Interview with Laurent Chehere: intention of testimony

Carlos Fonts: What was it like growing up in Paris and taking photographs?  

Laurent Chehere: My parents were smart when they offered me a camera when I was young. At sixteen I bought my first camera, a Nikon FM2. I began to photograph the old Paris, which disappears in black and white. I was influenced by Robert Doisneau and Eugène Atget at this time.


CF: When did you start shooting professionally?


LC: I've been a professional since 2006.


CF: What attracted you to the medium?


LC: It's a way to get out what I have in my head, and with Photoshop, there is no limit.


CF: What prompted you to set aside working in advertising and travel the world?


LC: I don't like being confined "between four walls" in an office. When the opportunity came to leave the ad agency, I took it. I have bought a "round-the-world ticket” and I've gone to Australia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, etc.


CF: How happy are you about the decision?


LC: It was my dream and a feeling of liberty.

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CF: Are you back working in the advertising industry?


LC: Yes, as a photographer, graphic artist, and conceptual consultant. This year I shot the LVMH campaign for "The Special Days,” and it was very interesting because they opened the doors of historical places to my camera, such as the workshop of Dior, Vuitton, Chaumet in Place Vendôme, and Hennessy’s Cellars.


CF: How has your experience doing commercial work influenced your personal work?


LC: An advertising agency is a fantastic school. At 20, I started to work in a big advertising agency (DDB Paris) and I learned everything I know about photography, graphic design, typography, art direction, directing, story boarding, copy writing, illustrating, etc. The most important thing that I learned was how to tell a story.


CF: What inspired the Flying Houses project?


LC: These flying houses are a combination of my "explorations" of poor neighborhoods in Paris and were inspired by films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s "Howl's Moving Castle" and Albert Lamorisse’s "The Red Balloon.” Other influences were Wim Wenders, Federico Fellini, Marcel Carné, and Bruce Davidson.

I tried to highlight buildings to show their hidden beauty. I wanted to eliminate their anonymity in the street to help them tell their stories, real or not, funny or sad.

I was interested by gypsies in a caravan, African immigrants, a dwarf clown trying to light a cigarette on the roof of a sad circus, an old erotic movie theater in Pigalle, a small neighborhood cafe, a decrepit hotel, as well as a pretty little house without a story in a boring suburb.  In the gallery, the images are exhibited in large format so they make sense, leaving the curious observer to discover details (graffiti, registration, an anachronism, a character, a street name, a window, a reference to a movie, a musician...). It allows for a double reading; a story from far and another close. "The Great Illusion," viewed from far away, is a charming Noah's Ark. Viewed closer, it's a metaphor for the odyssey of African immigrants. I mixed the images that I shot in Mali with an intention of testimony. "Harmony": it's a perfect little house, too perfect, located in a boring suburb. It consists of an ideal form as if it were drawn by a kid. In the end, everybody makes their own story with the Flying Houses.


CF: Was it your plan to photograph homes with the intention of manipulating the image to appear suspended in mid air? When photographing these structures, how much of it involved location research and plotting out – or did you take more of an on-the-go approach?


LC: For the majority of the buildings I first made a drawing. After that, in the same light, I photographed everything I needed: roof, satellite dish, cables, graffiti, windows, people, snow, chimney, sky, clouds, etc. I photographed dozens of buildings, then reworked everything with Photoshop to build one. It's a long process of photomontage.


CF: What interests you about applying narratives to images?


LC: I like to tell stories. Some people will see freedom, escape, return, end, beginning, fun, drama, poverty, hope, fantasy, romanticism. You have a lot of combinations, and answers.


CF: You apply themes to many of the images. How do you decide which direction to take, whether it be something political or a reference to cinema?


The district of Ménilmontant and Belleville has an important political history. More or less it's present. This part of Paris has seen the last barricades and last massacres of "La Commune" in 1871. (It was a civil war with a lot of destruction. It's the last time where Paris has been injured like this. In WW1 and WWII the capital was not the front line.) The "Red Balloon" for example" is a tribute to the film by Albert Lamorisse and also to the history of Ménilmontant. I include a lot of details, such as political graffiti representing "Big Brother," the dictator of the film "1984" based on the book by George Orwell, a mosaic of "Space Invaders" and above, the name of the street that was stolen, a tiny inscription: "Vive la Commune!" The "Circus" is inspired from a circus north of Paris close to the highway. Intoxicated by pollution, a dwarf dressed as a clown, is trying to light a cigarette on the snowy roof. It's a little tribute to Fellini's movie "La Strada," (I picked the name Zampano) and the angel in the film "The Wings of Desire" by Wim Wenders. The clown is a tribute to the photographer Bruce Davidson.


CF: You believe, in the end, people make up their own stories about the flying houses. How do feel your work allows for the viewer to freely interpret?


LC: I think people are intelligent. I give them the keys necessary to understand and they do the rest.

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CF: What is your process in Photoshop like? How long does it take to produce one image?


LC: Between one and three weeks.


CF: There is a sense of movement in many of your Flying Houses images. Is that intentional? If so, what is that meant to represent?


LC: There are two "Flying Houses" without cable lines; the "Caravan," maybe because they are gypsies and nobody wants them around, and the "Fire," maybe a symbol of a story that is finishing . . . or starting?


CF: What influences the backdrop for each individual piece?


LC: Fragonard and some Flemish painters of 18th Century inspired me. I like the details, the density of the clouds, and the dramatic form of the sky. There is no perspective. The subject is central and the square form helps with that. The eyes only focus is on the houses.


CF: What's next for you?


LC: My next solo exhibitions will be in Italy, Norway, Spain, and an Art Fair in Singapore, London, Paris, and Sao Paulo. A book will be available in September.


CF: What is your biggest fantasy at the moment?


LC: To travel! Thank the Flying Houses!


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