KARINE LAVAL: Poolscape
Interviewed by Marc Pitzke
Marc Pitzke: How did you get started in photography?
Karine Laval: I was already fascinated with photography as a child. My grandparents lived in a village near Paris that had the first Museum of Photography. It had this huge collection of old cameras. My grandparents would take me there. That was my first encounter with the photographic object.
MP: A kid in the proverbial candy story, except your candy was photography.
KL: The old cameras, the Daguerreotypes, these pictures of people from another time, they nourished my imagination. Those objects — that mysterious equipment and the process of how you get to a photograph from a simple box— all that was a magical thing to me. My grandfather had a very old camera, and he gave it to me when he saw my curiosity for photography. It was a Kodak Retina; I still have it. It was one of the first portable small cameras from the forties.
MP: When you first started out, what did you originally photograph?
KL: The first pictures I took with that camera were pictures of surveillance. I was snooping on my grandparents' neighbors. I was a big climber, so I would climb on the roof of their building when I was young. From there I would look over at the neighbors and take pictures.
MP: So, you were a spy?
KL: Yes. Then when I was about 15 or 16, I bought my first camera with my own money. It was a Minolta. I took it on trips. I was already traveling quite a bit because my dad was living in the Caribbean then.
MP: You grew up in France, but your family lived all over the place, right?
KL: Yes. My dad grew up in Africa, changing countries every two, three years. He was always kind of unstable, which is what led my mom to leave him. After they separated, he moved to the Caribbean, to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Maarten. Then he came back to Europe — to Germany. Eventually he returned to France, then went back to Africa. Now he's back in France.
MP: That's quite the world tour. Did that influence you and your work?
KL: Yes, totally. When we were children, we were often on the move. We took many trips with my parents. When I was six, they sent us to the Caribbe an on our own to stay with our grandparents. Even when I was very young, I was already traveling on my own.
MP: During that nomadic life, did photography help you find your bearings and make sense of your ever-changing surroundings?
KL: Yes. Photography is still a way to situate myself somehow and also to relate to the place where I am and the people around me. At the same time, it can create a barrier too. When you take pictures, you don't necessarily enjoy the full experience. The experience is mediated by the camera. But for me, it's more of a connector in a way. That's why I loved working with the Rolleiflex camera when I started with it. With a Rolleiflex, you don't really put the camera in front of your face. You look down. It was an amazing discovery: I could still relate and interact with the subject. I didn't have to hide my face and my gaze — my eyes behind a box. With the Rolleiflex, I can almost be even more present, focus my energy. Especially with the pools, it was a way to be even more present. I spent hours observing. It was a slow process.
MP: So why pools?
KL: That was kind of accidental. In 2002, I had just gotten my first Rolleiflex. I went to Barcelona on vacation, and I've always been into water. I need to be near water. So I was looking for a pool in Barcelona, and there is an outdoor pool in La Barceloneta near the beach. I went and started to observe the activity around the pool through my camera. I was laying down and was kind of vaguely looking and observing and thought, “this is an interesting angle to see all this repetition of gestures around the same set.” It reminded me of playing theatre when I was young.
MP: Would you say that for you, pools are reminiscent of stages?
KL: Yes, it's like a stage. I'm also very fond of contemporary dance. I saw similarities to that. Then I started to shoot people coming in and out of the frame. I didn’t really move the camera. I just let people come in and out, and I was waiting for interesting expressions or body juxtapositions with the urban landscape around it. The body became almost like a sculpture and a part of the landscape.
MP: How many photos were in that first set?
KL: It was only two rolls of twelve images. I don't shoot a lot. I prefer to wait.
MP: Also, that was before digital cameras.
KL: Yes, I love using analog photography. Especially when I travel a lot, I don't have access to a lab immediately. So when I bring the film to be developed, it's always a surprise. Sometimes I forget what I photographed, and that's what happened with those first pictures. And then, when I had them developed, there was also an accident. The film was slides but they developed it as negatives. They transposed the slides into negatives, and in that process, it completely shifted the angles and pushed the contrast even more. Many of these images were already photographed in middle of the day. I did everything you're told in photography school not to do – – shoot in the middle of the day when the sun is very strong, or shoot against the sun. I did all these things as a way to experiment and have fun.
MP: And that was then even enhanced by the "accident."
KL: The colors were almost supernatural. I thought it was amazing. They were actually reinforcing what I was trying to capture, the theatricality of the place. I had never seen pictures like that, with that color for that subject matter. Many photographers have photographed pools but always with a social documentary aspect, or as portraits of people, or of just the pool itself. So, I decided to do a whole series. I initially focused on public pools, which are a part of our everyday life during summer vacations in Europe. Public pools are a big thing there.
Click here to see the complete interview on Issue. 20, Motion.