DARYA KOSILOVA—Tell me about a recent dream you had.
JEAN-FRANÇOIS LEPAGE—Strangely, I’ve had no dreams that I can remember for a long time.
DK—Your photographs make me think about the surreal time-fragmented dreams that we all have; the dreams that we can’t explain why or how we have. Do you think our dreams have a way of revealing our real identities?
JFL—I think our strongest dreams are paradoxically the ones we have when we are awake. I always try to be different – not too [involved in] my working habits to still have the possibility to be surprised, and in fact, at the end, to keep dreaming. This is a really important part of my life and my balance. Most people do not have time for that kind of luxury because of their work; taking time to get lost inside the labyrinth of our imagination and escape from reality. It’s not exactly a story or an adventure like in our dreams. In my case it’s more or less like traveling between two space-time [continuums]. I’m there but I’m not really there. Whatever way our dreams happen, they are giving us the chance to transform and illuminate our narrowed vision of our daily lives. One might also ask: is my life a dream or are my dreams my real life?
DK—I see the drawings you make on top of your images as a kind of stream of consciousness or map that reveals your static subjects’ psychological complexity. What do the drawings mean to you.
JFL—I believe people are at first vibration, like a musical instrument, just a little bit of wind can make them play and express themselves more truly than when they talk. When I engrave a negative or a positive film I try to reveal who we really are, at least how I see the person I’m photographing. A friend of mine told me one day, “If you were not an artist you would be a serial killer.” It was quite scary to figure out I could be someone who wants to destroy others, but I think she was right; I certainly try to transform a negative impulse of my unconscious into an awakening of my consciousness.
DK—What do you tell your models to think about on set?
JFL—I’m quite shy and if I don’t know the model it is more like an observation between two wild animals; I can’t explain what we are going to do because I never prepare anything before a shoot. The way I work, models can’t really use their tricks or habits. Models are often trying to “play” with the photographer, and most of the time they are asked for that kind of electric and sensual collaboration on a shoot. “Yes, like that! Sexy! More! Great!” It often sounds like an orgasm when you watch some fashion shoots. I don’t talk much with models when I’m taking a picture. I look at them, particularly when we are not shooting – when we try the outfits, do the makeup, the hair, when they eat, when they talk to others – I’m not staring at them, I just observe. After some hesitation, without particular words or explanations, things happen and the image is complete. Well, sometimes it takes hours!
DK—In a time of hyper-sexualized advertising that leaves little food for thought, you’re one of the few avant-garde photographers who have managed to successfully conceptualize fashion and still work with the biggest brands.
JFL—I started in the eighties and it was already very difficult to be different and be part of the business without burning your wings and losing your identity. If you’re chosen for who you are and what you do, and if people understand and respect the way you’re working as an important part of your creativity, you will always do a great job, this is certain. It’s as simple as that. For many years, most fashion campaigns have been really focused on products. We are in quite a classical period in the way communication is made and a lot of clichés are used. I’m sure this period will end as soon as more people realize that there is no real advantage for a brand having the same aesthetic approach as others, but for now, I think most of the people involved in that process feel comfortable with the situation, knowing perfectly what they’re doing and are simply satisfied with it. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
DK—I read somewhere that you derive much of your inspiration from the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Do you have a favorite film by him?
JFL—We had a TV show in France when I was an adolescent, which showed movies from classical filmmakers. So yes, yes, yes, my imagination was fueled by all those movies, particularly the films made by Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Minnelli, Welles, Antonioni, Visconti, Kubrick… but also many others. I love all Hitchcock movies. Maybe the one I prefer is Vertigo and the best of his movies for me is Strangers on a Train. It’s interesting to note that Hitchcock’s work influenced la Nouvelle Vague in France in the sixties with filmmakers like Truffaut, Chabrol… This mixture of a classical approach and the inventive way of filming is still very modern; many film directors and photographers have been inspired since. I find it very impressive the way Hitchcock used women in his movies; it was extremely avant-garde. His women were always very chic but not at all like the typical Hollywood glamorous way of showing most actresses, and also his women characters were sharing the lead roles equally with the male actors.
DK—Have you thought about venturing into filmmaking?
JFL—I did a short movie when I was 25; it was a nice experience. Then I had my first child and I’ve been more into drawing and painting for a time and back to photography. If I have the opportunity one day I will repeat the experience. You never know which roads you will take during your life and hopefully sometimes things you were not expecting or just simply thought you might not do, happen.
DK—Your work has often been labeled as “mysterious, strange, and surreal.” Aesthetically it conveys all those things, but I also find something very revealing and lonely about it. For a lot of people loneliness is a sad and self-doubtful state. I find comfort in it, which is probably why I find it very soothing to look at your photographs.
JFL—Without evidence to the contrary, our last trip on earth will be death, which we’ll do alone. We are going to die one day. I’m going to die, my neighbor is going to die, and you are going to die – this is the only certitude we have. Paradoxically, it gives us the strength to live but I believe instinctively we need to become accustomed with loneliness to be prepared to die. As I’m talking about death so seriously, my last sentence reminds me of this line from a film: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” The Princess Bride, funny movie.
DK—The makeup, hair, and styling in your work is absolutely brilliant. How involved are you in those aspects?
JFL—I’m always really close to the stylist, preparing the outfits. On the shoot we always fit the model first and then we talk about hair and makeup. Sometimes I have a clear vision how the hair and makeup should be and sometimes it’s the opposite. The team is always very patient with me as they know me and the way I work. We never work with references or bring documentation to the shoot. It’s really wide open and it’s important for me to keep working this way as it’s the only way I feel creative. Models are the main characters for a fashion photographer. Like actors for filmmakers, they have been the main characters for artists for many centuries and they will remain for many more whatever the art discipline.
DK—The only model that I’ve ever seen you photograph in her bare and natural state is supermodel Naomi Campbell. What was your intention with this shoot?
JFL—I remember the night before I went to see a friend who was in Paris for fashion week, I talked with her until the middle of the night and I had very few hours sleep. I wasn’t really worried about it as I knew Naomi would be late because everybody told me she would… but the next morning she was almost on time while I was resting on the studio sofa. Some “supermodels,” as they are called in fashion, have the reputation of being difficult to work with and Naomi has the worst reputation of all of them. Regarding my experience working with her, she was how I expect any other model to be: patient, focused, and dedicated to my way of working. Good models feel who you are quickly and there is no point for them to try to resist or interfere in the way they will look in the photographs. I believe making images of Naomi in a kind of natural state was the result of how she was at that moment, in that studio, during that lapse of time. Maybe she was simply herself and I’m pretty sure she was expecting to be photographed like this.
DK—Tell me one thing about yourself that very few people know about you.
JFL—I think I snore sometimes, this is what my girlfriend says… but she also snores, so that’s fine!
DK—If there was a machine that could turn your artwork into music, what song would it play?
JFL—I would be proud if it was a mix between Béla Bartók and Franz Liszt sung by Radiohead. (Doesn’t sound like a great dance hit!)
DK—It has been an absolute pleasure picking your brain.
JFL—No problemo! My brain has enjoyed being picked by you.