While surfing the web for artist websites one day, I stumbled upon the site of French artist Oliver Valsecchi www.oliviervalsecchi.com. I was stunned. His work is ethereal, exquisite and very human. I knew that I had to chat with him. I contacted him and what you see below is the result. It was great fun.
MICHAEL: Bonjour Olivier, I'm glad to be chatting with you. Your work is exquisite. I must ask you ... where did the idea for your "Dust" series come from? It's fantastic man.
OLIVIER: Thank you. The funny thing with inspiration is that you never know where it comes from; the exact starting point is very hard to identify. But I think in my case, ideas are always a mix of what I see, feel, live and what I fantasize. I know that my dreams can do the work of merging reality and fiction together and in the morning, I wake up with some images in my mind that I want to draw or note to remember them and work to turn them into photos. That is not so easy because most photographers start with reality and add poetry or vision in it. I do it the other way around. I start with fiction and try to make it real.
MICHAEL: Wow, that's interesting. I guess that's what we all call, "Art."
OLIVIER: For the Dust series, I wanted to personify Chaos. In Greek mythology, Chaos was a combination of liquid and fog, order and disorder, light and darkness that were melting together and when this mass exploded, it gave birth to planet Earth. Liquid became oceans, fog became sky, light became sun and so on. Everything got to its right place. And that Chaos story was so close to what I felt two years ago, when I worked on the Dust series, that my whole world had to collapse and get to another level. So I tried to create some bodies that were exploding from the dark and leaving the past behind.
MICHAEL: I don't want to get too personal, but what happened with you two years ago that led to the creation of this spectacular work?
OLIVIER: I met photography as a new language and that language probably fits me more than words. When you think about it, it's kind of a revolution, because this is a different way of understanding things and expressing them. I have a friend whom I talk to only with photos. We sometimes have very funny and weird conversations. Photography came into my life as a new world and a new way of life. I eat photography, sleep photography, work photography, this is a very passionate love story I'm living with and it sometimes can be very frightening and paralyzing when I have the feeling that photography is like a monster devouring me. I'm just obsessed with it.
MICHAEL: Just in the past ten years, photography has really been embraced by the art world as a true art. I see much more of it now at the big art fairs. Yet at the same time, there's a big difference between mere snapshots and your work. No?
OLIVIER: Well, painting is the true Art and will always be because it has no boundaries and it's one of a kind. I think or I hope, I belong to those few photographers who consider photography as painting without a brush. And that path has nothing to do with taking random pictures and editing them at the end. It's about (re)creating a vision and work until you get it on the film. Art is mainly about vision and emotion.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Where did you grow up? Did you grow up amid artistic settings?
OLIVIER: My blood parents were very fond of music and dancing. I had a musical education and I think you can see it in my photos. Music almost raised me. My parents could've been artists themselves if they hadn't been devoted to their children. Now that we've grown up, my sister and I, my mum paints more and more. My dad used to carve wooden statuettes that look like Moai of Easter Island. I love these statuettes. They are the only thing I want my dad to bequeath to me. I don't have any of my parents' skills, but maybe I want to combine them in my photos. And you know when I think about it, my dad used to take photographs as well. I found some old Polaroids (that I want to keep as well) and it surprised me how poetic his photos were. He really had a sense of centering and got real emotions from the people and situations and landscapes he had in front of him. He actually bought his first camera on the day I was born because I was so small I was in an incubator. So my dad used to take pictures of me and show them to my mum so she could see what I looked like. As for my spiritual parents Nina Hagen and David Lynch, well she's one of the most famous German singers and he is one of the most talented film directors so you may have heard about them.
MICHAEL: Yes, I've heard of them. Great spiritual parents. Your work is very poetic and cinematic. It's like each photograph tells a story. How important is story-telling to you? Is it okay if a photograph is meaningless with no story?
OLIVIER: I don't know how to answer your question because what makes sense to me doesn't necessarily make sense to you and vice-versa. It's okay if a photograph doesn't mean anything; it's called fashion. And I like fashion. It's all about aesthetics and light and beauty and it's technically interesting, and it's pleasing for the eyes. Okay, yes the story is some kind of ingredient. But the most important thing is how you tell it. It's all about atmosphere and light-writing. The story is usually just an excuse to write, I like it when it's quiet. Better have not much to say and say it right than a lot to tell and tell it wrong. But you know you're right, I like story-telling and I am actually working on a photographic tale based on an original story of my own, although one may not understand it because I'm cutting out some parts of it, and you know it's okay if one doesn't get the story right. What's the point to be understood anyway?
MICHAEL: You clearly like using models and physically attractive people in your work or at least what I've seen of it. Could you achieve the same effects in your work if you got some average looking or dare I say, "ugly" people off the street and photographed them?
OLIVIER: You know, the people I "use" in my photos are average looking people off the street. They are not professional models, and no offense to them, but I don't think they could be because they don't belong to fashion criterion. What I mean is that they are extremely interesting and charismatic, they have gorgeous bodies, but you wouldn't see them on a Vogue cover. To be perfectly honest, yes I do need to fall in love with the people I work with, because it gives courage and enthusiasm to work longer and harder, I sometimes shoot 4-5 hours long in a row to get the image I want, so you need a good motivation. Plus the pictures I do are kind of a mirror of my feelings, I mean, they are self-portraits, so I need to see myself a little bit in others' bodies. I tried to make some pictures with "average" people for the Dust series, and by "average" I mean, really ordinary people, but the results were not so powerful and I didn't enjoy the shootings. I'd say it all depends on the project you want to achieve, whether aesthetics is important or not. I've been actually working on a social series for two years now and the main character is a very, very disabled man whose face is extremely bizarre.
MICHAEL: Interesting that you consider some of these portraits "self portraits." I know what you mean. Have you ever done actual self portraits? As you know, many artists do this. It must be difficult.
OLIVIER: "The A.Phase" (see www.oliviervalsecchi.com) is a self portrait series. The little naked character is me. Self portrait is actually the easiest thing, because all you need is yourself. You can work anytime you want and you know exactly how to behave in front of the camera to get what you want. I did self portraits for years and then I got tired of myself as a photographic prop, but I saw myself through. I want to meet new people and share something with them. Otherwise I think I might get bored only working with myself. I'm not saying I won't do self portraits anymore, but again, it all depends on the project you have in mind. And right now my projects don't include myself as the model.
MICHAEL: As an artist and photographer, your eyes and sense of visuality are crucial, but are your other senses important? For example, how important is hearing for art photography? Obviously, people can't hear sounds taking place during a photo shoot.
OLIVIER: My love and thirst for music aside, I'm trying to figure out how I could work if I were deaf. Well, I think it wouldn't make any difference. The only "sound" that influences my work is silence. It would actually be very boring to record one of my photo shoots and only listen to it, because I work with silence all around. I need the models and myself to be very focused on what we do. I am easily amused by anything, so I need full concentration, no music, no people around. I want the set to be quite oppressive and intimate and I like it when the model feels tense. But as a matter of fact, photography is music for the eyes and a series does look like a song. You should almost see a chorus in there, at least a rhythm, a beat. This may come from this musical education I told you about.
MICHAEL: I was just looking at your Dust pieces again and they make me think of God creating man out of sand or dust from the earth. You know, man emerging from the dust. You may not want to reveal this, but how did you create the "dust" in those photos? It looks like it might be talcum powder or something like that. Is it photo-shopped?
OLIVIER: You can see this series as God creating man. I see it as me reinventing myself. It's not photo-shopped at all and I'm very proud of it. I used ashes, actually. Ashes have way more meaning than talcum powder, plus it is not the same color. Ashes look like dust; very gray. It is indeed a symbol of reincarnation. Death and birth.
MICHAEL: Very cool. You live in the South of France (Nice?). When you say you live in the South of France to an American, they'll most likely think about a glamorous lifestyle. Are you living a glamorous life? I do see glamour in your work.
OLIVIER: Ha, Ha! ... This is fun. Keep it off the record. South of France is often related to many glamorous places such as Dordogne castles, Bordeaux wine, Saint-Tropez, Cannes Film Festival, and Arles, which is the international capital of photography. I live halfway between all those cities, in Toulouse, that you can pronounce, "To lose." So much for glamour! Joking aside, this could become the real place to be in a few years because Hollywood-based studio wants to build the biggest European film studio here. But you know, glamour is shallow and I hope I'm not. I just live a normal life. I need a normal life. That's the only thing that connects me to reality.
MICHAEL: Interesting. I just thought of another word to describe what I've seen of your other work. It's ethereal. It seems to have a dreamy, almost magical quality. I guess good photographers have to be dreamers?
OLIVIER: Ethereal is good. Well, I'm inspired by my dreams all the time and I'm not afraid to say my main world is fiction. That's where the most unexpected things happen, while sleeping, because indeed it's unlimited, no boundaries. But you know ... everyone is a dreamer. Some just live with it, while some explore it.
MICHAEL: Do you work full-time as a photographer? What do you do outside of photography? What would you be doing if you weren't a photographer?
OLIVIER: Yes, I do work full-time as a professional photographer and I'm afraid I'm not spending much time doing something else. Sometimes when I travel, I enjoy writing short stories. What would I be doing if I weren't a photographer? I don't know. Maybe a gallerist.
MICHAEL: Long after you die and people see your work, what do you want them to think about it and you?
OLIVIER: This is a terrible question. And this is too soon to answer because I still have some very exciting ideas to work on and some 20 years forward to make photos, or at least I hope so. But maybe that I was demanding, respectful towards photography, and that I did it my way.
MICHAEL: Thanks Olivier. This was very cool.
Olivier doesn't have very much posted on his website www.oliviervalsecchi.com, but do yourself a favor and check out what he does have. You won't be disappointed.