Martine Franck Interview by John Berger, 2008.
JOHN BERGER : Martine, Why don’t we begin at the end? A story becomes a story when its end is known. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden became a story after the Expulsion, not really before. Cinderella has to lose her glass slipper.
Your book – which is haunting because the pages turn as if they made a single story (although in reality you were making many separate reportages) – your book ends with eight photographs taken on Tory Island, out in the Atlantic off the west coast of Donegal in Ireland.
The place is so bare it has no trees. Its extremity is to do with the fact that you can’t go any further on land and in this it’s like other places along the western coast of Europe – the Hebrides, Land’s End, Finistere in Brittany, Finisterre in Galicia. Literally, the end of the earth. Now I want to ask you about landscape. What are the first ones or the most striking ones you remember as a child? Or the most reassuring ones? Where would you like to be buried?
MARTINE FRANCK: John, I am in the Channel tunnel, precisely in a no man’s land; it’s like closing my eyes and letting images, words, come up to the surface.
You ask about landscapes. My earliest memories are of the desert: huge fierce cacti, erect rocks, sand, dried-up river beds – almost monochrome apart from the occasional tiny flower that surprises by the intensity of its colour. We had gone to live in Arizona for a few months on account of my brother’s asthma. I became acutely aware of this landscape clutching on to a runaway horse. If I had tallen off, it would have been on to rocks or prickly plants. I was lost; I didn’t know where I was going; I was prisoner to a bolted horse that wanted to get rid of its mount and go back to its stable. Curiously enough, I associate this terrifying episode with my first lie. The day-school I attended was on the edge of the desert, and every afternoon we would rest on a large wooden balcony overlooking the desert and a plump matron would hand us out a book for our siesta. I demanded a book in French; she looked most surprised and asked, ‘Can you read French?’ ‘Yes’, said I haughtily. A little later she caught me out gazing at the book upside down!
I have never really wanted to think about where I am going to be buried, but now you ask me, I think I want to be cremated and my ashes spread under a beautiful tree. I like the idea of being recycled into the earth – but not right away, please!
JB : Martine, The runaway horse and the first lie – as you call it. Aren’t both of them to do with a jump or a leap ahead? (Later you would read French, and often kids’ fibs are like that – little prophecies, no?) For some reason, the two stories together make me think of your photograph of the little girl in the Pushkin Museum, reading the title of a painting. Another runaway animal in the painting! And this goes further than an anecdotal coincidence, for many, many of your pictures are to do with anticipation or a leap ahead. The old woman in Ivry, joking with you about the picture you are about to take, is using the right tense. Future immediate. Can you see what I mean? Of course there are exceptions. But often there’s the ‘leap’ – either physical, like the kids on the wall in Donegal or the juggler in Paris, or else psychic, like the petits rats at the opera waiting to go on and dance, or like the Tulkus learning to becomewise.
Not all photos are like this. There’s your portrait of Paul Strand. I didn’t know you knew him. He was a great, tree of a man, wasn’t he? His pictures were of the historic present, don’t you think? Sometimes they were almost like dams to keep the water still. Your’s dart forward. Did you always want to be a photographer? Never an acrobat (of some kind)? I keep on coming back to the term anticipation. What children and actors play with continually.
MF: John, No. I never wanted to be an acrobat, but I did enjoy ski racing as an adolescent and, as a child, leaping into the water. My father, amongst other things, was a distinguished yachtsman and raced in two Olympic Games as captain in the 6-metre class. We would spend many a summer and Easter holiday sailing, but I have never conquered my fear of the sea or, should I say, respect for the ‘elements’ that are so unpredictable. The most recent picture I took for this book, the huge wavecrashing on the rocks at Tory, scared the wits out of me; I kept trying to get closer and yet was fearful of the unexpected wave or of slipping on the rocks and breaking a leg or being stranded where no one would have found me. I kept saying to myself,what a stupid way of dying!
My grandfather killed himself falling off the dike in Ostend while photographing my two cousins. This can happen so easily when looking through a lens; for a split second nothing else exists outside the frame, and to get the right frame one is constantly moving forwards, backwards, to the side. A movie-cameraman is often guided, held, when filming; a photographer rarely.This year I am the same age as when my grandfather died.
Photography came as a substitute. I was painfully shy and found talking to people difficult; a camera in hand gave me a function, a reason to be somewhere: a witness but not an actor. A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression. What I like so much about photography is precisely the moment that cannot be anticipated; one must be constantly on the alert, ready to acclaim the unexpected.
JB :Martine, We’re saying the same thing. One must be constantly on the alert, ready to acclaim the unexpected.’ And me with my future tense and anticipation. This is something very specific to you. Of many photographers it’s not necessarily true. For example, Luskacova, Weston, Salgado, Walker Evans. And Henri [Cartier-Bresson] is different again. His ‘decisive moment’ is chosen or seen, as if from the sky,where all time is laid out. But you are waiting for what is going to happen unpredictably. There’s something of Tom Sawyeror Huck in you! Look at the Carnival picture in Cologne! Look at the first twelve pictures in the book. Or look – because it’s not a question of kids being the subject – look at that marvellous picture of the old women in Cabourg. Look at all three of the women in it considering the baby – an expectancy which is close to devilry. The girl on Tory with the doll is a self-portrait! Admit it. (Have you ever taken a self-portrait? Fax me one, if you have.) Lili Brik is planning mischief. And the fabulous composition shows her already half-way there!
Does one get less shy with age? Shyness is a strange thing. It’s not quite the same as being timid. Because there’s an element of curiosity in shyness, no? It’s to do with daring. That’s the paradox. It’s the adventurous who are shy.
Perhaps fear is never conquered. But an antidote to fear (contrary to what people imagine) is speed. You sailing. You on your skis. Me on my motorbike. Maybe it’s an atavism of the nervous system. Fear meant running! What allows an image to suggest speed is pretty mysterious. For instance, for me, your very still picture of two gulls on a cliff face on Tory; and, equally, the following photograph of the nude couple on the beach. What speed! And with speed we’re again talking about anticipation and readiness.
How did the theme of the monks come about? Was it like any other project for you, or was it special?
MF: John, Yet another coincidence: you ask me about the little monks and today I shall be photographing the demonstration to commemorate the Tibetan uprising against the ‘Chinese (10 March”1959). I remember, years ago, you mentioned Susan Meiselas as being a Shakespearian messenger for the resistance in Latin America and now for the Kurds. I would like to think of myself as adding a grain of sand in favour of the Tibetan cause. How can you show the Tibetans’ plight without referring to Buddhism – their whole culture is linked, and these young lamas I have been photographing over the past few years will one day become the spiritual leaders of the Tibetans (hopefully, not only those in exile). Like our Middle Ages, it is in the monasteries that their culture is preserved and transmitted. Their life is some what similar to an English boarding school, without the competitive emphasis on sports; it is Spartan, disciplined, they wear a ‘uniform’ and are educated to become an elite, but with a lot more affection bestowed upon them than in England. Monks can be very motherly. My mother gave me Mark Twain to read as a child, also Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Hitchcock are still a passion of mine, and that brings us back to the mystery of life, the unexpected side of reality that is constantly taking us by surprise, off our guard. I think, basically, that is why I never get bored photographing.
You have been asking all the questions. MayI ask one? Are you happy?
JB : Martine, Am I happy? I don’t really believe that happiness is a state, Unhappiness can be, but happiness is, by its nature, a moment. The moment may last a few seconds, a minute, an hour, a day and a night, but I don’t think it can ever last as such for as long as a week. Unhappiness is often like a long novel. Happiness is far more like a photo! And it’s closely connected with what you say: the sense of marvelling.
I think the second half of my life has been happier than the first – there have been more such moments. Maybe when they were rarer, they were more intense. (Memoryplays as manytricks as photography.) I’m not sure.
I have the impression that, when I was young, the moments of happiness were pushed close to the point of pain, where as now they are like a place of shelter.
Is this old age, or the times we live in? Happiness changes its character, too, in the Dark Ages. In our Dark Age, I’m happy to be able, at certain moments, to marvel. Like at your tree in Djibouti!
I want to quote (another way of answering your question) some lines from the Argentinian poet – ah! you should make a portrait of him! He lives in Mexico – Juan Gelman.
The Deluded hope fails us often grief, never. that’s why some think that known grief is better than unknown grief, they believe that hope is illusion. They are deluded by grief.
It’s snowing this afternoon. I see you with snow on your shoulders. Where are you?
MF: John, I was in Barcelona participating in an exhibition organized by ‘les petits freres des Pauvres’ [The Little Brothers of the Poor]. I did a book many years ago on their relationship to old people; some of my photos were on show and there was also a group exhibition on the theme of ‘poverty and exclusion’. The setting was surreal- a magnificent medieval palace next to the Cathedral with Gothic paintings of saints and martyrs on the walls, sculptures of Mater Dolorosas and, mingled in between, photographs of the ‘martyrs’ of today: the poor, the excluded, the junkies, the Aids victims. I wonder if the public will see the irony of it all.
Barcelona is a photographer’s paradise; the streets are so lively and you can get lost in the old city, which hasn’t been restored or spoilt by the tourists. The Catalan museum of Romanesque frescoes is mind-boggling. These painters were such great portraitists, earlier than Giotto, and we don’t even know their names.
JB:Last night, while thinking about what makes a picture by you visibly yours, I had a little vision.
Does this drawing make any sense to you? Do you see what it refers to?
MF:John, Your drawing makes me think of someone tripping gently along the path – tip-toeing so as not to be seen or heard. In fact, I am always fearful of stubbing my toes, even in summer. I rarely walk barefoot or wear sandals, especially when photographing. ‘Sensible shoes’ are what allows a photographer to be agile.
JB:Martine, The drawing was not meant to show someone gently tripping along a path, though this is surely what it looks like – bad drawing! It was meant to show a foot crossing a line – a broken line, maybe – crossing a kind of frontier. In picture after picture by you I have this sense of a frontier – the frontier of a moment – as in the photo of the Tulku with the pigeon on the monk’s head; a frontier of experience, as in the portrait of Chagall; a frontier of comprehension, as in the study of Mnouchkine imagining a midsummer night’s dream; the frontier of a continent, as in several of the pictures of Donegal. Always this stepping over,or this about-to-be-stepping over, a line of demarcation….
On the other side it’s not the same. Yes, I think it’s with that sentence that I would sum up the intimation I have before this collection of your work.
MF: John, Your words evoke so many-images to me, but I am not sure that they are the same for us both. You say: ‘On the other side it’s not the same: On the other side of what? The camera?
The camera is in itself a frontier, a barrier of sorts that one is constantly breaking down so as to get closer to the subject. In doing so, you step over limits; there is a sense of daring, of going beyond, of being rude, of wanting to be invisible.
To cross on to the other side, you can only get there by momentarily forgetting yourself, by being receptive to others; hence, as a photographer, I am in two different worlds at once. That is all I can really say about what I feel when photographing – the rest remains in the domain of the unconscious.
‘Transgression is the word I have been searching for all along.
JB : Yes,transgression.
Its first meaning, of passing a legal limit, is important. There’s a subversive tendency in most of the photography you and I admire. (Although, God knows, photographs are also used a million times a week across the world today to pander to the new world order, which at the moment is that of the Free Market and Neo-liberalism.)
There is also the other, geological, meaning of the word transgression. This refers to the way one geological stratum uncomfortably overlaps another – particularly when the movement of the sea is involved. So we are back at Land’s End, at Finistere, at a demarcation line which offers perches from which one can dive into the unknown!
*John Peter Berger (born 5 November 1926) is an English art critic, novelist, painter, poet and author. His novel G. won the 1972 Booker Prize, and his essay on art criticism Ways of Seeing, written as an accompaniment to a BBC series, is often used as a university text.