very busy with Ultrashop. I have very little time for my own photos at the moment. I have several ideas for future shots. I’m quietly implementing things. Doing my own images or discovering the talent of others is also exhilarating. I love discovering new artists. Eugénie and I are progressing. We still have a great deal to develop together. This is just the beginning…it’s a project that requires time to implement. We’re going for talent as a factor for success. Ultrashop is forging its success. We’re hoping to change the everyday life of our purchasers a little with our Notebooks along with their everyday surroundings through our exhibition prints.

Translated by
Louise Jablonowska