Born in Paris in 1968, photographer François Fontaine is represented by the A.galerie in Paris and the Agence VU. His dreamlike and timeless photographic style bears the traces of his long haul travels, literature and film. On the occasion of the exhibition of his “Silenzio!” series at the Leica space during the famous Paris Photo fair at the Grand Palais, he discusses the origin and elaboration of this work, which is both a tribute to cinema and a focus on memory.
Q: What characterizes “Silenzio!”?
A: “Silenzio!” is both homage to cinema and a reflection on memory. Milan Kundera’s words from “Immortality”: “Memory does not film, memory photographs” illustrate the development of this series well. “Silenzio!” is a photographic essay on cinema, on film images. Analyzing details from films, I wanted to see how we might feel emotions and consider the questions they provoke when they are shown as photos. It’s also a reflection on memory, on dream and fantasy.
Carrying out this work, I enjoyed mixing different genres, stories and film periods. The work is in color, a colorist’s taking films from the 1940s to the present, with a majority of films from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, a period when particular attention was paid to the quality of the image and the lighting, thanks notably to the work of incredible directors of photography.

Q: Could you tell us about your relationship to cinema?
A: I first became fascinated in the cinema when I was a teenager. I used to run the high school film club and would go to Montmartre to fetch the reels for the screenings. Then, when I was at university, I was lucky enough to live in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, which was full of art house cinemas where I saw all the major classics. I used to go to the film club at my university too, and I’ve been immersed in cinema ever since.
Although I didn’t opt to work in cinema, I had wanted for a very long time to pay it homage in a photographic work which, at the same time, is a reflection on memory. So the series is introspection on what the memory of cinema is, but also on its future. What’s going to become of all the film reels, all the gelatin slides produced over the past decades? “Silenzio!” is taken using film – I’m a film photographer. It’s thus about films that, at the outset were film stock themselves, taken using film. That’s why the text that Dominique Païni wrote for my book evokes “the silent ruin of films” that is the big question today.
The Lumière Institute in Lyon, where I exhibited this series last year, stores reels from all over the world that people send because they are getting damaged or destroyed and people don’t necessarily have the means to conserve them. Similarly, in film libraries throughout the world, there are silent movie gems, or early talkies, that haven’t been digitalized and which are facing these same challenges. So my work questions not only our memory and film memory, but also the future of the materiality of cinema.
The images that I’ve created have an immaterial texture, so there is a kind of echo in relation to that. At the same time, it’s very strange because, while being presented old style as very high quality film prints – chemicals and paper, in other words – they were produced from digital screens, from films screened on DVD. This series thus mixes all these mediums and media. I was interested in reflecting on all the means we have today to transmit and receive images, to look at and understand them, to interpret them differently, while paying homage to cinema at the same time.
Q: What inspired the title of the series?
A: “Silenzio!” is a reference to Jean-Luc Godard. In “Le Mépris” (“Contempt”), he plays the assistant to the filmmaker played by Fritz Lang. He concludes the film, pronouncing the final word – “silenzio” – against a shot of the Mediterranean and a statue of Homer. David Lynch then cited him, with his “silencio” with a “c”, in “Mulholland Drive.” So this title is a nod to both directors and, in the series, there’s an image from each of these films.
Q: Clearly, then, there is a play of references and citations from one photo to another. How exactly did you put your series together, in this respect? You’ve mentioned the question of lighting; what other qualities were necessary to you for a film, or one of its details, to be included in the series?
A: I wanted this series to be original in terms of its treatment. I spent a long time, technically, imagining it and putting it together. I wanted the images to be blurry, but not too blurry, nor too sharp. When you look at the prints exhibited, you realize, for example, that the farther you are from them, the clearer the images seem, and the closer you are to them, the more blurred they become. I liked working on the idea of not really knowing where we are. Like in a dream, or when you wake up, with your eyes half-closed, and the world around you looks a little strange, a little hazy and disturbing.
I also wanted this series to have a really beautiful visual quality. The starting point of this work goes back to Godard’s “Histoire(s) du cinéma”, published in several volumes by Gallimard about twenty years ago. In this book, Godard inserts typographies and texts, extracts of poems and dialogues into the film elements. The images published were screen shots; technically speaking, the rendering is not great. What mattered to him was the concept.
For my part, I wanted my work to be technically and aesthetically beautiful to the eye and for it to make people dream. Before these images, I wanted the viewer to get the impression that they are from a distant personal memory, the memory of a trip, or childhood. But I also wanted it to evoke a memory of cinema for the viewer. One single image – twenty-four images a second, that’s the principle of film – to sum up an entire movie. For example, in “Silenzio!” there’s an image from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. We recognize the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Kim Novak’s character, very blurred, about to commit suicide. From the entire ambiance, we are obviously in “Vertigo”, but it also allows the person viewing the image to travel. So, I tried to choose a symbolic image from a film, but also one that evokes a powerful emotion. This work is an invitation to journey, a journey in cinema.

Q: Concretely, how did you proceed? Through the echoes and memories of films that marked you personally, or did you work by theme?
A: I was drawn to the films that interested me, sometimes films that I didn’t know. I watched a lot, but many didn’t work. I took a lot of pictures and experimented. At the moment of editing, the choices were sometimes hard, but I realized that, in this work, the images that worked well suggested suspense, fear, desire, the main themes running through this series.
Filmmakers such as Buñuel, Godard, Fellini, Hitchcock, and Terrence Malick have made extraordinary films in which you also find archetypes. Of actors, for example, with their silhouettes, their old-time glamorous star look, but also beautiful lighting, which is highly codified, highly composed, as is each image, set, or costume. This aesthetic was primordial in my work, but the images needed at the same time to reflect something timeless. So I didn’t keep any film with a strong historical point of view, or a war setting, because I wanted the images to emerge as if from the subconscious, for them to be mental images – figurative, but abstract – evoking the confused world of memory.
Finally, as I studied the history of art and photography, I wanted to pay homage to the types of painting that I particularly like, such as Impressionism or Neo-Impressionism – Seurat, for example – but also other masters such as Hopper. In some of my pictures, the mix of colors produces a kind of persistence of image that one might experience looking at an Impressionist painting or even Hopper, with isolated characters, trapped in solitude.
My images also function with few elements – a bridge, a lake, a car, a silhouette, and so forth – but which are powerful and highly symbolic.
Q: From a photographic point of view, how do you capture that with a Leica?
A: I worked with compact Leica cameras, projecting details of films. To get this technical rendering, this blurriness which gives a particular style to the whole series, I have my secret method that I’m not going to reveal! It combines the dream-like aesthetic and the colorist work I carried out during my trips to China, Japan and India, with moving, shaky images that are at times confused or imprecise. Only here, I was in a world of complete fiction.
Within each individual fixed shot, I tried to find an element, a particular moment that might trigger an emotion in the viewer. That creates hypnotic, at times sensual images that are not without a certain nostalgia, a melancholy. That’s what strikes people, I think. Everyone can find their own Proustian Madeleine in them.
Q: Could you talk to us in more detail about one of the “Silenzio!” images?

A: I really like the one of Brigitte Bardot in “Le Mépris” with her black wig – which is itself rare – her silhouette and red dress. Michel Piccoli isn’t far; he’s in the bath reading with his hat on and smoking a cigar. I love this touch of red. It’s an important image in the series, not only for the nod to the film that gave it its title, but also because Bardot is a movie icon, France’s biggest star of all time, perhaps the only one up there with the likes of Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner. Yet, we don’t only see stars in this series: there are actors and actresses who are unknown, or little known, today. And what I like in this image is precisely that we don’t really know it’s Bardot!

Similarly, in another image from “Silenzio!”, we see the very fine silhouette of a woman in a black dress, from behind, about to open a door. The image is taken from the Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief ”. It’s the silhouette of Grace Kelly we can see, but from behind, she could be mistaken for Rita Hayworth, for example, or any other actress. That’s what I meant when I was talking about archetypes. You realize that all these great actors and actresses are interchangeable, but what is interesting is that there is a very Hollywoodian aesthetic, a look, a specific attitude. Other films are included, however – “Belle de jour,” for example, and other European film classics – but American cinema had an extraordinary quality that came from its beautiful colors, compositions and ambiances and that corresponded to the work I wanted to create. So it’s that cinema, 1950s and ‘60s cinema, that predominates in the series.

I particularly like another image from this series: that of a man walking, we don’t know where. It could be a jetty, in the Caribbean or Polynesia. There’s a white silhouette; it’s Michel Piccoli, lost against the blue backdrop of the Mediterranean. It’s an image of silence, of solitude and, at the same time, we can imagine anything.
It’s a highly abstract image which, to me, evokes the characters in Nicolas de Staël’s paintings, or the color backgrounds in someone like Rothko’s paintings. My work is inching more and more towards the abstract.
“Silenzio!” is a very constructed, conceptual work. I like conveying unease, a troubling image, in all its states, both in the technically blurred aspect of the image and in what it might evoke in the viewer’s spirit and subconscious.
Q: Have you finished the series now?
A: I’d love to continue it and I think that there will be a “Silenzio II” in a few years; I’m thinking about it. However, I’m working today on another series made from existing and subverted images. In a certain way, given my path, I’m an archivist. I indeed like to question existing images: what do we do with them and how do we read them, interpret them, whether the detail of a film or an anonymous image? We live in a totally scopic society today; everybody takes photos, everybody is on the screen. In this work – which goes hand-in-hand with my work as a travelling photographer – I operate a little like a vampire: I reintegrate and transform existing images through my own photographic style and aesthetic. I try to make them other, as if taken through a filter, like the writer or the painter who, from existing elements, recomposes these into something else, giving their own vision of them. Many currents in the history of art function like that, for that matter, whether working with the real or fiction; that’s not what’s relevant; what matters is conveying something powerful and universal that relates to dream and poetry.
Thank you for your time, François!
– Leica Internet Team
Join us on Twitter for a live chat with François at 15:00 CET. The chat will be in French and use #LeicaChat to participate. Read the interview in its original French. See more of François’ work on his website. All images are the copyright of François Fontaine, “Silenzio!” séries, 2012 / Courtesy A. galerie, Paris.