Tony Cearns caught up with Elisabeth Maurice to talk about her photography and life.
Tony Cearns: I want to start with this photograph in particular:
When I go back through your Facebook timeline photographs, it’s noticeable how you have increasingly employed “closure”, that is having a part of a picture and inviting the audience to draw conclusions with less than the full information. In your photograph above, little (but enough) information is offered to the viewer, who is therefore required to “prise open” the imagination and work out a story. The story is immanent, waiting to be expressed.
What does this photo tell us about how you see the world? Do you see photos as representations of “the real” world or do you believe that reality is constructed in the course of looking at the picture? Does this perception affect the way you take photographs?
Lisa: I’m one of those thinking that an image is not the photographer’s view only. Once it has been taken, it doesn’t belong to him anymore, but to the people who are looking at it. In that, I totally agree with John Berger. An image can have, as many lives as there will be looks on it, depending on people’s mood, context, background, history etc.
I’m a person who enjoys stories, narration in all forms. I fed myself with literature and cinema long before I started photography. So that probably plays a role in the way I consider it and simply in the way I look at people and things.
When hearing three notes in row you often have a tune coming straight to mind. It’s the same with images. I think a photograph can be compared to a short story in a way. If you think of Raymond Carver short stories, you often can picture the scene and stage it in your mind. And then, as if looking at the details in it, the story unfolds. I like to think it’s the same with a photograph.
So I think it’s teamwork between the photographer, who takes and makes the picture so that it tells a story, and the viewer who makes the rest of the job and makes it his own.
Thinking this way, closure is a wonderful way to tease out a story, giving hints without disclosing everything. I learned that while attending Knut Skjaerven‘s workshops and thanks to his New Street Agenda. If you look at great photographers’ work many use it recurrently. It gives a lot of liberty for interpretation, raises suspense and I particularly enjoy that. That’s why I must be using it more and more.
Regarding reality? I’m not sure about that. I know that when I take an image, it reflects my reality. And you make me realize that closure is part of the configuration of my environment, my reality. But I would rather talk of look and feel. I’m mostly doing street photography and not reporting facts. Reality doesn’t interest me that much. When I take a photograph, I’m more thinking of the story I see or the feeling I get. I often make up a story in my mind, knowing it surely has nothing to do with reality. I’m particularly aware of that when I shoot, for I often take a scene that is wider than I had wished, and crop it in a way that it shows only what I focused on, what I saw, what I wanted to show. So reality has little relevance here, and my reality doesn’t have to be and most probably can’t be the viewer’s one.
After saying all that, I think this photograph finally tells a lot about how I see the world…
Tony Cearns: It’s very clear from many of your photographs that they demand an active participation in the viewer. The short story theme is interesting and I would like to explore this further, when we come to talking your style of photography.
I am struck by how many of your photographs show people in busy street settings: lovers in doorways; café scenes; people crossing streets, often displaying emotion. This next photograph is a good example:
Your photographs seem to be in the French Humanist style, like Boubat or Doisneau. Do you agree with this? If so, why have you chosen this approach? What does that tell us about you?
Lisa: I’m very touched you see that in photographs. It’s what I aim for. After reading your question I went through many of my shots and realized I never take buildings or empty streets and rarely single individuals. It probably tells a lot about me. I love life. I love people. I love interactions. And when I take portraits or a single individual it’s more than often because there is an interaction between the two of us.
Grabbing moments of life outside, emotions and bringing them back home is really important for me. I spend a lot of time at home and thus watching those moments later simply makes me happy. That is probably why I take this kind of photograph. Every time I have the opportunity to go out is a moment of joy and excitement. My eyes are looking all over the place, at everybody, everything. I’m interested in and paying attention to every person that is around me. What is happening to them, what are they talking about etc. I think I care for them in a way, even without knowing them. I know that may sounds weird. Taking photographs of those moments is a way to keep them with me and not forget them.
Tony Cearns:: Although most of your photographs are in the humanist style, some show surreal or post-modern influences:
In what direction do you see your street-photography going? How will you get there? What ambitions do you have?
Lisa: I think those photographs come directly from the films I watched over and over. When I shot this one I had the feeling, for a second, of being in a Fritz Lang or Murnau film.
I will surely go on taking scenes full of life touching in a way or another, concentrating on improving my storytelling, which is what is the most important for me.
However, I’m fascinated by the link between photography and cinema photography. When I think of photography, I think of great photographers, of course, but I also think of cinema stills. There are some films in which you can pause at each frame and you’ll see a splendid photograph.
I’m interested in experimenting with motion, ground, signs, negative space, etc.… to see the impact in terms of atmosphere and storytelling. Exploring photography and time relationship within a frame or within a few images as opposed to “freezing the moment”. Chris Marker, Robert Frank and many others already did it but anyway that is another long-term project.
I think to get there I need to keep trying, improvising, learning – tuition is most important – and also work and share with other photographers. Like I’m doing with The Edge and the collective “Regards Croisés”.
I have no specific ambitions – we are talking about a passion – but to continue enjoying taking photographs and completing some of those projects.
Tony Cearns: We mentioned story telling and the “short story” literary form and also cinematography. It’s clear that you think that one way of encouraging a viewer to create a story is to use certain design principles (closure, being one example). As well as this, there are characteristics that heighten a viewer’s sensitivity to a mood, such as suspense or sadness. Looking carefully at cinema stills or sequences can often show how effects and moods are created. The final scene of Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, one of my favorite film sequences, taught me a lot about framing, and closure, for example.
Do you have a favorite cinema still or sequence or favorite film-maker who best demonstrates this for you?
Lisa: This is a difficult question. It’s really hard for me to pick up one only as some directors count so much: Lang, Antonioni, Visconti, Kazan, Ray, Dassin, Wilder, Preminger, Minnelli, Lumet, Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Truffaut … just to name a few. The list is so long. Those directors were artists in terms of composing a visual story. Seeing Hitchcock or Welles drawing a storyboard is fascinating and giving a lot of clues that can be used for storytelling in photography too.
If we think of closure, Ray, Dassin Preminger, Lumet, Hitchcock, Welles used it a lot to raise tension even fear. Minnelli, Truffaut, Antonioni, Visconti much for drama, emotion, melancholy. Billy Wilder was able to use it for humor. There is a famous drinking scene with Gary Cooper and gypsy musicians in “Love in the afternoon” in which he plays repeating alternate closure and distance and thus he manages to make you laugh to tears. I mention this one in particular for I think making laugh is the hardest thing to do.
Something I wished to mention also is that we often forget mentioning that behind each great director you’ll find a brilliant director of photography. Alfred Hitchcock/Robert Burks, Stanley Kubrick/John Alcott, William H. Daniels was director of photography for directors like Cukor, Dassin, Minnelli, and so on. HCB also worked with Renoir. I really think there is a lot learn from this relationship, this teamwork for street photography.
I would also mention Antonioni’s “Blow up” – how to conjure up a story with sparse material.
Tony Cearns: People who see your photographs would not know that you use a wheel chair.
Apart from mobility issues how has this influenced your photography both in the approach and in the subjects you seek?
Lisa: I never wanted to answer that question before because I don’t want people who look at my photographs being influenced by that. Wheel chairs might disturb some people, and the last thing I want is that people feel pity or any thing of the sort. I would love people considering I take photographs like any photographer and that’s it. Even if it isn’t completely true. I must admit it has a real impact on my photographs in many ways:
First thing being I started to take photographs seriously because it happened.
In terms of my approach, I think most people would notice in my photographs the angle. The point of view is pretty low. I’m at the perfect height to catch kids and dogs J. I try to show the things I can see at my level.
As for the subject matter, I think it probably explains why I mostly take humanist shots. As I said before, I’m often stuck at home and going out is a feast. Every sign of life around captivates me and makes me happy. I’m not so often into life on the outside, so photographing those scenes is a way to keep them with me for later.
Another thing that I tend to capture is the interaction I have with the people in the streets. That is a long time project I have. If you look at my photographs most of the time I get straight looks at me. People tend to look at me. Some very kindly, some puzzled, some uncomfortable and others very insistently. I keep collecting those looks as a testimony and hope that someday this will help bring awareness in some way. So finally, it’s good I talk about it J.
Being in a wheel chair doesn’t prevent me from shooting at all. But shooting while driving the chair is not that easy, and I’m often too close or too far without being able to adjust my position quickly enough so you can’t imagine how many shots I miss! Some can be a little blurred or out of focus, but it’s part of my experience when shooting. With practice I tend to improve my manual settings more quickly now.
There are also many kinds of shots I can’t do and many places I can’t go. In France most of the places are inaccessible. I can’t get into the metro and streets are difficult. So it is quite complicated to go somewhere and I very often need help, which means very little improvisation. Compared to Paris, Berlin is like paradise. Everything has been thought for accessibility. I can go almost everywhere on my own. This is why, here, I mostly end shooting in a very small area around my place. But I like it a lot. I know people, habits, places, etc. I find it very interesting to record life around me over time. It’s almost like holding a journal and I can turn back the pages anytime I wish.
Anyway I’m happy shooting anywhere, anyhow!
Tony Cearns: Well, it’s completely evident that you are not defined by the fact that you are in a wheel-chair. Your photography clearly stands on its own.
I was apprehensive asking this question, but I did so partly because I greatly admire you and partly because, as you have said, there is a very empathetic and humanistic quality to your photographs that must come from deep inside you.
Show us one photograph by someone else that best depicts what you are striving for and explain how this photograph captures you.
Lisa: Among all the photographs I love I keep going back to this one. I’m not sure it’s one of Willy Ronis’ most famous shots but it always had a strong impact on me, perhaps because I’m a woman.
It always struck me that a man took this photograph. We were talking about humanist street photography. There it is, fully expressed, showing the violence of life but with so much respect, dignity and empathy. This is the perfect illustration of the photos I would be able to take one day. Not especially in the subject, but in the form and the expression. It’s a very narrative and cinematic photograph. Elements of the streets, parking meter, sewer drain, crossing, trucks are used as symbols of reality and tell a very strong story. The angle and the diagonals crossing make it very dynamic. She is the target and we almost can picture the queue of heavy trucks coming out of the frame…
Tony Cearns: Interesting example, Lisa. Not only does it have the various elements that we have discussed, such as closure and certain cinematic qualities that induce the creation of a story, but there is also a sub-text to do with the intention of the photographer and the conspiracy of the male viewer.
Lisa, many thanks for talking with me. It’s been a real privilege. I’m looking forward to seeing many more of your photographs from your piece of Paris, but with fresh eyes.
Lisa: Many thanks for building such a deep interview. It has been great thinking of and putting words on my work, view, projects and developing them with you. I’m more than touched and honored.