Jean-Louis Dumas’ Photographic Gaze, by his daughter, Sandrine Dumas-Brekke
One of the great passions of Jean-Louis Dumas, CEO and Artistic Director of Hermès for almost thirty years from 1978 to 2006, was photography. A monographic work published by Steidl in 2008 (1), and an exhibition held at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris that same year (2), revealed his long-standing and abundant practice of photography. It is also thanks to Jean-Louis Dumas that both Hermès and Leica Camera started working together.
Just a few days before the launch of the Leica M9-P Hermès Edition — a Jean-Louis Dumas limited edition — we met his daughter, Sandrine Dumas-Brekke. She spoke to us with great generosity about her father’s photography, closely commenting on several of his pictures.
Q: In the introductory text to the monographic exhibition held at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie to present your father’s photographic work, you wrote: “[...] he set up a little darkroom [in the cellar]. He would draw the green curtain and beneath the red eye of the light bulb, the photos would slowly materialize in the trays. I can still see his curved back, bent over the contact sheets, precise and concentrated on the selection of shots he would send his friends…”. Could you tell us how Mr Dumas started taking photos, learnt the subtleties of photography, and became passionate about this medium?
A: Before he embarked on his professional career, my father dreamt of being a journalist. He loved jazz; it was vital to him. With a friend, Philippe Koechlin — who later was one of the founders of the magazine Rock and Folk — he set up a jazz band and, together, they dreamt of creating a jazz journal. My father then did a few interviews with great jazzmen, such as the saxophonist Lester Young, which remained famous in the family annals.
It is through jazz that my father discovered photography, I believe.
As far back as I can remember, my father always carried a camera. As I have already written, he had a little darkroom in the cellar of our apartment building where he developed his own prints. When we moved, he kept all his equipment; it was very precious to him. Then he started getting his photos developed by a man called Jules, who used to work at the Atelier Publimod, on Rue du Roi de Sicile in Paris. He was the person who developed Edouard Boubat’s work. He was extremely proud of this, because he greatly admired this photographer, who later became a very dear friend. This Monsieur Jules meant a lot to him. I think that they used to “talk shop” together, but by the time Jules came into my father’s life, he had already stopped developing his own photos.
Q: Mr. Dumas was close to Edouard Boubat. Did he like to discuss photography and his own pictures? Or was his practice of photography revelatory of something more intimate, something that couldn’t have been said other than in images?
A: My father never talked to us about photography in a technical manner. The only thing that he said to me on the matter, and which I always cite, is the idea that 35 mm corresponds to the gaze, to what the eye sees, undoctored. I really like that.
Beyond the technical aspects, I remember going into his darkroom with him. I wasn’t even eight years old, so these are very early childhood memories; more sensations than clear memories. I remember his concentration, I remember this slightly “religious” room with its red light, the trays. I remember that with all the chemical products it smelled a little funny. The images would appear and he would show me that you can modify certain details as you develop. It all seemed a bit like magic to me.
If my father succeeded in conveying something about photography, for me it was more about knowing how to look — about being open to what might happen, to have an eye that “acts fast”, rather than knowing “how to take a photo” of something or someone. I’m not entirely sure whether I observed or was told that.
My father loved to give his photos. He always made small prints that he annotated and wrote little messages on that were always funny. He used them as a little gift — a note to say hello. He communicated extensively through his images.
Photography was his secret garden, but it was a secret garden in which he liked to invite people because everyone knew that he took photos. Everyone knew Jean-Louis Dumas’ photos.
When my father met Edouard Boubat, he had been taking photos for twenty years. His great pride and the beginning of their friendship, in fact, dated back to a commission Edouard Boubat did for the Monde d’Hermès in the mid-eighties: a series of photos on artisans and the people working in the different Hermès sites at the time. My father loved this series and used it a lot later for Hermès’ publicity. Their complicity went back to the conception of this series.
My father admired Edouard Boubat’s work. I think he admired him for several reasons. First of all, because there’s a humility in Boubat’s photography, a proximity and a poetry that my father could only subscribe to. Secondly, because Boubat magnificently photographed India, and India was my father’s other major secret garden.
My father must most certainly have exchanged extensively with Boubat about photography.
Q: How did Mr Dumas proceed as a photographer?
A: I know how difficult it is to photograph people in the streets. When you are face-to-face with someone, with a camera ready to shoot, one sometimes feels one shouldn’t be there. I’d define that as a feeling of illegitimacy. Yet I remember seeing my father taking photos in a very relaxed manner. When I look at his pictures, I never get the feeling that he stole anything. He used to talk to people with real interest. I think my father’s curiosity for the “other” was so sincere that it totally legitimated the photographic act. Was it an effort for him? I never asked him, but I never got the impression that it was.
Q: I get the impression that your father’s photography took several paths…
A: Yes, there are melancholic, more graphic photos and others that are more rooted in life and mischievousness.
This photo, for example, is one of those that really make me laugh. Here, he must have been invited, in the capacity of his function at Hermès, to some strange work session where he watched this dance. When you look closely at this photo, you can see terribly serious people in suits and ties here, and then in the middle there’s my father with his camera. Very often, he had that teasing, malicious look in his eye.
This photo was taken at the time of the solar eclipse in 1999. He went to Saint-Louis, where there’s a crystal manufacturer that was bought by Hermès. My father was there in a professional capacity, but he always had his camera in his pocket.
This photo is the first he was terribly proud of and, indeed, I think he was right to be. It’s what you call a real stroke of luck! It dates to 1964. I believe that his earliest photos date back to 1961.
Q: Do you think we can identify one, or several threads throughout your father’s work that might, over the course of his long practice, lend a kind of unity?
On another register, we can see this notion of the double in this photo too. As a print, it’s a sublime image. It reminds me of Rasputin; it looks like it is from the icon tradition…
Finally, the theme of the double can be seen in this photo of the child and the island. My father loved this picture! He photographed that island his whole life. He sought it out. He loved it.
My father notably photographed Greece — my mother was Greek — India, and our family.
He loved photographing trees. My father had the ability, which I love and which also explains his passion for trees, to look somewhere and to see something else in it. Like in childhood, when you are in bed at night and see dragons in the shadows made by clothes hanging on a chair. I know that my father used to see a lot of things in things. I share that with him, for that matter. I think that all the colour photos that he took at one stage in his life — close-ups of flowers, stones, still lifes — fall into this logic.
Q: That brings another question to mind… Did Mr Dumas used to take a lot of shots of a same subject?
A: He used to take several images of a same subject; I’d say five or six shots. He would circle a subject as he photographed it.
Q: Was that also the case with people?
A: Yes. He was brave enough for that! But of course, it depended on the circumstances. For the picture of the three bicycles, for example, he must have taken two or three shots. He wouldn’t have had time to take any more.
I find that there’s a lot of humour in these pictures; but not always. This photo, for example, is terribly sad. It’s one of my favourites. It surprises me because I don’t know when he might have gone to this old people’s home, nor why.
In some of my father’s photos, I find a form of nostalgia. I like his “sad” photos because I relate to them. Yet I used to love laughing with him and loved his humour. Sometimes I feel that he almost reaches his limit in wanting to take “malicious” photos, whilst here, something else happens.
Q: What, in your opinion, would first catch your father’s eye?
A: I imagine that he would mainly seek a contact: something human, quite simply. Having said that, with his camera in hand, his eye must have, at times, been caught by a light — by something that fell into place before him. His “static” photos — those without any people in them — have a sort of secret order. He must have suddenly seen that order, had his camera with him, and captured it as a photo. I think, however, that that wasn’t what he sought out first and foremost. I think he sought people first of all, but that, at time,s his eye was also caught by something geometric.
I personally love his framing. I find it very just. There is a justness in the way in which he positions his gaze. It’s never precious. He sees, and “click!”, he captures the moment. When you work in a studio, you can really work on the composition, but here, it’s almost instinctive. I don’t think he theorized that.
I love this photo. Here too, there is a geometric aspect that I find very interesting. At the same time, these three characters are completely isolated from one another. It’s as if they came from another era. They could be from Tintin, or a film by Antonioni, with a kind of latent ennui: the woman looking at the telescope, the man waiting…
To my mind, a beautiful photo is a confrontation with something which, suddenly, could be the start of a story. When that is captured, I consider it a successful photo.
I was just explaining what this photo evokes for me, but, looking at it, I can also see something else: the woman looking through the telescope is my mother. In another photo, I see a painter I knew as a child, in the studio I always used to play in; and in another, a woman in a village we used to visit often. So, it’s impossible for me to be objective looking at these pictures. That is where the interest and the limit of my point of view lies. For the exhibition planned in Berlin, for example, it amuses me to think that other people will be able to look at these photos, discover them, and like them or not like them, depending on what they evoke for them. It may well provoke visual encounters that I have never imagined because of the influence of my own story.
I consider it an incredible chance for someone who was an amateur photographer to have the opportunity to show his work just like that of a professional photographer. I find it inspiring to know that someone who just loved to look can be taken seriously. And my father truly worked on his eye.
Q: Do you, who knows your father’s pictures so well and have delved into his archives to prepare the exhibition and his publication, see a progression in his gaze?
A: I think that the Eighties and Nineties were his photographic years. 1960 was the beginning, then his photography increasingly grew to become a truly active, effervescent gaze. That corresponds, for that matter, with what were probably his richest professional years. But also, simply, with his own maturity as a man. And like always with my father, things were never dissociated That is to say that the love and the energy that he invested in his work were the same that he invested in his private life and his photographs. He constantly sought to create connections.
I think, therefore, that it is coherent to assert that his photographic years also correspond to his best professional years. It must have been a moment when he was “in sync”: in sync with his gaze, in sync with his brain, in sync with something that can be described as an openness to the world. My father was incredibly curious about others, but not in a self-interested way. The possibility of “using” came through his curiosity. He wouldn’t say, “How am I going to make the most of this?” Instead, he would ask, “How might we create something from this?” I believe that that emanated from a pure, disinterested movement in the absolute.
Q: Earlier, you talked about what you consider an interesting photograph. What was Mr. Dumas’ opinion of a good photo? What characteristics did it need to have to be taken into consideration, selected? I imagine that you had to ask yourself this question when you were selecting the images for the book.
A: I know which photographs he was very proud of. The one of the little boy and the island, for example. In my opinion, he created other images that have more life and force than that one. I think he considered it one of his most beautiful photographs, so it was inconceivable not to include it in his monography. That is why it’s on the cover of one of the works in the set published by Steidl.
The other cover image is a self-portrait. It looks like a photo from the Thirties, achieved through seeking a specific effect. Yet, in his images, my father is always very frontal; he wasn’t a fussy photographer, yet this photograph is quite complicated. Its other “particularity” is that it can be looked at both vertically and horizontally without losing its interest. Having said that, my father did intend it to be vertical, so that is how it appears in the book.
Q: Let’s talk a moment about his Leica. What did Mr. Dumas particularly appreciate in his camera? Was it the extreme precision associated with this mythical camera and which resonated with his artistanal side that is equally related to the universe of Hermès?
A: He mainly worked with a Leica M6. He had four cameras for that matter. I would say that he started working with this camera in the early Eighties.
I have quite clear memories of my father showing me the photos taken with this camera and pointing out the precision of its rendition, the details one could clearly make out. He truly appreciated the quality of the grain, the quality of the depth and the manner in which he could catch the light with this camera. He also loved the camera’s incredible stability which enabled him to take photos in settings with very little light and thus, without a flash. He was in complete awe of what the Leica could achieve.
Later, without a doubt, the reason why these two companies came closer together at a moment of their history and why Hermès entered into Leica’s capital, is their common values: excellence, craftsmanship, etc. As for his own practice, if he chose to work with a Leica, I think that that it was mainly to do with the photographers who worked with it and with the quality he could achieve thanks to this camera.
Thank you, Sandrine!
-Leica Internet Team
(1) Jean-Louis Dumas photographe, published by Fred Rawyler, Sandrine Dumas-Brekke. Texts by François Cheng, Sandrine Dumas-Brekke, Steidl, 2008.
(2) Jean-Louis Dumas. Photographies, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, 24 September- 26 October 2008.