This year Wren Artists will take over the Great Eastern Wall Gallery with a series of photographic exhibitions called ‘Stories’. The first artist to exhibit for the fortunate by-passers on Great Eastern Street is Jean-Baptiste Courtier.
Courtier’s images use objects and situation to transform scenes, the incongruity of an action or an item making the images imaginatively pop. There’s also a stillness in his images which betrays a sadness or loneliness to his work. We caught up with Courtier to find out a bit more about him and his work practice.
Where are you from and how did you start taking pictures such as these?
I grew up in Northern France and I now divide my time between Paris, London and the French countryside. I started out in the art departments of modelling agencies, where I spent my days surrounded by photographs… but I was rarely excited by the artwork that was coming through. So I started developing a few ideas and my colleagues and fellow photographers encouraged me to shoot them (the ideas, not the colleagues)… and that’s how it all started.
Coming from a commercial background, how important is it to you now that you have complete creative control over your art?
I actually started out with complete creative control, working on my own ideas before doing any commercial work. It’s definitely different but both have their assets. It’s great being able to work with fellow creatives and art directors who can really bring something new to the table. It keeps things fresh.
There’s a fine awareness of composition in your work, do paintings inspire you?
Certainly in an unconscious way. A good example is the picture of the horse which was inspired by old paintings and illustrations. I also pay attention to “the pictorial aspect”, the small details in the surrounding nature.
Location also seems important to your work, have you had to travel far to find these wild abandoned places?
Location is definitely key. It’s near impossible to find the perfect place – it’s a very timely endeavour which often ends with the realisation that the perfect place was the one closest to you.
It seems like certain objects can bring pieces to life, are you an avid collector of interesting objects?
Absolutely. But I would say the objects serve more as a ‘trigger’ which can spark an interesting idea/thematic for a photograph.
What makes an object a good focus point for a picture?
I don’t really know, sometimes it’s about references: something we all had as children.
Is there an object that you have which you would like to bring into a setting or scenario that you haven’t had chance to realise yet?
My hope is to be able to use all the objects I collect one day… but some are just waiting for the right idea.
Your fencers are pulling a pretty tricky gymnastic feat, and because the picture is frozen it looks effortless. This also seems the case with your synchronised swimmers – was the shape they pulled more important to you than capturing the effort it took to get into position?
Firstly, it has to be a good picture, and I think seeming effortless is a part of it. I also have to mention that I’m working with professionals, with the acrobats or the motorcylce team, when they have white helmets, then it’s easier.
Now, I like to turn my photos into a performance, something I could be proud of, even if the viewer may be unaware of that difficulty. It belongs to me, like a souvenir: it reminds me of that moment when the set was ready, when the gymnasts were doing their feat or when the motorcycle team were approaching me, and I had a smile on my face.
For your Elvis photo was it important that he wasn’t throwing Elvis poses and dominating the photo?
It was not about doing a funny picture, so having a guy in a Elvis suit was good enough.
I preferred to keep the picture more subtle and heighten the poetic aspect.
For the horse in the paddling pool, was the horse on the estate or did you take a long time to work out what horse could fill your pool?
The manager of a horse club helped me with the “casting” – to find a horse that would be comfortable doing this. But it took quite a few hours to get right.
How does it feel to have your work on display in a street setting and illuminated rather than tucked away in a gallery?
It’s such a great display, I’m really happy. For me, it’s better than a traditional gallery – I like the idea of displaying pictures in the streets which are not adverts. Ideally, we should have a better balance between ads and art in the street and I’ll be sure to ask Google to make a new run with their car!