François Fontaine: Photograms of a Dream-Like Paris with the Leica X Vario, Part 1

Explore Paris with photographer François Fontaine, born in Paris in 1968 and equipped here with a Leica X Vario for a joint commission on the part of Starwood Luxury Collection and Leica Camera.

On this visual tour, we shall journey through famous gardens and museums, but also little-known, offbeat Parisian spots, photographed in ways that renew our gaze or highlight their most wondrous aspects. Through the photographer’s lens, they all resonate with an additional memory, related to the intellectual, artistic or cinematic life of Paris, or to those who created there; echoes and layers of history superpose or construct an image and are an integral part of the photographer’s approach.

Q: François, could you briefly introduce yourself? How did you become a photographer?

A: When I was a history of art student, specializing in the history of photography, I used to compile visual travel logs while traveling through Asia in my naval officer father’s footsteps.

Black-and-white documentary photography and its humanist approach (Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Bischof) made a big impact on my early photos. I then branched out into exclusively colour work that was contemplative, dreamy, timeless and pictorial.

At the time, I was working in parallel as an independent curator for various major Parisian and Spanish museums, and as a chief editor in the press. Five years ago I decided to devote myself exclusively to my art work so that I could explore photography more freely.

Q: You accepted a joint commission from Starwood and Leica Camera. What did this commission consist of exactly?

A: The commission was a carte blanche, with a few guidelines nonetheless, consisting in producing a series on Paris. That interested me because I like to be able to express myself freely in images and because Paris is an incredibly photogenic, inspiring city.

So, my work consisted in showing that, in spite of the at times unfettered urbanism that’s invaded some of its neighbourhoods and urban settings, Paris still remains the sumptuous city it’s renowned to be and still harbours plenty of hidden treasures and magical places to this day. The aim was, in short, to rediscover a nostalgic Paris, a somewhat “Midnight in Paris” Paris! Paris “city of light”, which I personally chose to photograph as a city of film.

Paris is the place I was born and where I’ve grown during my studies and my professional career; I know some weird and wonderful places. So, when I needed to show better-known spots, the challenge was precisely to show them in a different light, to offer the vision of an enchanting Paris, a Paris of dreams.

Q: Dreams, precisely; where are we in this shot?

A: This photo was taken at the Musée des Arts Forains (Museum of Fairground Arts) in the Pavillon de Bercy. What’s exceptional in this private museum only accessible on reservation is the 1850 to 1950 fairground atmosphere that’s been reconstituted, with a Venetian salon, carousels, characters and attractions from the past, such as extraordinary zodiac tombola.

It’s a good example when looking at my work, because it’s a pretty strange picture. It contains several planes, several stories that seem to sum up the antiquated, ghostly, magical atmosphere of this barely known place.

Q: After the lion, there are animal figures featured elsewhere, in the form of stuffed animals.

A: Yes, because I photographed Paris like a curiosity cabinet too. Here, we are at Deyrolle’s on the rue du Bac, which used to be a taxidermist, hence the collection of stuffed animals, butterflies and insects. It’s a veritable Parisian institution, where this animal presence is especially fascinating, yet which not everyone knows. Sadly, the house burnt down some years back, but has been entirely rebuilt since.

Q: You also photographed the Cinémathèque Française, I believe.

A: Yes, there’s a museum in the Cinémathèque Française that I discovered during this carte blanche. Its incredibly rich collections house the android from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, and a whole host of references and objects from the films of Marcel Carné, Jean Cocteau, Jean Vigo, etc. The entire history of both French and foreign film is represented in its very fine layout.

This is a set from an Abel Gance film. I photographed this huge wheel so it would seem vibrant, moving. It gives an image that is somewhere between photography and film, an emblematic image in this place devoted to the seventh art.

Q: This shows how the history of art and cinema fully permeate your way of imagining and working on your subject.

A: I used to be a researcher; I’m an archivist at heart. I like to make connections between the different arts, whether it be painting, sculpture, cinema, or any form of art. I think that it all inspires me and transpires in my photos.

Certain artistic currents have marked me more notably than others, such as Surrealism, for example. In my work, I’m particularly indebted to a photographer like Brassaï, whom I particularly like. He photographed Paris at night, but also Picasso’s sculptures, graffiti, unusual characters, architecture, magical, mysterious, shady Parisian settings … If you look closely at my earlier series, you find the same themes as in Brassaï: underground places and religious festivities (Spain), graffiti (São Luís, Brazil), torn posters (Madrid), statues at night (Paris), etc.

I have unconsciously focused on the same themes as Brassaï, but I mainly took them in colour, with an eye and an aesthetic that corresponds more to our era.

Q: A few silhouettes aside, there are very few people in your selection of images; atmospheres, details, and objects predominate rather…

A: One part of the commission focused on Parisian artisans. These images have something of day-to-day, contemporary life about them that is less dream-like however; that’s why I didn’t include them here. The silhouettes, on the other hand, do have that quality, which is perfectly in keeping with my style of work. In the series I took in China, Japan, or India, there are a few portraits, of course, but mainly images in which people are photographed with a certain distance; they thus seem to melt into the setting.

In the Prince de Galles hotel, I photographed this person from behind. It’s a nod to Hitchcock; this Art Deco temple – formerly the Prince of Wales’ Parisian apartments – reminds me of his films, but that’s not the only reason. There was a very cinematographic atmosphere in this hotel, which, for that matter, a lot of stars frequented: Marlene Dietrich used to stay here regularly, but also Lana Turner, Gina Lollobrigida, Charles Laughton, the director of the mythical film “The Night of the Hunter”.

So I asked my assistant, Romain Burlot, who worked with me on the whole series, to pose for this shot like an actor would. I liked the idea of this pensive character in a hotel room, sitting in a hieratic position, like in an Edward Hopper painting.

Paris is a highly intellectual city abuzz with artists and which makes you think, reflect, dream. I wanted to capture that in my images.

Another silhouette: this woman from the Roaring ’20s; it’s a photo of a fashion photo that reflects the hotel corridor and which I call the Prince de Galles’ glamour ghost.

Q: A few words now about your attraction to cinema. Each image indeed looks like the photogram of a film.

A: Cinema, it’s a long story. I only went very rarely when I was little, so I experienced a sort of film bulimia when my best friend and I ran a film club in our high school in our teens. I would go and pick up the reels in Montmartre. That’s how I discovered Cocteau, Buñuel, Fellini, Demy and all the other great masters. Then in my university film club, I discovered Italian cinema – Pasolini, Antonioni, Rossellini and Visconti – and other more contemporary works, such as Peter Greenaway or Ken Russell, for example, who made a big impression on me.

All these references that have long marked me mean that I work in resonance with the seventh art today. And also, like I said earlier, Paris is the city of film. Innumerable places bring to mind the films of the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Varda, “Cléo from 5 to 7″, shot right in the heart of Paris.

My latest series, an homage to colour films from the ’40s to the present, is called “Silenzio ! Mémoires de cinéma”. In it, I took hazy, blurred images, singling out details from films. It’s both a work on personal memory, akin to Proust’s madeleine, and on the collective and universal memory of film.

My travel pictures also bear a cinematic imprint: it’s as if, unconsciously, for each of my series I was making a film out of several symbolic memory-related images that evoke a place, an emotion or a recollection.

Just to share a little anecdote, the Prince de Galles architect, André Arfvidson, also built a famous building on rue Campagne-Première that used to house a number of artist studios. Man Ray used to live there. His neighbour was Eugène Atget, and Erik Satie, Maïakovski, Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Kiki de Montparnasse all lived nearby … The final scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s “A bout de souffle”, in which Jean Seberg – Patricia in the film – says to Jean-Paul Belmondo/Michel Poiccard: “Qu’est-ce que c’est, dégueulasse ?” ["What does it mean, dégueulasse"?] after she’s just betrayed the man she loves, was shot right outside Arfvidson’s building!

All that is fascinating. That’s why I conceived of this work as a history of cinema, not to mention the nod to Leica, which will celebrate its one hundredth anniversary in 2014 and whose major invention consisted precisely in using 35 mm cine film!

Thank you for your time, François!

- Leica Internet Team

Read the interview in French here. Learn more about François on his website.