We had the opportunity to talk with French photographer Ambroise Tézenas who uses a large format camera for his documentary practice. He discovered this technique when he was studying at the Vevey School of Art and he did not stop using it. For the photographer, "The large-format camera dictates a distance, a slowness, a ceremonial". It allows him to explore various subjects and problems. For his series Paris, he used the specificity of large format photography to empty the streets of the Capital of its inhabitants; making a reference to the age of photography pioneers when it was difficult to fix the movements of the world. Ambroise Tézenas did several documentary projects across the globe, documentary landscapes, and portraits interweave in his work. He's the author of multiple series like I was here, Dark Tourism in which he explores this phenomenon or The Indian 66, a reflection on India's mutations. We asked Ambroise Tézenas a few questions about his documentary photography practice and his use of a 4x5 camera, an impressive camera that allows him to pass off as an artist or a photographer with authorizations when he's on the field.
Hello Ambroise, we are pleased to welcome you to the Lomography Magazine. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I’ve always been a photographer. I’m (a bit) monomaniac like my wife will tell you. I share my time between my family and my work, between commissioned and personal works. I am the author of multiple monographs, an artist represented by a gallery, and a photographer represented by an agent. My artistic work is influenced by my commissioned work and vice versa. I’ve been making a living out of photography for 25 years. It has been a while since I’ve accepted that it’s an inexhaustible frustration source while it’s quite a nice way to earn a living. I have the rare privilege to have a job I like.
How long have you been photographing with a Large Format Camera? Why did you choose this technique?
I discovered large-format shooting when I was at the Vevey School of Art in 1991. In 1995, my diploma project was a series of seascapes. During the winter, I rode alone along the Atlantic coast for 3 weeks. I processed my Pola 55 with sodium sulfite in the evenings in my hotel rooms. It’s strong memories, in a way, it founded my nowadays practice. Photography kept is cathartic power since that time.
What do you like most about the shooting experience with a large-format camera? How is it different from shooting with 35mm or Medium Format?
Each format imposes a particular way to work. To photograph is to use a tool. A photographer, practices his scales, tries different formats and at one point, feels closer to one or another. I shot a lot in 35 mm, in 6x7. The 4x5 camera imposes a slowness, a certain way to look. Maybe more cerebral, more instinctive. And the large format camera imposes a distance, the distance is as fundamental as light in photography.
Your work is mostly a photo documentary. What does large format photography offer you?
I did not become a photographer to be an artist but to explore the subject I’m interested in and to share my inquiries. In my work, the aesthetic dimension goes together with the desire to construct a story. When I was 20 years old, I wanted to be a photo reporter, my first photo stories were about social topics and current topics. Then the progressive decline of the great photo reportage – too expensive for the journals even though they needed more and more images – incited me to adopt a more personal and rigorous way to work.
For the photographic mission "France(s) Territoire Liquide" (France's Liquid Territory), you created the series "Paris". Could you tell us more about these images and why it was primordial to shoot with a large-format camera?
This mission aimed to explore the problems of the territory and of photography in the form of a laboratory with diverse visual approaches. I wanted to make reference to photography pioneers with a large-format camera and the use of filters that helped me to considerably extend the exposure time. It’s a simple technical process but it’s not anecdotal because it’s very linked to the history of the photographic process itself. I think that for a photographer of my generation (Editor's Note: of the analogue), the question of the digital and its manipulation is in the end the eternal question of the photographic act and its final representation.
With the photographer Frédéric Delangle and the Centre de Premier Accueil Paris-Nord handled by the Emmaus Association (hospitality for migrants center in Paris), you recently created the project "Sneakers Like Jay-Z’’. Could you tell us a bit more about this work? Is the relationship with the subject different when you shoot portraits with a large format camera instead of an analogue or digital camera?
The idea of this project was to take portraits of refugees. The way to ask them to pose was fundamental because it was not exactly a priority to them. We needed to explain the meaning of all this.
The large-format camera dictates a distance, a slowness, a ceremonial. To give directions to the model, to look on the ground glass under the dark cloth, to do the light measurement, to focus, then to change the film. It's not intrusive, not aggressive for the model. He's spectator and actor of the ceremonial. Each time we only used only 2 or 3 sheet films after setting up the frame. If we used a digital camera, the relationship with them would have been different.
Large format photography requires more patience and rigor. What are the challenges in shooting with a Large-Format camera?
Taking pictures with a large format camera doesn’t make better photos. Be careful with this sort of snobbery that pretends sometimes the contrary. In schools, students claim analogue works as if they unearth old processes. For sure, I’m pleased to see the popularity of film for manufacturers and photo labs, they much need it, but I distrust these coteries. I like large format photography and analogue photography but I refuse to oppose the two. Photography is a print. Yes large format photography requires more patience and rigour, we are quite fare away from Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment". There's the weight to carry, the possibility to take just a few images a day and there are the constraints of the tripod. Large format photography also has his own time, the time for shooting, the time for travelling, the time for the lab. Images that we take but that we only discover later.
Would you have a fun fact linked to your large format photography practise to share with us?
The large format camera, while being more visible, often makes the photographer more discrete. When I started my project in China in 2000 without prior authorisation, I knew that foreign photographers were often spotted. The first day, to get a better idea, I set up on Tienanmen, quickly a crowd gathered around the black cloth. When the police officers arrived to put an end to all this while letting me go, I understood that I will be able to work freely. Thereafter, I often experienced this. A photographer carrying a large format camera on his shoulder is, either an artist or a photographer with authorisations, but in any case we leave him alone.
What advice would you give photographers who would want to try the Large-Format for the first time?
Make sure to have a perfectly stable tripod and just one lens, 120 or 150.
Some news or projects that you would like to share with us?
For the next 12 months, I'm going to finish two commissioned works that I really care about. First, a project I've been working on for 3 years about the Hôtel de la Marine in Paris for the National Monuments Center. And the continuation of the photographic observatory of the Seine valley landscape, in tandem with photographer Jérémie Léon.
We'd like to thank Ambroise Tézenas for taking the time to answer our questions !