Patrick de Wilde: At the heart of the world
With drawing as his main interest, Patrick Wilde joined the Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Graphiques in Paris, where he discovered the art of photography. He became artistic director, studio manager and main editor before travelling the world. Author of thirty books, he has explored Asian religions, wildlife and the great outdoors while collecting, as a side-line to his reports, astonishing portraits that have been the subject of several books and a good fifteen exhibitions in France and abroad. A meeting led by Jean-Jacques Cagnart* with an artist photographer who refuses to specialize and who likes to take his time.
Chasseur d’Images: What route did you follow to become a photographer?
PdeW: After the French baccalaureat in Lille, in the north of France, I took the master class of the Penninghen school in Paris, former Julian academy, that had recently become the Graduate School of Graphic Arts [ESAG]. It was at the beginning of the seventies. At the end of my freshman year, after having passed all the entrance exams, I could choose what I wanted: Métiers d’Art [Craftmaking], Arts Décoratifs [Decorative art], Beaux Arts [Fine arts].… But I couldn’t afford the very expensive ESAG. Met Penninghen, its director, eventually offered to take me on for free. Hard to refuse, especially as the school was in the neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris [which at the time was more friendly and fun than today]. All my buddies were there and I loved my teachers. They were all great artists, very competent and very friendly. It was a wonderful time but not always easy. I lived in a small room under the roof close to “La Roquette“, and it was not rare that I had to walk back from school due to lack of money, carrying my drawing folder under my arm. It was a bohemic life!
How long did you stay at ESAG?
— I spent four years there, during which I received a very academic art education. We still did, at the time, a lot of drawing: sketches of nudes, observational drawing, etc. This fascinated me completely. I think I must have spent more than twelve hours a day drawing. At the same time, I also received photography lessons by Jean-Pierre Sudre. He was a Master! His teaching was a true poetic awakening for me. We did a lot of still life, portraits and also outdoor shoots, especially with photographic chambers. He also taught us lab work, how to use chemicals. After that, I had Bernard Perrine and Françoise Nicol with whom I am still in contact. Before the advent of compact cameras, learning photography was about mastering a technique. But always with beauty and soul in mind, to quote Sudre.
Were you already taking your own photos at this time?
— In my freshman year, I had to work to finance my studies. I unloaded crates of produce at the market halls and worked as a dogsbody for an interior designer. To practice photography, it was necessary to own a camera, photo paper, chemical products and I did not really have the money. For this reason and others, including my passion for drawing, I chose to go for graphic arts.
At the end of your studies, how did you choose your profession?
— In the middle of the seventies, I got a beautiful diploma signed by, among others, Jean-Loup Sieff. Then, I asked myself whether I should continue to paint and draw with the risk of living in poverty for an unknown amount of time or if I should turn towards a more comfortable job. Job offers were not lacking at the time and I was sick of having no money. In the end, I accepted a job as artistic director at the Marie Claire group. I stayed there for a while, but after three years, I had done the rounds. With Sophie, my wife who had also been a student at the ESAG, we created a graphic arts studio. It worked well, but after four years, we were suffocating. We had an exasperating lifestyle with no holidays or weekends, working over ten hours a day, and then entertaining clients. So, on Sophie’s initiative, we stopped the whole business, which certainly brought us good money but did not allow us to live as we would have liked. Sophie’s dream was to indulge in scuba diving, a sport she had practiced from an early age. She became the first professional female underwater photographer. I, for my part, had kept some clients in the travel industry and it came quite naturally to explore the world, camera in hand. We made a lot of books together and also separately. We performed regularly on radio and television. Sophie had become a real celebrity in her field. But she tragically drowned in Marseille in 1999.
This tragedy must have upset your life?
— It broke my enthusiasm outright, if not my life, and definitely my professional activity. I dropped all commissions I had with various magazines. It took me several years to resume my camera. When I did, it was because driven to it by filmmaker Fabienne Bernard for some work on shamanism.
Back to your beginnings as a photographer, what were your favourite destinations?
— Mainly Asia: Burma, Thailand, India. The Asian religions fascinated me. Then I expanded my interests to the great open spaces and wildlife. Photo agencies did not understand this shift because I had a nice reputation as a specialist in Asia and its beliefs. I’d been put in a box! And it is perhaps exactly what I disliked. For the next ten years, I did wildlife photography, especially in Southern and Eastern Africa where I made quite a few books: Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, etc. Meanwhile I spent five austral summers in Antarctica and Sub-antarctic Islands. I then decided to go and see the wilderness areas of Latin America. I travelled through each region from Mexico to Tierra de Fuego. Interests and themes overlapped and mixed. Since my very first trips to Thailand, I had kept making portraits, first with colourful backgrounds, but I soon did black backgrounds only.
Exactly, tell us more about these early portraits.
— This goes back thirty years, or a little more. I did it for my own pleasure, for the opportunity to meet people, for fun. It was a pretext. A camera offers a fabulous possibility to approach the other with ease. I often made the most of editors’ assignments, taking these portraits in parallel with my commissions. During all these years, I collected faces around the world without the intention to produce books or exhibitions.
Your portraits carry a special signature. From a technical point of view, how do you proceed?
— I always carry a kind of mini studio: a black velvet background, reflectors and a very stable tripod. As it is not too heavy [all is relative!], I can take it anywhere, in deserts, forests, market places … But I always put it in the semi-shade, as I do not like direct light that break the subtleties of character. I use sunlight by reflection, in order to sculpt the parts of the face that I want to highlight. I work with the shortest depth of field possible and focus on the eyes or one single eye. Thereby, I obtain a volume with an outer shape that blends into the dark. The key is making the faces emerge from darkness.
How do you manage the relationship with your model?
—What matters is to remain respectful towards the model and consider them fully. To feel their inner pulse. This is perhaps what Nadar called tact. The most interesting is what happens with the person facing you: the exchange and sharing. In this situation where I use moral intelligence with a subject, I block out everything around them in the same way that I try to make them forget the camera. I remember an event in Ethiopia, in a village where I was surrounded by at least a hundred onlookers. I saw only the girl I photographed, nobody else and not even the medicine man who threatened me with his Kalashnikov because he thought I was trying to steal the soul of the child. A local legend said the sun had stolen the souls of a village child at noon. And it was noon exactly and my golden reflector perfectly simulated the sun! Fortunately my guide was able to calm the shaman before I had time to notice him.
How long do you leave on average?
— Between three weeks and three months. In Antarctica, for example, one of the trips lasted an entire season. At one point, I was travelling eight to nine months a year. Having supervised the artistic direction of travel magazine Expansion for almost ten years, I became editor in chief. It was a quarterly and, even if I had to organise the magazine, my presence in Paris was not required for more than one month at the time, most of the work being done during my travels. When the magazine went out of print, I continued working as a freelance photographer for various media such as BBC Wildlife, Airone, Animan, Geo, Terre Sauvage, Grands Reportages, Ushuaia, Images doc, etc.
You were also in the Hoa-Qui agency?
— Yes, I was one of the founding members with among other Michel Renaudeau, Xavier Richer, Claude Pavard and Emmanuel Valentin. At the time, we saw ourselves as artisans [all photographers were free lance]. Money and profit were secondary. As long as we could pay the young women who ran the agency on a daily basis, and we could finance our travels, we were happy. Very often we all had lunch at the agency. Supporting yourself on travelling to take pictures seemed marvellous! In the background, the girls in the office took care of the editing, filing, selling… Now a photographer has to do everything himself including posting his photos onto a hard drive. He is isolated in front of his computer! Now are times of quantity, of totalitarianism of the masses! The Hoa-Qui agency passed into the hands of a media group that appointed an all-rounder who unfortunately drove it to ruins. I now work for Gamma. But the future of this independent agency is more than uncertain. All other agencies for which I worked have been absorbed by multinationals that have undermined the market. To me, it’s a disaster.
When you leave, do you have any story ideas in mind or do you decide once on the spot?
— I like to go with open eyes, to be curious and attentive. I do not limit myself to go here or there to do a particular story. If I have an idea, it is not set in stone. For example, when I went to Japan, attracted by their architecture, I also found unexpected Shinto temples. I have topics in mind, but in this context, I make sure to have a lot of openings. That is what pushed me into photography: freedom. And I am aware that I have been spoiled with it. What I experienced can no longer be lived in the same spirit of availability and independence. Everything has become more complicated, more expensive, smaller, narrower, standardised.
In thirty years of travel, you have published thirty books. How important is this part of your business?
— My first books were contracts. The first one was “Les Mystères de Shwedagon“ [The mysteries of Shwedagon], based on a text by Dominique Lapierre, ordered by Editions Robert Laffont under the responsibility of Pierre-Marie Amat. Then there was “La Thaïlande des bonzes“ [The Monks of Thailand], “L’Inde des Jaïns” [The Jains of Indi] a and the whole series of “Majestueux” albums [Majestic Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Greek Islands, Brazil, Florida, Caribbean, Mexico, etc..] ordered by Atlas Editions with, at their head, Bernard Canetti. I then worked for publishers like Hachette, Flammarion, Arthaud, Chêne, Bayard… and finally, La Martinière. Most of my books have been translated into English, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese and many have been far more successful abroad than in France, like Safari [edt. Flammarion] in the United States. The little book “A Hauteur d’Hommes“ [Human Faces], released in 2006, was a great success in France and abroad. It was followed by several exhibitions in Paris, the first at the Chapel of Louvre, and at the UNESCO House, Refectory of Cordelier and most recently at the Grand Gallery Descartes and the wonderful Museum of Medicine. I also exposed across France [Le Mans, Blois, Massy, Avignon, Saint Valery, etc.]. And under the artistic direction of Frederick Coudreau, I represented France at the first art festival in Doha. My collaboration with the geneticist Axel Kahn around “L’Homme Pluriel” [The Plural Man] and “Les Âges de la Vie” [The Ages of Life] allowed me to meet the art historian and art curator Yvan Brohard thanks to whom I will present my photos in Venice during the next Biannual in June 2013, before exhibiting at Villa Finaly, Florence, this summer. More exhibitions in Lausanne, Osaka and Istanbul are under discussion.
How did you approach the transition to digital?
— With distrust! Not because of having to learn new tools, but because of the philosophy or rather the lack of it that it has brought with it. Anyone can now take decent pictures and in addition touch them up with a computer! It’s not rocket science! Everything is easier. So easy that virtually no one is able to make a qualitative judgment on your work. We are entering the era of demographic imperialism and popular demagoguery.
When travelling, you had to take along hundreds of films?
— In my early career, I left with many boxes, initially Kodachrome then Fuji Velvia 50. The most difficult part was to get through customs with all these films. Then with time, travel and experience, I managed to use less and less rolls, forcing myself to just take The photo, like a hunter only gets one bullet to kill an animal charging at him. Knowing when not to take a picture could be the difference between a professional and an amateur, although this is less and less obvious.
But today auto-triggering has almost become the norm?
— In terms of taking wildlife pictures, the digital has made it possible to shoot blindly. Both technically and economically, there is no limit! Due to numbers, at least one picture will always do the trick. But what is interesting to me, is not only the result but how you achieved it. It’s like with travelling: the important thing is not to get to the end, but to enjoy the journey, linger for the satisfaction of a moment and why not make a stop. Speed makes us blind! Slowness delights! Before triggering the shutter, I wait until conditions are optimal: the best light, best angle, best moment. This requires anticipation, patience and grasping opportunities. There was also the miraculous moment, when the slides had been developed and we saw the results on the light box. The waiting! Sometimes you were disappointed by what you thought would be brilliant. Sometimes you discovered unexpected and surprising images. It was much more exciting than the robotic automatic shooting that means photographers now spend their time in front of a screen rather than life. For me, photography is the best way possible to see things, to feel alive in the world. It’s a real philosophy of being!
But surely, shooting became easier?
— With digital technology, everything is outrageously easy. There is no more question of waiting for the fatal moment, the pure emotion. The approximate prevails, an error is easily adjusted on the screen. You touch up, tamper, get by. Sometimes the result is amazing. But it’s a different mentality, a different profession.
Today, what equipment do you use?
— As a student, I bought a second-hand Pentax. But someone stole it at the school! I was only able to buy a new camera much later, after becoming an artistic director: a Nikon. Since, I have always used this brand, by habit or by lack of interest. I kept all my old bodies, including my favourite F2 and F4. I bought the digital D2X, with which I was not very happy but still use for wildlife photography. I now mostly use the D3X, perfect for portraits. I had bought a D 800, but it was destroyed in Zimbabwe by an elephant charge. With these bodies I use, for portraits, a thirty-year-old lens [105 mm, aperture 1.8] still ultra reliable and that allows me to get a very shallow depth of field, and a 300 for the wildlife, more manageable than the 500 that I gave up on. I also use a wide angle of 20 mm, a 50, a micro of 60 and a 180. And that is good enough for me. I pay very little attention to equipment. We should know how to stop the technological race. The most important is elsewhere. I do not admire an image for its special effects but the soul which emanates from it. The emotion. My photos are not faked or reworked on a computer. And that does not deceive. Visitors of my exhibitions seem to have understood, judging from the many comments in the visitors’ books.
Do you have a preference among the many countries that you have visited?
— I loved them all because all have their own appeal and special points of interest. Including the more depressing ones. I have this ability [which might be a flaw] to be completely where I am when I am there. I do not ask myself if it is better or worse than somewhere else. So wherever I am, I feel good. I can be enthusiastic about most places and get the most out of them. However, if you would like some names I would say that I was fascinated by the Antarctic, that I enjoyed Botswana, that I was impressed by Japan, that I love the people in Mauritius and that I might live in Chile if I had to leave my country. France remains, despite its discomfiture, my favourite place to live. In fact there are two kinds of countries: those whose inhabitants want to leave and those where people dream of going.
Why have you always refused to specialize?
— Actually, I feel specialization is very, very boring [to be polite]. Some photographers do wildlife, or food, or portraits for decades. With all the respect I owe them, I see them as disabled. Me, after a while, I reach saturation point. Perhaps one could say that I’m unstable? But the world has so much potential that I find it unbearable to stop at just one possible! I need to get fresh air, open doors, roam aimlessly, see something new, discover new perspectives, vary my subjects and approach. Break the routines. Photography is only part of my life. I read, I write, I draw, I paint, I sculpt and also like to sail, to cook, to drink and laugh with my friends. And if I chose photography as a profession, it is because it combines mobility and contemplation, solitude and sociability, appearance and substance. And, I dare venture, the spiritual and the material. This profession is fantastic and unique. But, on reflection, as I say this, I’m not sure if it still exists as such!
* Interview updated in 2013