INTERVIEW WITH MAXIME BALLESTROS
Celebrated French photographer Maxime Ballesteros is known for capturing the primal themes that haunt our daily existence. His lens sees a version of life that cannot see, or perhaps have become numb. Raw emotion, revealed through flesh, leather, stockings and heels. Pictures of death and decay, freedom and exploration.
For the French fashion magazine L'Officiel our consulting editor for Photography Art Books Nadine Barth talked with Ballesteros about his work.
Nadine Barth: People see you carrying your camera a lot. Do you feel you have to document what’s going on??
Maxime Ballesteros: I do carry a camera with me all the time. And take photos every day—or almost— which I guess is very banal in today’s Instagrammed world. But more than the need to document everything, it’s a need to be ready when I see something. I did start to take photos as a teenager after I realized that my brain had started erasing most of my memory and that I could not control that. It evolved in time into something different that excites me more than keeping memory—but the relief every time I press the shutter is still here.
NB: How close do you like to be to people?
MB: Even if it’s a rule in life in general, you get reminded of it all the time in photography: never judge a book by its cover. Everybody shows themselves a certain way, but it’s also your job to try to find out how thick this facade is if it’s not already transparent. I need a connection somewhere, even a tiny one, a very light breeze, something; otherwise it feels like bouncing against a wall. In the way I work, that can translate into objects as well—to still lives. I think I humanize some of them a lot.
Whether people or objects, I like to be very close to what I photograph—in a literal sense, physically, using prime lenses and usually wide angles. Even if it might not make much sense today anymore, I’ve always followed strict rules for myself in my work. Never use a zoom. If you have to get closer, use your body. Never reframe or crop an image. If it doesn’t work the way you took it originally, you just have to aim and anticipate better. And don’t take two frames of the same thing.
NB: What does reality mean to you?
MB: It’s a very hard question as it might be the very reason I’m doing photography. I think I’m still looking for what it means, and how to interpret it.
I shoot candid and staged images in the same way. When I shoot on the street for example, I’m going to frame a tiny part of the world, maybe I’m going to use a flash, which will transform and be an interpretation of the reality. But when I stage an image—in very undisguised ways—it’s also going to become alive, becoming part of my reality. The same way the world of the night—our dreams and nightmares—lives and shares part of our brain with the world that we experience with open eyes.
NB: You started to photograph in black and white while using your school’s dark room. What was important at that time?
MB: Back then at the very beginning, I only cared about spending time alone in the darkroom. I would shoot pretty much anything just to have images to develop. The smell of the chemistry, the privacy, the whole process was fascinating to me. That’s one place where I would always feel good. I did that for eight years and experimented quite a lot, both with the technique and with photography. But things really started to get fun in my last black and white years, when finally I bought a flash. It was very liberating—I became so much more free. It opened so many new horizons. I felt like I could shoot anything, freeze it. I didn’t have to carry a tripod everywhere I went and I didn’t have to change the speed and shutter of my camera all the time.
But one day probably nine years ago, after moving to Berlin, I bought a cheap camera online and it came with color film. I never thought about shooting color before, or maybe I was just scared of it but I used that film and things changed a lot from there. I had to relearn so much. It was really like learning to speak and write a new, much more complex, subtle, textural and rich language. I never went back to black and white.
NB: You are still working with analog. Why?
MB: Because of the dimension of trust it forces. Should it be on a commissioned shoot or in a personal situation, you nor the subject can see what’s happening, so you have to trust each other. I like that the subject is not confronted with an image of themselves. They can forget about themselves a little bit more, I think—open up—so we can really share something together. We see in each other movement, eyes, attitudes, what works or not. It becomes very sensitive. Sometimes almost like a dance. At times I would shoot something for a client for four or five days without anybody being able to see one image. I like that. So I don’t spend too much time on the same thing. I keep finding ideas without thinking too much about what has just been done. When the film is developed, when I discover the images, I can have a fresh glance at the whole story. It really forced me to know my tools very well, until they almost became a natural extension of my eye. But I feel like it also allows me much more freedom and pushes me to always go forward to the next frame and never stay stuck on one idea. I think I like constraints. Analog also forced me to be quite efficient in the sense that I won’t make too many frames of the same thing—usually no more than two. It’s maybe a bit like shooting an arrow and trying to hit what you are aiming for in your head, versus a machine gun, shooting away and being sure you’ll hit something.
But I’m sure some digital users have the willpower to not look at their screen and use their camera exactly like an analog one—but I think I couldn’t. I’d check the screen for sure . . .
NB: You moved to Berlin in 2007. What does the city mean to you?
MB: My work is very dissociated from Berlin in my mind, even if I do a lot of photographs there. I can’t see it geographically. The cities and countries I work in are very important, but not in that sense—in their diversity. I love what I found in Berlin, and I find it less and less. Not because of the city, but because my eyes got used to the landscape over the years. Traveling is essential in my process. I need to feed these eyes with different colors and cultures and senses of humor. I wouldn’t go anywhere if it wasn’t to take photos. It’s also the only way I can see anything.
When you walk around with a camera glued to your hand, every move you make leads you to the next frame. You go back, you stop, and you wait. It’s a very special way of experiencing the world. All your energy and attention is forced into one eye and one arm.
NB: Working mainly for fashion brands and magazines—do you feel comfortable in this scene?
MB: Not more or less than any other scene. Fashion is filled with fantastic, sensitive, warm, humble, and open-minded people, next to their complete opposite.
I think all scenes are like miniature worlds, with their own codes, hierarchy, convictions, and history with which you have to get slightly familiar. Even though I couldn’t always live there, it can be a very interesting place, especially for photography. Where you can be an observer, but at the same time an actor when shooting allows a sort of very direct dialogue.
NB: How would you describe your style?
MB: I never really believed in style in photography, but more in a way to approach and see the subjects one is interested in trying to capture. Giving a particular and sometimes unique flavor to a body of work? I use very simple tools, only three cameras that each have their own purpose and are used in a slightly different way: a fast one, a stable and clear one, and one with a very wide angle to get really close. I always frame and compose the shots in my head, camera hidden in my back, or hanging in my hand. Waiting for the right moment or turning the subject around until I find an angle that could work.
NB: Do you have any heroes in photography?
MB: William Klein—for his approach of the medium and the way he made it evolve. Helmut Newton—for his humor and naughty mind. Mary Ellen Mark—for her incredible commitment.
Also Antoine D’Agata, Martin Parr, Bruce Davidson, Daidō Moriyama, Anders Petersen, Guy Bourdin, Jeff Wall, Les Krims, even Sophie Calle or Duane Michal, etc. These are all photographers I looked up to when I started photography and they taught me so much through their books. I would stay at the library for hours and they were a big inspiration. I intentionally don’t look much at the newer generations of photographers, not for lack of interest, but to stay away from any kind of visual influences or boundaries that would limit my own work or blur my vision. I prefer to search in novels, movies, painting, paintings, on the street.
NB: The book is a collaboration with Sang Bleu London. Can you tell us how this happened?
MB: Maxime Büchi from Sang Bleu was probably the first person who encouraged me to do this book after showing my works in his London space a few years back. But more than encouraging me, he also told me that he would help. We’ve known each other for quite a while now—close to ten years—and I’ve always looked up to what he was doing and trusted him. I’m very happy that he’s involved in this project. He’s somebody I can speak openly with, share any kind of idea, and he does everything with a lot of heart.
NB: Is photography a medium for eternity?
MB:Eternity seems pretty long, but I sure hope that like writings, drawings, or music, it’s something that the following generations will be able to look to and discover the parts of the world from which they come.
© Nadine Barth