Having started out making skateboarding videos in LA in the late 90s, Fred Mortagne then discovered his passion for black and white photography. During his recent exhibition at the MIMPI film festival in Rio de Janeiro, Fred found time to rekindle his love for modernist architecture and, in particular, the work of his hero, Oscar Niemeyer, with the following images shot over the course of a week with the Leica M Monochrom Typ 246.
You started of making skate videos in the late 90s. How and when did you make the switch to photography?
I still make videos. I have been shooting photos on the side, as an extra, which allowed me to express a much more personal vision about skateboarding, while my video work was done for marketing purposes, for skateboard companies. I needed that balance, to show what the commercial side of skateboarding didn’t care about… the poetry, the aesthetics, a more abstract look.
People often talk about photographers having their own style as a prerequisite for success. How would you define your style of photography and where do you think it came from?
What motivated me to start shooting photos was that, even before owning a camera, I sensed a style of photography that didn’t exist yet in skateboarding and that could be mine. The fact no one else was doing it was decisive, otherwise there wouldn’t have been much point in starting to do something that already existed.
Then, once I got to shoot enough to build that style, it was clear to me that I would stick to it for a very long time, to create a body of work. I didn’t want to create images that would be associated with specific eras over time. I detached my work from that, and instead looked at things on a much larger time scale. Creating a timeless work was my goal, which not so many people in skateboarding did. With my video projects it was completely the opposite. I never wanted to duplicate videos and follow any continuity. This has always been very important for me. So again, I maintain the necessary balance. I also focused on a more general approach about skateboarding with my photography, shooting more basic and generic tricks, in order to remain detached from trends and connect to the roots and essence of skateboarding, which I believe makes my work more universal and accessible than pure action photography.
About defining my style, it’s not easy for me to put it into words. It’s not a fully conscious act. I follow some strong feelings and instincts. I always like it when other people talk about it. They use much more accurate words than I do!
You are known for your ability to seek out new and interesting perspectives and angles, from which to shoot. I have even heard the term “Frangle” aka the “Fred Angle” used when discussing your photography. How do you go about locking down your shooting angles?
I have always attached a great importance to innovation, to bring something new and my own contribution, otherwise I find it can be very pointless and demotivating. By always making different videos, I aim to stay creative, at least for my own sake, to stay hyped about what I do, to re-invent myself and never stay still. This might sound contradictory when it comes to my photography, as I worked on this body of work for over 15 years now, and keep on doing so but as a photographer I am evolving, I am progressing. The changes are much more subtle, but they are present and effective. A deep evolution is going on inside me, I am shooting much more, and covering a diverse range of themes. Although I am perpetrating my signature style, I can mix my pictures all together. I start working on specific series that can stand on their own and I am developing new ideas. The more I shoot, the clearer and easier it gets. I feel like I have a very good dynamic, I’m progressing quickly now that I switched things around and turned photography into my priority and main focus, while up until 2 or 3 years ago, it was the other way around with filmmaking.
Coming back to composition, it’s connected with skateboarding and the urban biotope, in which I spent so much time in my life. Cities are very graphic. Like most skaters, I have been surrounded by lines, light and shadows for a long time but I have become more sensitive to it than others. The “Frangle”, which is basically a long lens shot performed while rolling on a skateboard (nothing more than a DIY dolly shot), was a way to bring something new and dynamic, while the standard was to use fisheye angles.
Your passion for black and white photography is no secret. What is it about this particular medium, which makes you appreciate it so much?
The main reason is definitely linked to the idea of creating a timeless body of work. It is so powerful for that. The surreal and poetic dimension that it brings is also decisive. I never liked to realistically transcribed reality into images. As far as my own sensitivity is concerned, I never saw the point and I’ve never been able to correctly do it, while other photographers are true masters in that field. I can enjoy colorful photography, but not my own. I am not good at it.
In my everyday life, I like colors, my home is not monochrome at all. So shooting black and white is yet another way to find a balance, to extract a bit from reality.
Using black and white in skateboarding was a way to focus on the aesthetics and artistic elements. It is a very interesting sport full of richness. It can be very raw, while also very artistic, especially when it interacts with other art forms such as architecture. I see skateboarders like artists, each one unique. My work is a way to enhance skateboarding and bring a positive and unknown image of it to those, who don’t skate, who might just see the negative clichés of it. What they see is often just the tip of the iceberg, which is not representative of the great richness and epic nature of skateboarding. So I focus on its beauty.
This particular series was shot during a visit to Brazil. Whereabouts did you shoot and how did the trip come about?
I was invited by the MIMPI film festival to exhibit my work during the event. It was the third year in a row they had invited me, and the previous years I was never available. The festival takes place in Rio de Janeiro, where I spent 7 days. I also organized my own in-and-out mission to Brasilia, just for one day. The city was designed by my hero, architect Oscar Niemeyer. I discovered his work while on a skate trip in France 12 years before, that’s how long I waited before finally going to Brasilia!
I wasn’t in Brazil to exclusively shoot photos, as my exhibition was very time demanding, but I tried to make the best out of the rest of the time that I had, and I was happy to come back with so many images.
Which camera did you shoot with and what do you consider the advantages of shooting with this set up?
For over 4 years now I have been shooting with both versions of the Leica M Monochrom, I just truly love it. It is perfect for me. I can go on trips with a complete, yet quite small set up, that fits in a small bag I strap around my body. 1 camera, 3 lenses (28, 35 and 90mm), a baby tripod, extra battery and memory cards, and I am fully set to create my work the way I want and need it. This small set up allows me to stay discreet and not look like a professional photographer. In Brazil it was important, you need to be careful of course. My whole stay was very smooth.
I also particularly enjoy the fact that I can mix this digital material with my older b&w film material. This was crucial for me. At first I was not really excited about digital, but I must admit that the M Monochrom convinced me right away. I never dreamt of such a tool, but it existed.
This series sees you move away from photographing skaters and focus more on Modernist architecture. Where does this interest come from?
From skateboarding, which brought me the great privilege of traveling the world, and being on a constant hunt for the perfect (concrete) wave. This exposed me to some of the best architecture in the world, discovering it totally randomly most of the time, and without any knowledge. The approach for many years was strictly about skateboarding, and up until recently, I never really cared about knowing the architects (except for O. Niemeyer), or to which architectural movements they belonged. Nevertheless, I started to feel a strong attraction to brutalist and modernist architecture. One aspect of my photography is linked to the fact that when I wander around a city, I try to avoid certain things: visual pollution, and the craziness of the world. I’m looking for visual beauty, poetry, peace and quietness (which is one reason why I keep a certain distance from people!). So I am naturally attracted to this type of architecture. Those buildings are like huge magnets and I can’t resist their attraction. I particularly like the organic and sensual forms and shapes of Oscar Niemeyer, which of course are reminiscent of female shapes and curves. In skateboarding, up until now, I have been exclusively working and traveling with guys, so I suppose it’s another way of balancing my life!
In creating the more abstract compositions in this series you utilize the sky, reflections in water, the surfaces of buildings and strong shadows. How do you go about constructing the tonal composition of your black and white images?
Nowadays it comes naturally, and the more I shoot, the faster and easier I find the angles. My experience takes me straight to the point. Something has changed in the last few years. It wasn’t so fluid, although I’ve always known what I was looking for. When you know all the good ingredients you need, then you just go get them at the market, and make your tasty recipe. The struggle or testing and practicing is part of becoming who you are. So when it comes to shooting creations designed by the best architects, it’s even easier because all the elements are gathered. Oscar Niemeyer was very conscious to place fountains with still water around some of his buildings. It’s such a smart way to double the size of his creations and I have always been attracted by reflections. They bring a surreal and abstract touch.
Some of these photos include people and passers-by but their presence is merely an extra component of your compositions. Was it a conscious decision not to focus on the people themselves and not to create subjects out of them? If so, why?
This goes back to the very early stages of my photography, and a part of my personality. I am shy, and a non-intrusive person. So I started shooting people from very far away! No trouble, nothing to deal with! This is one decisive element that contributed to my style. I’m quite the opposite of a portrait photographer! Also, I never liked to shoot plain architecture. Shooting a building on its own always seemed uninteresting and too easy. I always wanted to bring another element, even a tiny person into the composition, to give it life, scale, and create something unique out of someone else’s work, the architect’s. So no matter how small they appear, people are crucial ingredients in my pictures. It’s never just an extra.
Nevertheless shooting plain buildings is not easy or pointless. I have in fact started to shoot some in very recent years. It can be a re-interpretation, a way to portray a piece of art that even the architects themselves wouldn’t have produced. It’s never the architect themselves, who shoot and document their own creations, because this is different skill that they don’t master.
Coming back to people, I think that for most photographers, it is not that easy to shoot pictures of strangers out in the streets. It’s very intimidating. Everyone comes up with their own techniques to stay as inconspicuous as possible when doing it. I’m pushing myself hard to do it more. I’m improving but I still have a certain way to go. It’s the biggest challenge for me in photography. Coming back to reflections that we just discussed about, they are also a good way to get close and shoot people, without them noticing anything, as they can never be sure of what you are doing.
Despite the purity of your compositions, the grainy nature of some of these photos is a noticeable aesthetic consideration. Why do you favor this raw type of aesthetic?
It’s another way to take a step outside reality. Life has more character than the polished and asepticized image that modern societies provides us with. Skateboarding has shown me all facets of life. We skate everywhere in the cities, we explore them all and have no limits or borders. This can takes us to the dirtiest and most neglected parts of the cities or countries, and I love this, it brings so much richness. It’s the same with people, we get exposed to all types of social categories, which is very mind-opening, and helps looking at life from an interesting perspective, to realize there are as many realities in the world as there are humans, not just the reality you are surrounded by, served to you on a plate by your family, school, tradition and culture. Skateboarding taught me so much more than school, and made me a much better person.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their monochrome photography?
Maybe my only advice is to try to think and see in black and white when shooting, to not get confused or distracted. It’s good to set the screen display to b&w for that matter. You must be merciless about colors! Even if they look good, don’t lose the battle, stay strong! In my early years, I wouldn’t understand why people like Raymond Depardon were shooting landscapes in b&w, for instance sceneries with trees in the countryside. Trees are green, why not shoot in color? But I quickly understood why. Looking at books from the great masters of photography can always be a great source of inspiration.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Much more photography, showcasing a diverse range of topics. I also have new book ideas.
My first one, that came out last year, keeps on doing well, so I will keep on setting up exhibitions around it, as well as book signings. It is called “Attraper Au Vol” (Catch In The Air).
And I’ll never rule out making new colorful short films!
Fred’s photobook “Attraper Au Vol” with a foreword by Anton Corbijn, published by Um Yeah Arts, is available directly from his website. You can also see a lot more of Fred’s photography on his Instagram.