WHAT EXACTLY IS IT? Where is it?” The idea is to play with ambiguity,” says Paris-based photographer Stéphane Couturier with a grin. We're looking at an image of sheets of metal filled with tentacular lattices. “It's a construction site but it seems to be something like jewellery,” says Couturier. Part of his latest series, the photograph shows the incomplete Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation building in Paris. Designed by Frank Gehry, the structure, estimated to cost around US$127 million, is due to be complete next year.
Couturier has a knack for finding beauty in the most unexpected subject matter. Whether it's a close-up of a nuclear turbine or an assembly line in a car factory, he creates tableaux of complex detail and eye-popping colour.
His first major exhibition in Asia, held at Espace Louis Vuitton and titled Mutation, unveils his latest series of photographs of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation as well as iconic works from earlier in his career. Wrapping around the mezzanine of the Canton Road store, the show traces his journeys through France, United States, Brazil, India and Spain.
Born in 1957, Couturier has spent close to two decades travelling the globe documenting urban landscapes. Since the early 1990s, he has been exploring the idea of cities as living organisms that are constantly changing. He has pointed his lens at sites ranging from Le Corbusier's vivid architecture in India to the desolate highways of North America.
In 2004, he began creating diptychs and soon came up with the idea for his famed Melting Point series in which he overlaps two images – what he refers to as “melting” them into a single image. Scanning his photographs before digitally altering them, he creates a subtly disorienting viewing experience. Couturier's works have appeared in major institutions worldwide including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Mudam in Luxembourg and the Museum of Photography at Charleroi, Belgium. We sit down with the French lensman on his whirlwind visit to Hong Kong.
How did you get into photography?
I'm self-taught because at the beginning I was studying economics and law.
I come from a family of lawyers so I said, “OK, I'll do [law].” But I was not interested in that, I was more about paintings and exhibitions. So I finished my studies and when I was 20 I got a camera. I began to work with architects on projects for five or six years, which helped to evolve my work. After that, I presented my work in galleries.
Why did you decide to move into art?
Architects are very interesting people but they are only interested in their buildings. So a photographer cannot be an artist [when working for them]. I preferred not to work on one piece of architecture but on the city. It was at the beginning of the '90s that I became interested in photography of Paris, Berlin and many cities. I was travelling a lot. I was in Korea, Beijing, Moscow, Brazil and San Diego. So the idea was to experiment.
What attracted you to construction sites?
You are always forbidden to enter working sites but I was very interested to go inside. Usually people say, “No, there is nothing to see.” In fact, I think it's much more interesting when the building is in construction than when it is finished because they are like living organisms which are evolving. When you go into this type of space today then go back tomorrow, it is changing. It's a question of being between past and future. The present is something very ephemeral.
Tell us about the Grand Palais series.
At this time, in 2003, the Grand Palais was a sick body in a way, they had great problems with the stability of the building and it needed a lot of work to renovate it. The idea was to play with this sick body with the prosthetics that supported it.
How did the collaboration with Louis Vuitton come about?
They approached me but I was also interested to work with this construction site because it was so huge and very technological. We spoke and I got carte blanche to take photos. I will continue to follow the site until the end of the year I think.
How long do you normally spend on each series?
Sometimes it's very slow. For example Brasilia, I was working there for five years. I went there in 2007 but I finished the series last year. For Barcelona, it took six months. I needed to forget a photo for one month for example and then rediscover it again. So you know it's like a painter, you have this painting, you have to forget it and rework it later.
Why has colour always been important in your work?
For the building sites, if you can speak about vivid colours you know something is alive, it's part of a living organism. Even with the Louis Vuitton Foundation photos, there are still these colours. It's not something like a still life. It's not dead.
What has been one of your most difficult experiences?
Ah very good question…in many cases it's very difficult. In some places like Seoul and Berlin, I had no authorisation so I needed to take the photos very quickly. In Moscow I had some problems. One time I was in a crane and suddenly it fell and I lost one of my lenses. It was very dangerous. Now I'm taking photos in Algiers, that's also very difficult but very interesting.
Because I was invited by Marseilles, which is one of the European capitals for this year. Two years ago, they approached me to do a project together. I said, “OK, but I will choose Algiers.” Between Algeria and France [the history is] very complicated, it was a colony. So the city of Algiers is very interesting for me. I am photographing the architecture from the '50s in the great suburban territories.
Who are some artists that inspire you?
In photography there is Lee Friedlander in the United States who is very interesting for me with the composition. But also in painting, [Piet] Mondrian. For example with the Grand Palais [series] with the scaffolding it's like a painting. Also Piero della Francesca. It seems very old but in a way [I was inspired by] his use of perspective. I always have these frontal views in the photos I'm doing, you know with Barcelona, Grand Palais, with many things. I'm playing with a very flat perspective sometimes. But the idea is to be very frontal.
You've shot in so many cities, what do you think of Hong Kong?
I'm fascinated by the density first but also the proximity of the environment to nature. Sometimes you have very dense city buildings then just you turn your head and you have the sea and the mountains, both are very fascinating. The topography is very specific.
If you had to shoot the city, where would you start?
I was thinking about this last night when I was arriving from the airport. I found my subject “photos by night” but not like postcards. It would be more about buildings with the small windows being like stars in the sky, something very abstract in way.
Maybe North Korea, but this is very difficult. It's not because it's forbidden. It's because I was also in Cuba 10 years ago and I am fascinated by these cities that don't move. For example, if you went to Havana then it felt was like you were in the '60s but it was 1990. It was as if you travelled back in time. North Korea is maybe also like this.