Interview | Anne Favret & Patrick Manez, land surveyor photographers on space Caussols observatory : « Landscapes and high technicality, that’s THE spot.»

Anne Favret & Patrick Manez browse into the streets of Berlin, Rotterdam, Genoa or Bruxelles to picture their urban landscape before settling on the Southern low Alps at the science Caussols observatory. A place out of nowhere between future and vintage architecture which inspired the couple of photographers for the book Les Arpenteurs. Come back on murder scene but head over their new photographic adventure in Iceland.

 

The plateau of Caussols is not the root of the project?
Him No, well it’s a happy coincidence. At the beginning, we just climbed the plateau because we took a squint at some pictures of the particular architecture of Antti Lovag. We thought that it was a neglected plateau left behind by everybody, so we were already starting to imagine a utopian community with some stagecrafts with architecture and landscape. Meanwhile, we met Nicole from the observatory, who said : oh you’re so mistaken, people are working there. So we asked for permission and decided that we were going to work with these people. It altered our initial project but not too much, because we discovered a real utopian community not for their material but for their organization, the fact that everything is locally-manufactured there. It matches absolutely with our ideas.

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Her At the very start, it comes from Avatars, an exhibition in which each artist had to create a piece of art. For that matter, we made Life On Mars (La Vie sur Mars), a photomontage of an ice rink in a cave. But we kept it in mind while taking pictures and looking for a place. There, it was a certain way to follow this idea and well… we are still living a ‘life on Mars (laughs) with our common universe, a universe we built thanks to our four-hand works.

How did you come to work together?
At the very beginning, we didn’t, we were and met at school, art then photography, in 82 to 88. And finishing school, we started to work together in 1989. First, it was a professional thing. We were both becoming independent architecture photographers and we realized that working as a pair for dark room was so good. Consequently for this first year, we did our projects about highways, standing on approach ramps and taking pictures of the other side asphalt. Then we did more than just working together. It was easier because we could work each time. And as we don’t want a sheep-like practice, we need to change colors, theme every time even if it take times.

Speaking about time, how long did your work on this project?
Him About one year from early 2012 to very beginning of 2013. When we presented our project they asked : but aren’t your being bored very quickly? Oh course not. We used to go there every Monday and sometimes spend the night there for dark pictures.
Her Only full moon nights because we could work on stand without not too long slow exposure time of 7/8 minutes and without needing headlights road or lights.
Him In winter, we had to used snow chains and shoes, not to sink till top of tights, so awesome for the tripode and by night, not a single noise. And thanks to all this, you made a lot of renewal, because we often work with the same view point but in different seasons, yet in fact, we pick only two of them but separate them in the book to show diversity. The idea was to make long panoramic shots to give a clear vision of the place and the landscape but cars, scientists, daily life still stand in some pictures that we cast out, we save the pictures which don’t allow any determination of the location as though the plateau was deterritorialized.

But there are some daily life picture, essentially inside the laboratories…
Him It’s a kind of the daily life of the inside, an autarchic way of living, there is some clue of everyday life but faraway like if inhabitants live out the place.
Her Moreover there is an old-fashioned aspect of these installations, the contrast high-tech vs low-tech is brilliant. But on the other side, it’s very futuristic with some 70s installations. Most of scientific photographers tend to add too much sanitized and clinic look. There, installations are outstanding but tinker everyday to make the most of them. And here, everything is invented, designed, created, on the ground like the bassin, a summer sign, Un Soir d’été, like a ancient sanctuary that we discovered on our own, such as other places which are abandoned and improbable, switching on lights, room by room, step by step, like explorers, like surveyors.

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But we can see some portraits in the book, how did you live with the researches?
Him They did their jobs, after a while, we were part of the furniture, we try to keep out of the limelight, but from time to time, we had a chat with them, they share a lot, that’s part of their scientists’ spirit/philosophy not being in withholding information.
Her We lived by their side, we even took pictures of some random life moments with meetings, lunch breaks, the only moment of the day where the whole team could meet, but we left them together, it was too realistic. We’d rather like taking simple rough pictures without any effects, a bit documentary with which your can enter its universe. We heard that : first we were tolerated, then we have been accepted. Maybe because we expose very early our goal and they accepted not being the subject of a documentary.
Him And to involve them in our project, each week, we display one of our prints in the dining hall for one week and they share feedback, it was so funny. Most of the time it was about the place where the picture has been taken. They’ve worked there for years but most of the time they were lost. That was perfect our aim was to take them away, a kind of transposition. And it worked for the Schmidt floor, we pictured it like a sky map and none of the scientists found its actual location. The only one who guessed? It was the cleaning lady!

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But you did 4 portraits, why did you choose these characters?
They were the best ones to sum up the atmosphere. We shot everybody in portrait in the 4 seasons with same lights, same aperture and a blurry background but we keep only 5 of them. We wanted to make anonymous portraits, I mean portraits without focussing on their position except the for the milling machine guy without face, we call him Cyclops. So anonymity remained. For a while, we questioned taking pictures at their homes. But it was important to stay in a neutral place.

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We were like observers of professional observers?
Yes, that’s why the book is called Les Arpenteurs, they are land surveyors like us. They measure space/moon, we work on their work space. We spent a year collecting material because from scratch we wanted to materialize our findings with a book which could sequence pictures in a story without words, a kind of tension between two images or a single picture which could speak for itself.

In the introduction of your book, Michel Poivert refers to Solaris. There is a special light there?
Lights were amazing, we have the feeling that nature was too much here, it changed every two minutes, it was always sublime : moon and sunset at the same time. We could lose our focus on a such contemplation, in front of this beauty. We didn’t deny our pleasure but we tried hard not to get overwhelmed by this place without light pollution, noise, only wind, bugs and a deep feeling a loneliness. Like in Solaris where they faced something they couldn’t control, we were in the face of an obscure field. This gap is interesting in the sens that the artistic look finds inspiration in concrete applications.

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Is it the first time that you don’t deal with an urban landscape, are the pictures follow the same processing?
What is interesting in the city landscape is the landscape. The first we pictured was Montreuil, really urban place, we love contemporary pictures to show what we really like : contemporary society. Then we were commissioned by the hospital of Nice to portrait hospital workers, nurses but also with landscape of Pasteur place. But, someone had a look to the studio and asked : and what about landscape? Can you do it? And as it was a challenge, we landed in hinterland, as we had a fascination with landscape photography for long, we admire American photographers from the 1880s with Western landscapes. There we had everything we wanted : landscapes and high technicality, it was THE spot. (laughs)

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It’s the first time that you’ve settled in a local place, because your started your international reports very early…
Yes we started in Alexandrie, in 92, thanks to a grant. This city was told like a kind of Nice or Beyrouth, a cosmopolitan town. So we worked on this side to show the different architectures and communities, being somewhere with the feeling of being somewhere else like photography is a way to discover daily places. Now we are still working on plan B with B initial European cities, so we are always looking for working on-site. There, it was a choice not being exile, after all, Eugène Atget spent his life working in Paris.

Your last project was a trip in Iceland, how was this new international adventure?
We’ve just come back from Iceland, a one-month residence 60 km from Egilsstadir, between dam mountains, that supplies power aluminium factory of Alcoa and Fjords, with our daughter Anouck who did some interviews for the book. A huge landscape with volcanos, hot springs,… Moreover we went into a residence for writers so we tried to be fed by local legends and fictions.  It would be a surprise… (smile)

And what about the future? Any new projects?
Carrying out with Plan B, we do it one every year. Maybe in England. Bristol? Birmingham? On former factory and their reconversion. And we want another project in the area. We need time but we will find some. Working on community? Landscape? Territory? Whatever, a turning-point has passed…

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Let’s hang out together ! 
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