Dolorès Marat: Everything is an Excuse for a Potential Photo

Creator of a poetic, singular oeuvre in colour, magnified by Atelier Fresson prints, we talk here to Dolorès Marat, a grand figure of photography, whose “Mille rêves” exhibition (A Thousand Dreams) inaugurates the new Leica Store in Paris on 105-109 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, with its gallery, book store and Leica Akademie (December 1, 2014 – March 15, 2015).

Dolorès Marat retraces her rich path and evokes both the joy that photography has given her throughout her life, and the emotion she needs to feel before pressing the shutter release, an emotion at the origin of each of her images.

Q: The images exhibited here are pretty disparate. How did you compile them? Is there an underlying thread?

A: This exhibition at the Leica gallery represents thirty years of photography. For a while now, I’ve started mixing together all my work: “Paris”, “New York”, “Sirocco”, photos taken in the different places I go and where I’ve been lucky enough to see and feel a photo. The underlying thread is the same everywhere: the emotion before me that I absolutely have to photograph.

Q: Connections thus emerge from one picture to the next…

A: Yes, almost on their own. People seek to understand the relation between the images and find the correspondences themselves. Of course, it’s different for each person, and it’s precisely that which interests me.

Q: That’s quite an unusual approach nowadays.

A: Yes, I exhibited like this recently at the Carrousel du Louvre, an exhibition put together with Françoise Besson, the owner of the gallery that represents me in Lyon. A lot of people came and were interested in this mix of images on the walls.

Q: Did you used to work more in series?

A: Yes and no. When my book on Paris was published, I only included Paris pictures, of course; the same for my book on New York. With “Sirocco”, I suddenly became really interested in putting photos of Port Saïd and New York side by side, for example, and then putting them alongside two other photos of Paris and Berlin, and so on. As I’m a little bit of a scatterbrain, this resembles me!

Q: Did anything in particular give you this idea?

A: Yes. I wanted more fantasy in how work is shown. I have to say that some twenty years ago, I was part of a gallery in Paris with whom we created an exhibition in the style of a curiosity cabinet. There were photos of New York of all formats, in all sorts of different frames bought at the Montreuil flea market. At the time, I really loved it and so did all those who came to see the exhibition. I’ve been exhibiting in this way for four or five years now; it changes from the “a photo, another photo, and another photo” format. People manage to see both the ensemble, and to enter each image individually, then they plot the correspondences between the countries, subjects, etc.

Q: Does this way of exhibiting your pictures have a direct relation to the way in which you take them, whether in New York, Paris or the Mediterranean?

A: Absolutely! Photography has always been my life. I’ve always taken photos. I always have my Leica on me and, as soon as I feel an emotion in relation to something I see, I photograph it, no matter where I am. It might be in the street, in the metro, in a train, in a car, in the countryside… I don’t work in series – except perhaps in New York where I intentionally went to photograph the city. They come together over time, but I don’t hang them together any more. With my books, it’s a bit different, especially if the book is on a particular city.

Q: I’m trying to imagine you working. Could your way of working be compared to visual wanderings?

A: They are deliberate or involuntary wanderings because my mind is always in photo mode from morning to evening, and sometimes at night too! If I’m on my way to an appointment, for example, and en route something moves me, I try to take a photo the moment it touches me. If what touches me is a person’s attitude, or a situation, I get closer. The blurriness records my movement in the direction of the person. That’s why there are often photos that aren’t very sharp. I never take deliberately blurred shots.

Q: You must have wonderful archives…

A: Yes. I’ve got a lot of photos.

Q: If you feel the need to take a photo at a very specific moment, do you take just one? Or do you take several shots of the same subject?

A: I only take one photo. I can’t take several. It’s really about a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson would say, at the moment I feel it. And when I do take two shots, of a landscape for example, I’ve noticed that I always keep the first. All the tensions of a shot – the frame, the subject, the light – need to converge very quickly, in a single gesture. There are no reframed photos in my pictures, no computer-altered colours, or altered by any other technique. I’ve always worked with slide film. My slides are then always printed by the Atelier Fresson, and I ask that the prints reflect the original slides.

For me, the photographic act is situated at the moment I take the shot. I want it to be perfect straight off. If a picture’s not what I wanted when I get the slides back, then I throw it out. I’d never think of reframing. It’s a little bit of an old-fashioned way of working, I know. Today’s photographers don’t work like that at all any more. They are freer and more inventive with digital. I’ve seen wonders taken by the young photographers I meet when I take part in workshops.

Q: What is it, then, that makes you press the shutter release at a given moment?

A: It’s something that comes from deep inside, from the head, the heart, and which means I can’t not take the photo. Whether it’s good or bad is another story, but I’m incapable of pressing the shutter release if I don’t feel this emotion. Something has to touch me, then. If, for example, I’m out walking with someone and they say, “Look how beautiful that is! That’s a photo for you!” – people say it to me all the time – if it’s not me who saw it, who felt it, then I can’t take the picture, and I don’t.

Q: There’s a real work on the colour in your photos…

A: No, there’s no work on the colour! I take exactly what I see.

Q: Have you always worked in colour?

A: Yes. I love colour; it’s something that touches me. That brings us back to the same point. When there’s colour, light, and a subject that moves me, then, come what may, I try to take a photo. Sometimes the photo’s no good, mind you! It’s not perfect every time!

Q: What first got you interested in photography?

A: It’s a long story. There was no culture in my home, no books; all I had was a radio. After wanting to be a conductor, then a singer, one day, in a geography class, I suddenly thought, “I want to be a photographer”. Once again, it came from deep inside! I didn’t even know what it meant. I was 14, but I was still just a child in my head. When I got home from school, I told my mother, who said, “No, my child, you won’t be a photographer. You’ll be a dressmaker”. So, as soon as I left school, she enrolled me in a sewing school and, as I was very obedient, I went to sewing school, without protest. I worked well and immediately got spotted by a Parisian tailor. I became a trouser and waistcoat maker. I used to make ten pairs of trousers and two waistcoats a week. I worked at my mother’s, and, every week, I’d take him back the sewn trousers and waistcoats, and take another batch, that I’d bring him back the following week.

One day, the tailor said: “Dolorès, take a fortnight’s vacation because I’m closing.” The next day, when my mother got back from our neighbouring village where she used to cycle to get the shopping, she told me that Mr. Froissart, the town photographer, was looking for a maid. I told my mother that I wanted to apply, that she couldn’t stop me from working on my holidays. I went to offer my services and I started work the following Monday. At the end of the week, the photographer asked me how much I earned sewing trousers and waistcoats. I can’t remember how much it was now, but it wasn’t a lot. He offered to take me home and to talk to my mother. I hadn’t asked him a thing, but I was grinning from cheek to cheek! When we got home, Mr. Froissart told my mother, “Madame, I believe your daughter has a gift for photography, and if you agree, I’ll pay you however much more it was and she’ll continue working for me”. As the offer came from someone my mother knew, to my astonishment, she agreed. That’s how I started learning photography, “on the job” as we used to say.

I’d do the cleaning in the morning, but, after two or three hours, it was done! So, in the afternoon, the photographer taught me how the cameras worked, how to develop, to print, to touch up the passport photos. I think I picked everything up in a week. He used to say that it was as if I’d been born with a camera in my hands. After that, I just couldn’t stop photography, although it wasn’t a personal project yet.

Q: What an incredible path…

A: I truly learnt as I went along. With Mr. Froissart, I learnt to take wedding photos, ID photos, portraits of babies on velvet cushions, girls taking their communion in white dresses. I learnt to work in the studio, to develop amateur photos, plus the photos we took in the studio. When I stopped working for him, I was a lab assistant for a magazine for seventeen years, then became a studio photographer for the same magazine for ten years.

I started my own work when my children had grown up and left home. It took me a year to understand what I wanted to do and, above all, how I was going to do it, because it’s all very well being a photographer, but what exactly does that mean, being a photographer? After a year, I understood that what interested me, quite simply, was what was going on around me. I’d never travelled; I’d never left Paris. To photograph what interested me, I understood that I had to always have my camera with me. That’s how my life as both a professional photographer and my personal work began.

Q: So, at a given moment, you crossed to the other side, adopting a completely different approach compared to your work in the lab, where you worked on other people’s pictures?

A: Yes, but I loved developing! What’s more, I was really shy, which was perfect as I was shut up in the lab next to the magazine all day. It was a fashion magazine, and fashion’s not really my world, not at all even! So, I was perfectly content to be all alone in my lab. I only developed in black-and-white, because magazines at the time were printed in black-and-white. Only certain ads were in colour. It was in 1968, a long time ago. One day, an outside photographer came into the lab to see what I looked like. He was called Merzagora. As he was about to leave, he asked if I wanted to see the next cover photo, and he took a Fresson print out of his case. It was like an electroshock and I thought to myself, “If I ever take pictures for myself one day, I’ll have them printed like that, by Fresson.” Over ten years later, and after months of searching, I found a shop at Opera called “Images” that worked with Fresson. I showed three slides, the salesperson looked at them and said, “Oh no, they’re awful, Fresson will never agree to print them”. I timidly asked him to give them to him all the same, so he took them, telling me as I left that I was about to waste my money for nothing. That’s how I started my own work.

Q: Do you think that all the photos you developed during your career might have had an impact on forging your own gaze?

A: Undoubtedly. What’s more, I was very good at black-and-white printing because I loved it. At times, I would spend a week on a print. I didn’t print just one copy, of course! In those days, we had the time. The next morning, I’d look at the prints from the day before. If I thought I could improve them, I’d start again. That sharpened my eye, of course.

Q: What about Leica?

A: During the period when I was trying to understand what I wanted to do, I started saving up every month to buy a camera. I wanted the best, and all my enquiries confirmed it was the Leica! At the time, I was working flat out; at one point, I was holding down four jobs at the same time. I had my salaried job at the magazine, I’d go and take photos for the radio at lunchtime, dance photos in the evening, and photos for a racing car bigwig at the weekend. After a year, I still hadn’t saved enough for a Leica camera and lens, so my first camera was a Minolta, which I used with a 35 mm Leica lens. I had to wait at least ten or so years before buying my first Leica camera!

Later, after leaving the magazine to become a freelance photographer, I worked for companies such as Hermès and Weston, and I bought a Leica R for them. I think I’ve got the whole range of lenses for the M, and quite a lot for the R too. For a long time I was so delighted with my Leicas that I’d set up little exhibitions of my cameras and lenses on my bed. And each time I got a new camera or lens, I’d set them all out again. I was so happy! Photography has really been my life, a real true passion. I’ve been happy thanks to photography. When I mess up a picture, I’m sad, of course, but I’ve really been happy both in my personal and professional work. Nothing bothers me anymore in life because everything is an excuse for a potential photo.

I often meet students, and before starting a workshop, I always speak a bit about my path first. Most of the time, they are intrigued, listen religiously and I encourage them, telling them that when you want something, when you believe in something very deeply, you get there, even if it takes time, naturally. In my case, nothing predisposed me to ending up in the world of photography, given how I started out. You have to believe, dare to take risks and believe above all. Daring is a crucial notion when you make images. When I left my magazine, I was earning a very good living. My friends thought I was mad to leave, but money couldn’t keep me there. I wanted to leave, to see, so I left. Afterward, of course, it took me more than two years to find freelance work, but I was confident. Thanks to photography, I have been happy since I was 15.

Thank you for your time, Dolorès!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more of Dolorès’ work, visit her website. Read the interview in its original French here.

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