Frédéric Stucin: The Styles and Faces of Impossible Las Vegas
Frédéric Stucin is a French photographer based in Paris. His preferred mode is portrait photography, whether for his press commissions – notably the newspaper Libération – or his own projects. Among these is his long-running street photography project focusing on the faces, allure and incessant movement of the people in Las Vegas. A paradoxical immersion in a city that conjures multiple images and where he symbolically finds a considerable number of his references be they photographic, cinematographic or musical. Las Vegas – A city with a clichéd side he strives to avoid, notably by using the black-and-white Leica Monochrom.
Q: Frédéric, could you briefly describe your professional path?
A: I was born in Nice, in a family of Slovenian origin that was not at all connected to the art world. I began my training at the Strasbourg Decorative Arts School, where I studied illustration and painting. It was there that I started playing about with cameras, discovering the hundreds of possibilities that the laboratory offers. That was how I ended up switching to the Louis Lumière National Film, Photography and Sound Engineering School. During my studies, I did an internship at Libération’s photo lab (there was one at the time). I was a lab assistant, filling in for two employees for a while.
In 2002, I decided to stop working in the lab; I wanted to take photos. Seeing the reporters heading off and coming back talking about current affairs and telling their stories was, for me, like the Holy Grail. The newspaper gave me my chance and I started working on different subjects. I became a general reporter. I started covering anything from undocumented workers demonstrations, to press conferences, to taking portraits of politicians, musicians, or scientists. I had to adapt fast. I was covering the news; things move very fast and it’s very stimulating. Nonetheless, I gradually realized that I was running out of steam working in just news photography. I got the feeling I was repeating myself and felt less of the original excitement.
I always loved doing portraits more than anything else, so I asked Libération, my parent company as it were, to let me focus on portraits. Since, I rarely do press reports, apart from for the odd magazine, such as Air France Magazine.
In addition to that and my commissions, I have always focused on street photography, usually in black-and-white. That gave rise to a series I called “Les passants” (Passersby). I started in 2000 in Slovenia; I then expanded it to Hong Kong, Paris and Mexico, and now Las Vegas.
Q: Why Las Vegas?
A: I have always loved, and still love, street photography. I have always sought for there to be people, for something to be happening, in my photos. I love crowds. This project started out with an Air France Magazine commission on the western USA (which gave rise to the series “Desert, Mirages”). I ended up in Las Vegas almost by chance, and there I found everything I look for in photography: matter, people, faces, movement in a given, closed space.
It’s an excellent laboratory to experiment with everything I have learned, seen, loved and looked at in photography books and exhibitions. I looked to books by the major American photographers: notably William Klein’s “New York” and Richard Avedon’s “The American West.” Then Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Harry Callahan. I know I’m not very original!
Q: Las Vegas is a city people imagine in color. Why did you choose B&W? In your “Les passants” series, some towns are photographed in color and others in B&W. How do you choose?
A: In Mexico City, which is situated at over 2,000 meters above sea level, the light is really specific, both warm and oppressive. I couldn’t imagine treating it in B&W; I would have lost its specificity. When I’m working in the street though, I don’t pay much attention to the light. I really focus on people. I choose faces more than I do the light.
I really don’t like the color in Las Vegas; it’s harsh, arid and flat. And I don’t have the talent of a Joel Meyerowitz. He uses the color to translate what he sees; he feels limited with just two tones. I admire that, but I don’t feel capable of doing it myself. Above all, I’m looking more for people’s expressions. B&W makes it possible to focus on them, to efface the surroundings. Las Vegas is truly chaotic; when you take a person’s photo, you inevitably find Caesar’s Palace, Elvis’ torso, or Marilyn, in the picture too.
I don’t want people to be perturbed by the background and generally with this project, I don’t want to talk about Las Vegas as Las Vegas; it’s not journalistic. For me, Las Vegas is a pretext. There are no slot machines in my pictures, no casinos; I am completely immersed in the street. The B&W allows me to efface this very Las Vegas aspect, the postcard image. I’m looking for a kind of no-man’s land. So there are no captions, no titles in this work. Las Vegas is non-existent through my lens, which is in a way the case. B&W also gives certain timelessness, which is very fitting for a non-existent city.
Q: Concretely, how do you work in this city?
A: I walk a lot; I exhaust myself. I’m on the lookout for passersby, for the crowd. In general, I try to be discreet, to take photos very quickly without being noticed. But sometimes, I also need to provoke the person who’s about to enter my frame; so I stand in front of him/her. I photograph the person and dart off, no contact, no dialogue; it’s very fast. It’s the opposite of what happens in my commission work, where I spend a lot of time talking to people.
Q: With a commission, you control the situation, whereas in the street, it’s more a question of being reactive.
A: Not exactly because, with a commission, you may be in control, but things can very quickly escape your grasp. It’s often complicated doing a minister or a politician’s portrait. The shoot will often take place in his/her office, for example, but you know that this office is dreadful. So you use a backdrop, which falls on the minister’s head, or the minister doesn’t want that backdrop. And you only have about a minute to take the photo! Having said that, yes, generally, you try to control all the parameters as much as possible.
But I control the situation in the street too in that I choose my destinations, I choose my subjects, both during the shoot and then when editing. The two practices are not so dissimilar in the end, only, in the latter, I don’t speak and I am completely inside myself. I think about what atmosphere I want. It’s not photojournalism; it’s dreamlike, almost. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I try in a way for things to take off onto a different level.
Q: What first attracts you to the people you photograph?
A: Their faces and style. I’m always looking for the same faces and styles.
Q: There’s an element of suspension in these photos.
A: Yes, I look for that: arrested, suspended, even hazy gazes. Ideally, I see this project as unending. If it’s well-mastered, I would like people to be breathless at the end of the exhibition. I’d like to stage it in an ascendant manner, for there to be suspense, for it to be a sort of road movie, a road trip. My references are: Jim Jarmusch’s films, but faster, or Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, Darren Aronofsky, and musically John Lurie, rockabilly, Sonic Youth, Dirty Beaches, Shannon Wright and Jon Spencer. Las Vegas is very loud and I want that to be tangible in the images, for it to be rock ‘n’ roll!
Q: You appear to seek a tension within the frame.
A: Yes, that’s important. I want the image to move. There are photographers who stop on a street corner and wait for something to happen; it suddenly does and it’s magical! I don’t have that patience. I’ll wait a minute and then tell myself I may be missing something. I’m always afraid of arriving too late, so off I go, even if I miss the picture by a few seconds because of my impatience.
In this work, though, I try to capture images that are less tense, which make it possible to breathe: you need to take people’s breath away, but not finish them off! I’m talking about landscapes, calmer moments, details, even if I don’t know whether I’ll use these images or not.
Q: Have you ever run into any difficulties photographing people without asking?
A: Not in the States, and especially not in Vegas where people apologize for getting into the frame, thinking they’ve messed up your photo. In France, you can’t work in the street anymore; people won’t take it, and it’s just not possible. They are convinced you are stealing something from them. They may not be completely wrong!
Q: Do you use a flash?
A: I don’t use a flash because natural light suits me. I adapt to it and, as I decided to get as close as possible to people, I don’t want to work in the same way as Bruce Gilden. His work has always impressed me and I like it too much to simply plagiarize it.
Q: What’s your relationship to the Leica?
A: I always wanted to work with a Leica. It’s the obligatory tool for the street. I first started with an M6. It’s small, light, edgy and radical. You can’t blame it for the shot being out of focus or poorly lit, so if the photo’s no good, you’ve only got yourself to blame. You learn to be at one with this camera; it melts into your hand. And when you’ve fully understood how it works, it becomes completely intuitive.
It’s like people who like writing with a particular type of pen. Sempé once told me he’d cycled round all the shops in Paris to buy up all the Atome 423 pens because the company was closing down and he didn’t know how to draw with anything else. I believe I have the same relationship with the Leica – this total confidence in the body and lenses – as he does with his Atome 423 pens.
Q: For this project, you used a Leica Monochrom. How was it using this camera?
A: I conceived of this project with a Leica in mind and just at that time, the Monochrom came out. I wanted the project to be in black-and-white and I was already working with a Leica, so it was the next logical step. Nowadays with digital, you work in color then convert to black-and-white, and you often end up hesitating. With this camera, you know it’s black-and-white, so you don’t ask questions; you get on with it.
I was truly impressed by the result. I found again what I had lost with digital in terms of developing. I was a printer so I spent a lot of time at the enlarger masking, unmasking. With this camera, I rediscovered zones, entered into the blacks and discovered lots of details; it’s really gratifying. You find yourself working in the old way – even if it’s daft to say that, as the point is not being old-style – but it’s true. You find your old reflexes, your first photographic emotions: printing images that have a grain, a graininess that is interesting and gives the pictures body.
Q: When will you be able to continue this work?
A: I’m going back in October. I’m planning to return a second time during the year. After that, I’ll be able to start constructing my work better. I’m no intellectual when it comes to photography. There are photographers who construct their subject from the outset and who very quickly know where they are going. For me, it’s more a question of instinct. Having said that, I now know where the places I want to go back to in Las Vegas are, what I want to delve into and how I intend to go about working.
Q: It must be exhausting to be so concentrated the whole time.
A: It is exhausting, and physically hard. I’m wired up, constantly searching. I eat and drink in the street because something may happen at any time. I’m there to work, to miss nothing, to have no regrets. At night, I upload the images onto my hard drive and collapse into bed.
Q: You don’t look back at the day’s photos?
A: No, I prefer not to. It’s a waste of time in my opinion. You end up thinking, “Oh, I could have done this or that!” You spend more time looking at what you missed than on concentrating on what’s coming. When I started working with the M6 in Slovenia, I didn’t used to see what I’d bring back for two or three months, and that was good.
When I got back to Paris from Las Vegas, I just titled the pictures and renamed the files. A month later, I started looking, and two months later, I began dipping into the selection. I post images from different trips onto my metal door at home with magnets: I look at them, remove some, and juggle them around; friends who come round make comments that set me thinking, as do my children. Personally, I start being able to really look into my pictures after about six months; before that, they are too fresh. I find the work wonderful or rubbish because the moment felt wonderful or rubbish. After six months, you’ve forgotten the moment of shooting. The picture reveals itself, good or not.
There are pictures that are immediately impressive, and then gradually you realize that they don’t hold up, whereas others take longer to make an impact, but do so lastingly. I believe you have to give pictures time, so they can mature.
What’s great with the Monochrom is that you can’t really look at what’s been taken. I underexpose to keep the blackness; I just check on the back that there’s no bug, but you don’t really visualize the image. For me, this is ideal for concentration. Digital perturbs your concentration. You take a photo, look at it, take another, look, and again on the way home and so on. In a sense, it’s not good. When you work for a week without knowing what’s going on, on the other hand, you advance, you preserve the race aspect, and I find that more interesting.
Q: What do you envision the final outcome of these pictures to be?
A: I would like to make them into a book. I don’t know how to write; I don’t have that talent, but I can tell a novel-like story through photos. Then, of course, I would like to exhibit them, to print them, to see them hanging.
Q: Does that thought help you find images when you are on the ground?
A: Not really. The book will be put together in Paris. For the moment, I’m taking notes. A bit like a writer does before actually writing. I now know the town quite well, or at least its main street, the Strip. I have a good sense of the crowd movements, of their hours.
I’m fortunate enough to have commission work, which I can’t just put on hold. That’s my job and that’s what allows me to finance my personal projects. As for the portraits, I’d be lost without it. Meeting a politician or an actress for a split second, knowing that you have to make something happen; I’d miss that so much! Showing up in places you aren’t normally authorized to go, meeting people with no papers, who are hiding from the police, who are afraid, and you are allowed to go and photograph them with all the respect due: it’s fascinating.
Q: So, in a sense, you also see that as personal work.
A: It is personal work, with different constraints. I accept the codes and try to bring my own vision to it.
I adapt to everything. When it comes to commission work, I see myself as an artisan, not an artist. People come to see me as they would a shoe-mender when their shoes need fixing. An iconographer will call me because he or she needs an image. He or she knows in what conditions I will provide the photo, the parameters. That’s really the artisanal aspect and I like that. Libération can call me at any time to do a portrait and the picture may end up being on the front page because it’s the news, or it may be shelved. That’s how it goes and it’s exciting!
Q: After all these years in the trade, do you still experience the same level of excitement?
A: Yes, because your work is seen right away and you can share things with a lot of people. I remain in the shadows, but I do feel a sense of pride like an artisan.
Thank you for your time, Frédéric!
- Leica Internet Team