Acclaimed French photographer and documentarist Raymond Depardon revisits his photographic series “Correspondance New-Yorkaise,” 1981, which occasioned a turning point in his career and a shift from photojournalism to an approach that blended photography and writing. In 2017 he updated this project by once again taking a photo a day for the French newspaper Libération, which were also accompanied by a short text. The two iterations of the series are being presented together at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York until July 1, 2017. Depardon’s latest documentary, 12 Jours (Twelve Days), 2017, was presented at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
LIBÉRATION WAS A SMALL, INVENTIVE PAPER, widely read in French leftist circles, but not yet distributed in America at the time. In 1981, I found myself in the offices of Serge July, the editor in chief, who asked what I was doing that summer. I was pleased to say that I was leaving for New York to meet a girlfriend who lived there. He said, “Why don’t you send in a photo every day?” I asked a friend to introduce me to John Durniak, the picture editor of the New York Times—a legend at the time—to see if I could follow the Times photojournalists, like an intern. I took photos with my Leica, had them developed at Time Inc., and sent one via a Concorde plane to Paris every day for a month. The next day it would be printed in Libération, full-page.
I already had a desire to write—that’s why I’m sort of singular in the photo world. Usually a photographer only writes captions. But I was in the midst of a photojournalistic crisis. I had founded the Gamma agency almost fifteen years earlier. I’d lost a friend, Gilles Caron, in Cambodia, and I said to myself that next time it would be my turn. The newspapers were in the midst of a transformation, too. Life magazine had just closed down. I was influenced by Roland Barthes, the great intellectual in France at the time, and particularly by his essay “The Rhetoric of the Image” (1964). He said either a caption was an explanation of a photo, a kind of “anchor caption,” or, on the contrary, it said nothing about what was in the photo, but acted more as a “relay caption.” I really liked that idea, because I’ve always felt that when I take pictures I am thinking of something else, I am not necessarily thinking of the moment.
I’m also an exception in French photography, because I come from the countryside. I grew up on a farm, and the first sixteen years of my life were happy, really magnificent. People who come from farms no longer exist; there are no more farms, in fact. It gave me an important foundation from which to confront a mad world, the world of photographers and journalists.
Something happened to me that summer of ’81 that saved me, because it pushed me to leave photojournalism. One day, Durniak called, saying, “The photographers’ unions don’t want you to stay at the New York Times.” I found myself on the street, and I didn’t know what I was going to do! Then I went to the Guggenheim, inside coffee shops, on the street—and took photos of everyday life. I realized that I didn’t need to be guided by journalists or news items.
So, gradually, from a photo-reporter, I became a photographer. “Correspondance New-Yorkaise” was a milestone—it allowed me to publish thirty photos over the course of a month, which was a novelty. The two things that existed at the time were the photo essay and the picture story—and in France we were not even doing those yet; we were still just photographing current affairs. Later on, this sort of project, in which photographs are taken in installments, was done again, but those photographers did not really play by the rules: they took the photos ahead of time. I really played the game of taking a photo a day in 1981, and then again in 2017.
One day I said to myself, “France has to be photographed. And France has to be photographed with an 8 x 10 field camera.” So I took to the road for four years in a camper van, and I photographed France in color. Everything started with the foundational work of “Correspondance New-Yorkaise.”
When people ask, “Is Raymond using digital?” we always joke about it—especially my wife, Claudine, who responds, “Wait, he’s only just getting to color!” I don’t need digital for my photography (filmmaking is another story). This month, thirty-six years later, here I am with my 8 x 10, which seems completely crazy. But at the same time it’s wonderful, because the 8 x 10 may be better suited to “Correspondance New-Yorkaise,” since you can’t fire off a bunch of shots—it’s too expensive. You can take five or six, and the quality is extraordinary. It’s not an option to walk around with it, like I did with my Leica in ’81; the 8 x 10 is too heavy. I didn’t have a lot of time. My one regret, perhaps, is not doing a specific text on architecture in this new series. I love the architecture of New York.
—As told to Laura Hoffmann
Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.