Whilst photography as an art form has taken the viewer far from Muybridge, it is rare that an entire story is encapsulated in one image. Mostly, the audience is offered a snapshot, hints and clues in a single moment in time. Cédric Roulliat has changed the rules. His artwork brings with it a dazzling depth of story telling that even beats Haiku. There is a looking glass and you might just have stepped through it as you watch a superhero, cradled in the branches of a tree, high above the ground, a fallen angel or masked marauder? There are more than enough clues to drive your imagination. Or a fiat and the characters that exist within. Intimate moments of models, men, lovers, mothers and an incredible force of womanhood. All gently presented in the most subtle of frames. But the images are bold and unapologetic.
If beauty does come from “unexpected places”, then Roulliat has been searching for us and he finds it in each corner of his imagination, whether in echoes of the famous Bluebell Girls, an incredible amount of sequins or in mouths that have been taped with secrets ready to pour, what is presented is new, exciting and challenging.
Cédric Roulliat is indeed a point on a plane that could be defined by two perpendicular distances of the point from two or three intersected axes that are at right angles to each other. Quite simply he thinks and he is. Both his images and his approach are both Cartesian. The precision of form and definition of an alternate reality becomes all too real as soon as your eyes touch the image.
His personality is equally beguiling and although you might be burning to ask questions such as who is the man in the tuxedo? And why the need to haunt me once I have finished viewing? but it’s much more interesting to discover a little of the drive behind the supreme imagination and craftsman of this body of work. Cédric Roulliat’s interview with The Pandorian did shed a little light on the inner workings, of the mischief of the man behind the lens.
PP. Where are you from Cédric?
CR. I grew up just outside of Lyon (France), in an average suburb whose only vaguely distinctive feature is that one of the French resistance’s leaders was murdered by the Gestapo there. Other than this, I cannot remember much of note ever happening there in real life. Or I must have been oblivious to it – the imaginary world already seemed much more lively. My main concern in school was not so much fitting in but rather blending in to the point of semi-invisibility, and escape through books and stories. School was a weird, now blurred, mix of fun, awe, unlikely friendships, and cruelty.
PP. Do you think that your childhood played an important role in what you do now?
CR. Looking back it seems obvious now that whatever energy was not poured into socialising or competing with other boys went directly into building characters and stories in my mind, as well as on paper, because I spent most of my time drawing. I used to have regret about having given up on real life at such an early age but now realise that this is who I am and there is only so much you can do to try and turn yourself into another person before driving yourself mad… at the moment I keep having dreams that take me back to the house where I lived as a kid and this partly affects my current drive of inspiration. In that house I had moments of pure joy as well as nightly terrors. Most of them mind-generated. I have now come to terms with drawing both elation and despair from the mental realm.
PP. Was it your conscious decision to become a photographer?
CR. Between 20 and 30 I gradually switched from telling stories through bande dessinée (comic books), to staging similar stories using the camera. It sort of happened naturally, I just drew less and less and kept getting a bigger kick out of photography, which turned out to be a much more dynamic medium than comics, in its production at least. The one element of chance, though, might have been getting hold of my grand-father’s Canon AE-1 along with an enlarger and a whole lot of photo paper dating back to the sixties, found by accident in the attic, back in 91. That really got me rolling and I started to pester a friend of mine on a regular basis so that she would put on my mother’s clothes and sit on a bidet while I took pictures. I guess all that has ever mattered has been telling stories and photography just happens to be the ideal medium for me.
PP. Your work both photographic and video features some extraordinary characters. Where do they come from?
CR. I suppose I always aim at recapturing the essence of what moved me to begin with, and I have an endless fascination for strong, unhinged female characters, and their interaction with male objects of desire. My shrink would do a better job than me explaining why it always has to come down to a woman deciding to do away with one of her supposed lovers. It has become a joke on the shoots that the male characters will end up dead at some point, but I have to admit that this is the one basic story I need to tell time and time again. Apart from this, the sources of inspiration are various – comics, commercials, fairy tales, Hollywood, other photographers. Also: Models/actors/actresses, what they bring on the set, both in terms of personality and inventiveness, are obviously essential. Some were friends that turned into models, others models that turned into friends. On a photographic shoot, the basic narrative thread will stem organically from the setting. I hardly ever do studio work, I use existing locations – flats, stores, villas, swimming pools, countryside havens, forests. They give the undertone. As for video, I have done less work lately because I find it harder to bring magic out of the medium. However, after having seen Anthony Goicolea’s unsettling, poetic video work, I am now convinced it can be done.
PP. Also your attention to details is exquisite, costumes, make up, setting… How hard it is to get ready for a shoot?
CR. The difficulty level varies, and some of the most striking pictures have at times been the most effortless ones to set up. However I normally start with finding the right location (usually through word-of-mouth), rounding up a small team of benevolent, unpaid models and assorted believers, setting up a date a few weeks in advance and then getting the free association ball rolling, i.e. taking notes, jotting down dreams, sketching compositions. I have had the great fortune of crossing the path of talented stage director Camille Germser who has become a close friend and collaborator, and with his background in musicals he has been instrumental in helping me find costumes, putting me into contact with his amazing rooster of actresses, and lending a much-needed hand on some of the most arduous shoots. Unsurprisingly it all comes down to team work, but also crucial is setting up a relaxed, open atmosphere that allows for a measure of improvisation. As a rule my favourite pictures from a shoot are the unplanned ones, the ones involving an unexpected light scheme, or a prop found on the spot – beauty does come from the most unexpected places. It might sound like I know what I’m doing but most of the times I just rely on chance and the faith that some kind of emotion will eventually come out of the narrative and graphic context that has been set up. If I wrap up a shoot without having been moved or elated in any way, then there was little point to it.
PP. Am I wrong in pointing out that there is a hint of darkness but also irony in your work?
CR. You are correct. Humor is a defense mechanism. It has its place in the shadows. And I feel more comfortable dressing up my demons in a cloth of irony.
PP. Do you remember your dreams?
CR. I probably remember about 15%, and of these only 10% seem to be a tad more significant than mashed-up random associations of people or topics you came across the day before. However, the remaining 1.5 %, in their grippingly vivid way, can affect you in ways that reality cannot. The one thing I cherish about dreams is their utter lack of logic mingled with a total acceptation on the dreamer’s part that what’s happening is perfectly natural. It’s this feeling which is so appealing and which would be a feat to convey in a photograph. Lately however I have been stuck in dreams in which I fully knew I was dreaming. In one of these, remembering the rules from “Inception”, I tried to break out of the dream by jumping out of the window and kill myself, but even in the dream I relented and couldn’t do it. Figures.
PP. As if by magic one day you come across a powerful spirit who could grant you 3 wishes… What would those wishes be?
CR. Obviously like everyone else I’d ask for the first wish to be: “being granted an unlimited number of wishes”. Then I would probably turn myself crazy with the infinite choice and feel paralyzed by the possibilities. And do nothing for several decades (one of the wishes would be immortality so that would not be much of a problem). Eventually, apart from the routine wishes (health, financial independence, world peace and the public dismemberment of Jar-Jar Binks), I would ask to be taken to the very edges of the universe, just to check if they are any edges at all. Or just nothingness. I would also ask for the opportunity to organise a shoot on the moon with the Earth as a live backdrop and not a photoshopped one. Also, owning a Mogwai. Meeting Joan Crawford in her thirties. Seeing Ella Fitzgerald live at the LA Opera House. Check that : Having Ella Fitzgerald stay in my flat for a few days and hearing her sing when she takes her shower. Staging a shoot with Joan, Ella and a Mogwai. On the Moon. Please stop me.
PP. Do you believe in magic?
CR. While I am a fairly Cartesian person, I do believe in the astonishment that can potentially result from the random association of lights, people, sounds, physics. I am fascinated by unexplained phenomena and the likes, but even more fascinated by the myths and legends the human mind has built out of these. Imagination has the upper hand.
PP. By the way where does your fascination with Joan Crawford come from?
CR. It’s her face. The way it changes from decade to decade, from a pale, overexposed oval in silent film, to a more defined and sterner mask throughout her 30s and 40s, the golden age. Two scenes come to mind – the opening one from “Possessed”, in which she is seen wandering in the streets of Los Angeles, in a stupor and without make-up, at dawn; and the final one from “Humoresque”, in which, to her lover playing Wagner’s Liebestod, she walks along the ocean, intoxicated, until the waves swallow her (but not before granting her the most gorgeous close-ups ever).
PP. Are you frightened by aging?
CR. I am, though it has been rumoured to be pointless.
PP. What makes you happy?
CR. Not having to wonder why I’m unhappy when I shouldn’t. Realising how lucky I am to have been so well surrounded for so long, as well to have been able to project some of my visions on film or pixel. Finally: coffee, Rodgers and Hart, and cats.
PP. Men in tights or women in tutus?
CR. Tights are cool on men’s heads. Tutus give me a gag reflex. Given an unlimited choice, I would go for a SWAT team of angry housewives in red bikinis, armed only with Simone de Beauvoir’s “Le Deuxième Sexe”.
PP. Beauty or the beast?
CR. Beauty IS the beast.
Images: © Cédric Roulliat
Text: © Predrag Pajdic, 2011