Thierry Cohen on Starry Skies, Astronomy, and Pioneering Digital Photography

Now that he’s back from travels to Shanghai, the Sahara, Montana, and the like, we had a chance to speak with Thierry Cohen on the eve of his solo show at New York City’s Danziger Gallery. Based on the new project he will be showing—“Villes Éteintes,” or literally, “Darkened Cities”—we knew the Parisian photographer had a tendency to point his camera at the skies around the world, but now we understand why.

Artsy: Can you describe the process for your “Darkened Cities” body of work, from conception and production to your digital composition?

Thierry Cohen: I try not to be too technical. I think the main point is about the theory—its more the idea of creating a link between dark spaces and megacities and a reference to our economy of consuming. I wanted to make people aware that we’re not seeing any more stars and in some ways, not seeing any more stars stops us from asking questions about where we are coming from and where we are going. I wanted to show the real stars, the real skies, the ones that you should see if the lights of the cities were off. It’s a mix of the reality of the city and the reality of the sky—mixing the two, you are making the imaginary real in some ways.

For every megacity, I found the best place on the same latitude to see the stars, and I went to those deserts and made shots on a particular axis—south, for example. When I was in the city, I did exactly the same thing, shooting south, and in doing this I knew that the sky in the background would be exactly the same. For example, for New York City, I looked for what would be the best place on North America and I found a place called Black Rock Desert—where they have the Burning Man festival.

There was this French photographer from the 19th-century named Gustave le Gray, and at the time, his film was not sensitive enough to capture details of the sea and sky in the same shot, so he would make two shots. Afterwards, in the darkroom, he would replace the sky. I’m doing exactly the same, except I’m doing it digitally.

Artsy: How did you develop a fascination with the night sky? Were you raised somewhere with a prominent night view, or perhaps without one?  

TC: No, but in fact, when I was a kid I was lucky enough to travel to the United States many times and travel west to the deserts—the Mojave and Death Valley—where my father taught me how to look at the stars and recognize different ones.There were some places in France where you could see the stars very clearly, but that was 30 years ago—more and more, they are disappearing. Now, you see them but they are not as rich. So I was always fascinated because of the possibilities you can have in your imagination while looking at the stars.

Artsy: Are you interested in astronomy and/or astrology?

TC: Astrology, not at all. Astronomy, I’m interested in. For example, what’s happening in those huge observatories that are being constructed by the U.S., Japan, and Europe. It’s a way of showing the fact that nations can work on a huge project peacefully—the skies are the same for everyone—which we should think about and never forget. There is something very strange about how the people in Syria, in this city called Homs, are looking at night and seeing exactly the same skies as the people in Osaka, Japan—a peaceful country versus a place that is at war. People should be much more united and we should forget the notion of borders and start thinking that the world is one piece.

Artsy: Based on your work, you’re very well traveled. What is one of your favorite cities you have been to?

TC: I was fascinated by Sao Paulo because there was not much photographic reference of the city. When I go to cities, I work ahead of time, using photographic documentation or even just Google Earth to look at locations to see if they work. When you are in a city that you don’t know, you hang around and try to find places—in French, the word is errance [or wandering about]—you don’t necessarily have a place to go and just try to lose yourself.

Artsy: You have been called a pioneer of digital photography. How did this come about?

TC: [Laughs] There’s a few, I’m not the only one. But it is true that in France there were not so many people... When I was a very young photographer, I had the pleasure to collaborate with Apple [and Adobe]. It was in ’86 and’87, and so I was able to learn digital techniques very, very early. At the time there were no digital cameras—digital was not even used for post-production because it was so early, and I thought, surely something amazing will happen, and it happened with photography.

“Darkened Cities” is on view at Danziger Gallery through May 4, 2013.

Portait by Marianne Rosenstiehl


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