French-Canadian photographer Charles-Frederick Ouellet grew up amidst the seafaring society of Quebec. His affinity with the region’s waterways and for local cultural traditions, which date back to the very first non-native explorers, inform both his thematic focus and aesthetic considerations. This series of photos form part of the larger project “Le Naufrage“, which aims to communicate the sensory world of life along the St. Lawrence River, as well as the way in which this body of water has come to have a defining effect on local identity. The following interview sheds light on the bond between man and the sea, as well as exploring the photographer’s chosen analog aesthetic and his experiences shooting at sea.
How did you first get into photography and who or what inspired you along the way?
I came to photography through my mother, who was a painter and an art teacher. I studied photography at college, but at that time I was mainly interested in skateboard photography. My interest toward documentary came later in my twenties. Anyhow, one thing I learned from skateboarding is that it forces you to look at urbanism and architecture with a different perspective. Through skateboarding, I learned how to create and improvise in the urban landscape. I apply the same method to my photography, you just have to open your mind and learn to look differently.
Although, I have photographed at sea with the fishermen for quite some time, most of my work usually takes place in the social landscape. I was always really fond of the great American photography tradition: Frank, Friedlander, Faurer, Leiter, Eggleston, Winogrand, Cohen. For me the social and physical landscape of Northern America is an endless source of inspiration.
What’s the story behind this excellent series?
This body of work takes inspiration from myriad sources – exploration narratives, sailor’s legends and the work of the navigators and oceanographers, who travel the St. Lawrence River. Quebec began as, and has remained, a seafaring society, dependent on the St. Lawrence River for the transportation of provisions, communication and travel. Long before European colonization took root, fishermen from Scandinavia, the Basque Country, Spain, Portugal, and Saint-Malo plied their trade along our coast, harvesting the bountiful resources of the St. Lawrence Estuary.
For years my work has explored the figure of the fisherman as a symbol of our collective origins. Working on fishing boats, exposed to the weather, these men labor in silence. Over time I began to see their world, through their eyes; an elemental environment of coastline, horizon, sea, wind, and sky. As if of their own volition, my photographs taken on the water naturally slip away from the discursive subject to fuse into more abstract seascapes. This body of photographs is supplemented by others taken on land, along the Gaspé and North Short coastlines, depicting the sites of shipwrecks that bear the invisible scars of the past.
A lot of your longer projects are in some way related to water. Why did you choose the St. Lawrence River and what is it about bodies of water that interests you?
I grew up near the Saguenay River in Quebec, Canada. I always felt that coastlines were the perfect place to experience the landscape. I guess I’m interested in waterways because they are engraved in our genes. Not so long ago, the coureurs des bois, who were mostly French-Canadian and mixed blood, were sailing down the river trading European items for furs and exploring the continent.
The title translates into English as “The Shipwreck”. Why did you choose this title?
This title was chosen for its poetic echo. I feel the word itself represents, in perfect balance, the tension between the sublime force of nature and the history of men at sea.
You tend to shoot exclusively in black and white. What is it about the medium, which you think fits your creative vision?
Back in the day, when I studied photography, you would need to master black and white photography before switching to color. Even at this point, I feel there’s still a lot to experiment with this medium. To a certain degree, I think I’m more sensitive to shape, geometry, light and contrast than color in general. I like to look any one thing in an abstract way.
This series was shot over the course of 5 years. How was it working on such a long-term project?
There are some projects you carry with you for a longer period of time. For this particular project, I felt there was a lot to explore beyond simply the idea of men working at sea. The work is really a combination of images taken at sea, landscapes of shipwreck sites along the St. Lawrence River and images of the elements. I tend to create work, which is made over a longer period of time because I don’t rely on assignments to realize them. My projects are funded mainly by print sales in galleries, art council grants and exhibition fees. That’s why I can extend projects over a longer period of time.
How was it on board with the fishermen? Did you interact much or shot more as a voyeur?
Depending on the type of fishing or the quotas, you can spend up to ten days at sea. All of the fishermen I met over the years were always really welcoming. Most of them are men of few words, but that’s fine with me, I’m not much of a talker myself.
At first, I used to bring pictures and articles of my published work, so they knew what I was doing. I always had complete freedom to photograph, but you have to remind yourself that working on a fishing boat is a 24-hour job and it doesn’t stop until you get back to land. Whenever I got the feeling that I was shooting the same thing over and over, I would just try to help as much as possible.
How did you cope with the challenge of shooting on the high sea?
Well, the longer you stay at sea, the better you get! Salt water is really rough on the equipment. Quite a few times I came back with damaged cameras, either because the cameras took a heavy knock or just because everything was jammed due to the salt water.
The grainy look and defused light in several of these images help create a raw depiction of life on board the ship. For the viewer, the images evoke a powerful sensory experience. Was it a conscious decision to employ such an aesthetic? And how did you go about doing so?
This is something that you will notice throughout my entire work. It’s a conscious choice and part of my aesthetic. I like it when my images are on the edge of abstraction, when we feel the idea of a continuous moment in the picture. In my work, although I have a contemporary concern about our history, I want to create images with a timeless aesthetic. The effect of light on a chemical material, is something fascinating and I find it really serves my purpose when an image features a charcoal effect, blurred light and movement. I’m not looking to make mistakes, as they are easy to reproduce, instead I’m looking for images that reveal the presence of the photographer but that do not tell everything about the scene photographed. Sometimes, there’s a thin line between an image that works and one that doesn’t. Creating ambiguous images that hold more than they can reveal is a really hard process.
Analog photography is a really particular medium. It’s the visual art form that comes as close as possible to the idea of a fossil of reality. The nature of the documentary act is what I’m interested in. I like it when my images end up looking really similar to archive documents that were made decades ago.
The series also includes abstract, almost dreamlike impressions, which help to create a sense of fantasy, the complete opposite of gritty realism. Why did you include these shots?
My work is anchored in the documentary tradition, but the idea of storytelling in a traditional documentary sense does not interest me that much. When photographing, I don’t feel I have to stick to representation but instead I try to see though the eyes of my subject. In “Le Naufrage”, the images I was taking changed after I realized we were always talking about weather conditions, the history of navigation and natural elements. I felt I had shot enough of the men working at sea and I started photographing the clouds, the sea and the shipwreck sites we were talking about. After that, my edit changed, and it became more poetic, less illustrative.
Which camera(s) and lenses did you use for this series? And what do you consider the advantages of your set up?
The cameras I use the most are my Leica M6 and M4-2, with a Summicron 35mm and 50mm. It’s no surprise that they are really reliable tools and they have never failed me. I like the fact they are small and discreet. When shooting, I’m not looking to be the center of attention. I just want my subject to feel comfortable with my presence. It all depends on my subject but I try to adapt my behavior in relation to the people or the scene I photograph. In general, using old analog cameras never raises much interest and I like it that way. I’m not really fussy about which lenses I use, I just grab the first set up I find and go out and shoot. I’m yet to find another camera that could equal my Leicas.
How did the book come about?
The idea of the book was always in the back of my mind. Books and photography are both mediums of mechanical reproduction and, for that reason, they fit perfectly together. I tend to create a body of work that can only be seen in its entirety in the form of a book.
The book is published by Les Édition du renard, which is run by two great photographers Louis Perreault and Jean-François Hamelin, and this small publishing house based in Montreal is dedicated to photobooks. I was glad to put out this project with them, I’ve been meaning to work with them for a long time.
The photobook “Le Naufrage” was realized with CRITERIUM design and is inspired by old reference books. Its aesthetic harks back to classic book design and adopts certain conventions of an earlier time, when books were repositories of knowledge and credibility. Key features are marbled end pages and a linear structure, and page layouts that recall early photography works.
You are also co-founder of KAHEM photo collective. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement here?
KAHEM is a photo collective based in Quebec, Canada. It brings together 5 French-Canadian photographers from various fields. The association was founded on an exchange of ideas and reflection about the practice of documentary photography. Some of us are more involved in photojournalism but I’m quite detached from that. My work tends to have more affinity with visual art, as I consider photobooks and exhibitions to be the main outcome of my work.
What advice would you offer anyone looking to improve their black and white photography?
Well, I would say, photobooks are a gold mine to improve your skills. You won’t just learn about black and white, but also about sequence, approach, rhythm and contemporary issues with the medium, among a wealth of other things.
What projects are you working on at the moment and what do you have planned for the future?
At the moment, I keep working on identity symbols that inspired North American mythology. For the past few years, I have been following in the footsteps of Louis Jolliet. As the first explorer born in North America, first non-native to map the Mississippi, cartographer, royal hydrographer and coureur des bois, Jolliet is one of the greatest forgotten figures of our history.
Other than that, in a couple of months, I will be over in the Basque Country and on the North-shore of Quebec and Labrador taking photographs for a project about the Basque fishermen, who settled in North America before colonization. The project is a collaborative residency between Quebec and France, where I will work with French photographer Christophe Goussard.
Charles-Frederick’s photobook “Le Naufrage” can be ordered from his website, where you can also find more of his excellent analog photography. To connect with Charles-Frederick and keep up to date with his latest projects, you can also visit his Instagram.