New Video online: Lucien Clergue - Interview
First Academician Photographer
Lucien Clergue is the grand seigneur of the French photographic world. Elegant, white haired, sporting a trimmed white beard and rimless glasses, he belongs to the crème de la crème of the cultural establishment there. But this was not always so. As a young photographer wanting to follow his own star he bravely refused offers to work for Paris newspapers and even for Vogue in New York. Later he had to crop the heads off his photographs of nudes to avoid going to prison in the draconian censorship of the 1950’s.
Born 1934 in Arles in the south of France, Julien did photography because there was not enough money for him to go to the to Paris School of Music to continue the music studies that he had begun. Beginning with a Roleiflex he took good pictures, but to make ends meet he worked as well in a factory until he was 27.
Gradually he became well known, meeting and being helped by Picasso at the age of 19. Picasso introduced him to Jean Cocteau, who also helped by writing articles about Clergues’s photographs. Influential friends indeed!
Inspired by the great American photographer Edward Weston, Lucien began taking photographs of nudes, and of sand and seascapes. But differently, with a typically Mediterranean eye, making photographs in magical places, like Point Lobos in Carmel, California.
Clergue says that his work has had three main components: death, life, and the four elements. At first he photographed cemeteries of dead animals!
Nudes, as symbols of life, came after the death pictures. This was because because his friends were so shaken by the images of death that they stopped visiting him. “So”, he summarises with a wink, “I took pictures of nudes to keep my friends”.
H was 22 when he started making photographs of nudes in the sea. They were an immediate success. He illustrated some of Paul Eluard’s poems with them, but the censors were not amused: It was forbidden to show a woman’s sex if her head was also in the picture. So he cut off the heads to avoid going to prison!
Bulls and bullfights are also constant themes in Clergue’s photography. In fact he claims that since he was 22 there hasn’t been a year when he didn’t photograph a nude and a bullfight. The bull fighting images are, as he says, intimate. But this could also be a consequence of being shortsighted: He had to get close to take the pictures!
In a photography festival that he and others initiated (“Rencontres de la Photographie”) he included an international competition for the best book of photographs of the year. In this way he was able to collect thousands of books that now grace the library of the School of Photography in Arles. Not a bad idea…
Julien Clergue is a member of the Académie de Beaux-Arts de L’Institut de France. And he cannot hide his pride in being the first of two members to be elected to Section VIII – Photographie. The other being Yan Arthus-Bertrand.
The academy contributes some of its members to help run the Casa Velasquez, an art school in Madrid which now has photography students. Looking after these is now one of Clergue’s main activities and, he says, a great responsibility.
A central and revealing statement on his work emerges when asked about travelling. “It is not important to me. I photograph what is offered and try to bring my own world and background into it. My world is in me - I carry it around!”
See also the FotoTV Video of Lucien Clergue making nude photographs on the beach.
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