Lucien Clergue: Transcribed Light

Tenya Mastoras
Jun 3, 2016 3:47PM

By Jean-Francois Dreuilhe, Ph.D., Art Sciences, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Arles, France, 2014
Translated by Raymond Angers, Traductions Angers Ltée

The word “photography,” writing with light, first appeared in 1834 in the notes of Hercule Florence, a French expatriate in Brazil. Some historians, however, claim that the term was coined by the Englishman Hershel. Like Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, Florence was looking for a way to capture images on a light-sensitive surface. Because of his isolation, his research long remained unknown. 

Lucien Clergue was born exactly one century later in Arles, a small town in the south of France. His destiny had been mapped out. It was the destiny of a boy whose mother had artistic aspirations for her son and made him learn to play the violin. The destiny of a nearsighted adolescent who saw the world as no one else before. And ultimately, the destiny of a young man who dared to show his first photographs to the sharp-eyed Pablo Picasso. 

Young Lucien was deeply affected by World War II. His home and an entire section of Arles were destroyed. His mother’s illness also affected him, as he cared for her throughout his adolescence. These factors caused him to embark on a new path that some describe as morbid. Yet, in reality, it was merely indicative of another stage of life and development.

At the age of 14, Clergue’s mother gave him a camera for his birthday. She was convinced that the only way her son could become an artist was through the vibrato of the strings of his violin. But Clergue discovered in photography a medium for writing, and even composing. He patiently experimented, brutalizing the camera’s film, and developed a technique that he was quick to discourage others from adopting since it went counter to everything written in books. Death in his images exists alongside the ephemeral. Gypsy pride revels in the sadness of Picasso’s acrobats. His first true body of work, entitled “La Grande Récréation,” was inspired by such paintings as Fernand Léger’s “La Grande Parade,” and Pablo Picasso’s “Les Arlequins.” It was also influenced by the static aspect of figures in works by André Marchand. Clergue depicts a disenchanted childhood in shadowless photographs where each figure is seeking equilibrium through another being.

Death and tragedy are omnipresent. They provide him with persuasive tools, as evidenced by the series entitled “La Ville aux Ruines,” “Le Marais d’Arles,” and “Les Charognes.” He was searching, moving toward a destiny whose twists and turns were unknown to him, but his determination and daring were such that he quickly earned the esteem of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. The trust and strong support of these two titans of the art world in the 1950s gave him wings. As a sort of exorcism, he dared to mold the female body in light. He put death back in its place, relegating it to the tombs carved in the rocky slope of Montmajour, and turned toward life. “Make no mistake: Clergue was clearly the only one who witnessed the birth of Aphrodite,” exclaimed Cocteau. Nudes burst forth as if to convey a hope of revenge for an adolescence marked by sadness. When Cocteau showed Picasso the first sea nudes photographed by Clergue, headless limbless torsos draped by waves akin to ancient statues and imbued with absolute timelessness, the admiring painter proclaimed: “They could be Renoirs!

From that point on, sunlight became essential to Clergue. He would always position himself looking toward it at times of the day when photography students are taught never to use a camera. But that is precisely what allows Clergue’s work to transcend the mere contrast between life and death. He writes a dramatic image-based narrative, both through the themes that have held his interest for 60 years and the aesthetic composition he uses to inscribe his vision of things onto film. When he took his Gypsy friends to see Picasso, it underscored the drama of the master, far from his native Spain. The bull in the arena is another drama. Clergue celebrated its sacrifice by sanctifying the moment of its death so that no one would forget the animal’s bravery. Still another drama unfolds in the double exposures where the nude bodies of today’s women fuse with figures in the works of 18th and 19th century painters.

Lucien Clergue used photography as a means of expression, but he also set out on a mission to make it a full-fledged artistic discipline. That was the only way his images – and those of other photographers – would be recognized as works of art. Owing to his efforts, photography entered France’s museums (Arles 1965). Photography became part of the university curriculum following his doctoral dissertation defence in 1979 and the creation of the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie in Arles in 1982. The ultimate recognition of the man and his career came in 2006 with his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. As a result, photography is now on equal footing with painting, sculpture, music and architecture at the Institut de France.

Today, photography is undergoing major transformations brought about by digital printing and computers. Although he does not reject these changes, Clergue has decided to remain true to silver gelatin photography. All prints are made in his laboratory, either by him personally or under his supervision. The only exceptions are works in very large formats, which are printed according to his specifications in a specialized laboratory in Paris. Clergue has nonetheless experimented with various print techniques in order to get the best possible results out of his shots.

In the 80s, he tried his hand at the direct carbon print process developed by Pierre Fresson in the mid 20th century. The technique was based on a late 19th-century invention by Théodore-Henri Fresson. Variations of black can be created by using charcoal powder since the photograph’s dark areas take on a distinctive pictorial quality as chance and randomness come into play when the powder is applied to the paper. Prints made using this process are assured of remarkable conservation potential. The Fresson process was passed down secretly from father to son.

As part of the same quest, Clergue has worked with the process known as platinum/palladium. It was patented in 1875 and involves using platinum and palladium salts, which are much more resistant than silver salts. The resulting prints are extremely stable and their length of conservation is only limited by the material on which they are printed. Platinum prints also have a far more extensive tonality range than silver prints. Sal Lopez, who did the prints for Clergue, is the most sought-after platinum printer.

The only camera Clergue had at his disposal during a week-long vacation in Switzerland was a small Polaroid. He used the shoot format frantically to create compositions for series, some of which comprise scores of images. Then, in 1985 and 1987, the Polaroid Corporation provided him with an opportunity to work with a rare 20 x 24 camera.

In celebration of Lucien Clergue’s 80th birthday, Odon Wagner Contemporary is presenting a unique selection of photographs originating from all these print techniques. For silver prints, only vintage works and first prints made in the same year as the original negatives will be shown. A supremely exceptional collection.

- Jean-Francois Dreuilhe 
Ph.D., Art Sciences, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Arles, France, 2014 Translated by Raymond Angers, Traductions Angers Ltée

Tenya Mastoras