Inauguration of the exhibition 'Parcours de Travail' by Karl Lagerfeld
Maison Européenne de la Photographie - Paris, September 14th
Inauguration of the exhibition 'Parcours de Travail' by Karl Lagerfeld
in Chanel Haute Couture, Fall-Winter 2010/11 for the premiere of 'The Town'
The 'skin' of photography
Notes on Karl Lagerfeld's images by Anne Cartier-Bresson
When Karl Lagerfeld began taking an interest in photography, towards the end of the 1980s, he seemed to link, from the start, his artistic work as a fashion designer to his new passion. His images are very personal, even when they are 'produced' for the press or for advertising. They are intimate and show a specific taste for some exposure and printing techniques which have the ability to translate his particular vision of reality.
Exposure and printing
Depending on his needs, Karl Lagerfeld uses black and white or small format color film, 6 x 6 reversal film, Polaroids and more recently, digital cameras. In the first case, black and white prints are always completely matte with a highly graphic finish, which gives solid blacks and strong tone contrasts. The rich density of prints is somewhat reminiscent of fabric falling in luminous waves. In other cases, the point of view may be very classical and is reminiscent of historical viewpoints, such as the series on Versailles, which in some images may even conjure up memories of points of view by Eugène Atget at the turn of the last century. The silver gelatin papers used here have deep tones which vary according to the development and printing method.
Conventional prints or color transfers, when turned to sepia, give images an almost pictorial coloring, as is the case in the 'Homage to Oskar Schlemmer' series. This aspect is highlighted by the blur of the subject in motion and the light which emanates from the warm tones obtained by the chemical sulfide baths. The silver grain transformed into silver sulfide is also particularly stable and should be capable of resisting extreme conservation conditions. Other series, printed on matte aluminum plates, have a cold and metallic aspect which gives these objects an even more pronounced graphic quality and full tones which provide a particular contrast between the shadows and high lights.
From the 1990s onwards, Karl Lagerfeld became interested in the specific material obtained by the transfer onto paper from an emulsion with instantaneous development, black and white toned in sepia or not, or in color.
In order to do this, he used a 20 x 25 camera. The gelatin emulsion with the positive image is separated with hot water then transferred onto a paper with Arches watercolor grain. With this technique, the delicacy of the tones obtained gives a highly pictorial material and great lightness to the image. Lagerfeld accentuated this effect on a number of prints by manually applying make-up to the prints' surface using eye shadow or by wiping dry pigments.
Inherited from photographic processes with alkali bichromate which led Alphonse Poitevin to being awarded the Duke of Luynes award for finding stable processes, resinotypes, or resinopigmentypes, were explored by Karl Lagerfeld in 1996-1997. Starting with a 6 x 6 color slide, he obtained a pigmented print whose principle is based on the light hardening of layers of bichromate gelatin. Pigments added with a paintbrush at the surface of the print are heated to be set. This process, which requires significant manual interventions, also enables great freedom in producing the colored surface.
Another pigment process, commercialized by the Fresson family in the 1950s, enabled Lagerfeld to print soft-toned four-color prints, whose image produces a strong pictorial effect, in the same way as that obtained by the Pictorialists at the start of the twentieth century.
His images were printed from 6 x 6 color slides and were never re-framed.
The principle for this photo-mechanical process, which gives images a characteristic appearance, relies on a silver matrix. The image is exposed above a printing screen which retains ink like a stencil. The medium is either silver or gold, or a simple Arches paper in a standard format.
At the end of the 1990s, Karl Lagerfeld experimented with new techniques in his laboratory in studio 7L. Now, starting from digital prints, he had prints made in the Fine Art type, with pigment ink jet, on various media (canvas, crystal paper textured, pure cotton Arches or Hahnemühle paper) which enables the surface and material effects to be varied at will.
Driven by his curiosity and taste for visual experiences as well as for the imaging of his sensitive intuitions, Karl Lagerfeld has been able to adapt the new technical possibilities of photography to his own research, in particular focused around coloring, make-up, bodies and faces. A fashion designer, he graphically transcribes through photography his feeling for landscapes, portraits and nudes. To this end, he always chooses media whose sensitivity to light meets a certain sensuality and plays with a wide range of processes as well as with significantly sophisticated methods.
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 transforms the image into a unique piece.
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.