Interview with Julien Lombardi by Agnese Sbaffi
Can you please tell us a little more about yourself?
I grew up in a seaside village not far from Marseille. My surroundings gave me a desire to travel and imparted me with certain notions about space and landscape. I studied ethnology at university and then went on several long journeys through West Africa and the Maghreb, during which I began to take up photography in earnest. I now live in Paris where I work as a professional photographer, but wide-open spaces remain a real source of inspiration and most of my personal work takes place outside of cities.
How did you start taking pictures? What was your very first influence?
My father never gave me his camera so I could play around with it, nor was I particularly fond of family holiday photo sessions in front of a nice view or monument.
I was more interested in scientific images; as a child I had problems with my eyesight and was constantly at the ophthalmologist’s office for tests, looking into strange machines.
I think that experience inspired my passion for that which lies at the limit of what the eye can see.
In the beginning, I would experiment with macro photography at night or directly in the darkroom. I didn’t have any real influences because I didn’t know anything about the history of photography. I regarded photography as a means of perceiving what could not be seen by the naked eye. The result was very abstract and rather psychedelic; I loved the feeling of discovering worlds hidden within our own, of making something appear.
I later became versed in the classics and mastered photographic techniques. I tried to go back and do things in the right order. Influenced by Magnum photojournalists and American street photographers like Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Lee Friedlander, I began working in black and white while traveling in Europe, but to be honest it didn’t work for me. I would always snap the photo too early or too late and something about the relationship with people and space bothered me. It wasn’t the right pace for me, so I moved toward a more pictorial style of photography that is more structured or even staged, drawing inspiration from Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Lewis Baltz, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Demand and others.
What is important for you in a portrait?
I haven’t done many in my personal work, but it will come with time!
I think the portrait can be a really compelling format and I would like to find my own way of adopting it.
When I take portraits on assignment, I like to capture a moment in between two emotions, a ‘gap’. You can approach a face in the same way you would a landscape – the hard part is knowing exactly what you want to convey. You have to succeed in creating a situation or setting that allows the person to express true emotions.
What kind of relationship do you have with your subject when you shoot?
I have a unique relationship with each subject. Sometimes I’m a bit bewildered and have trouble giving cues. Other times, I have to nudge the subject to provoke him or her into revealing an expression I find engaging. My main interest up to this point has been the settings in which people move through life, living spaces and areas that create a sort of ‘portrait in negative’.
I feel like you can say a lot about people by showing their environment, the spaces they inhabit, where they carry on their private lives. In some cases it’s more touching to imagine faces than to actually see them.
Do you think it’s important to go to school to learn how to shoot?
I honestly don’t think so. That said, in addition to teaching theory and practice, a school provides an opportunity to network, which can be very useful when you’re trying to stand on your own two feet. It’s a hard question for me to answer. I personally didn’t feel the need, but my ethnology degree did help me develop working methods and find the knowledge I was seeking. It’s an individual choice that depends a lot on your personality.
If the question is whether you have to go to school to develop an artistic vision and take meaningful photos, then my answer would be that it’s definitely possible to go it alone.
What’s the photo you wanted to take but never did?
There are many!
Most are actually mental images that I haven’t yet found a way to bring to life. It’s motivation for the future!