Fred Mortagne’s artistic research lies suspended between spheres of white light and echoes of darkness. His photographs are words. Words of a poem left unfinished, undisturbed, beyond a curtain of reminiscences isolated in time. Everything, in Mortagne’s works, appears as enveloped by an aura of sacredness. Every single photographic fresco – flawlessly built on multiple lines, curves or cavities – is in fact the result of a purely irrational deduction that the artist obtains within the perimeter of his visual field; a portion of space, almost symbolically sonant, modulated by shadows and refractions perpetually on the lam. The hieratic nature of his visual representations also extends itself to his subjects, young skaters captured as indistinct, undefined and confused slivers of a unique, precious, crystal-universe.
Mortagne’s artistic career thus abounds with dreams, experiences and intuitions almost brushing against the grain of reality. Visual artist, photographer and filmmaker since the 1990s, Mortagne has worked and collaborated with numerous magazines and skateboarders, such as Lucas Puig, Javier Mendizabal, Arto Saari, Ali Boulala, JB Gillet and Geoff Rowley, to mention a few. More recently, the Lyon-based artist has reunited almost two decades of black-and- white photographs in a single, majestic, compendium. Titled Attraper au vol (Catch in the Air) and published by Um Yeah Arts, this unrivalled publication not only includes a foreword written by renowned photographer Anton Corbijn but also an essay curated by Geoff Rowley. We recently met the artist to know more about it.
First of all, we’d love to know more about your artistic roots. We know that you started working as a video-maker during the 1990s. Who was French Fred back then? At what point in your career did you start concentrating on photography?
Back when I started filming around 1993, I didn’t have much creative sensitivity. I was just in total love with skateboarding, that’s all I cared about. I quickly felt the need to make videos myself, because watching videos was a very moving and intense experience for me, and since basically no one in Europe was doing it, I thought it could help the local scenes, especially in Lyon where I was from. Photography first came a few years after filming, because we had some course at the cinema school I attempted to do, but quickly quit. So I shot a few rolls around 1996, then nothing for the next 5 years! Video really was my thing. But around 2000, I started messing around with it again, because of two things: I was traveling around the world non-stop, so I realized it was a big waste not to shoot any pictures. Also while filming, I started to have ideas of pictures to shoot, involving skateboarding, that were different than anything else you could see, so I decided to try to turn these mental visuals into real pictures.
Talking about the more technical aspect of your work, could you tell us more about your vivid fascination for film photography? More specifically, for black and white film?
I already loved the way film was looking before shooting photography. Particularly Super 8 that I’ve been using from the beginning. When I started photography digital was not around yet, and I was into the grainy side of film. When I was a teenager I was into Depeche Mode, and because of that, before even filming myself, I got exposed to the work of Anton Corbijn, which was super moody and totally different from the other music videos, very artistic. Some of my style has to come from that early indirect influence. That’s one reason why when it came to think of someone to write the foreword of my book, I thought of the great A. Corbijn. There were other various things meaningfully connecting me with his work, so it was just unbelievable when he accepted to write a text.
Life is light and darkness, they go hand in hand. We go through days and nights. It feels so strange when the sun never sets. It gets really confusing.
Lights and Shadows are profoundly interrelated in your work, but not interdependent. What’s the meaning behind this dichotomy in your work? What is Light and what is Darkness to you?
Well I’m happy to learn that my love for shadows has something to do with my primitive side. I guess it means I somewhat stay a minimum connected to my human instincts, in our modern societies that make us everything but true and deep humans. Life is light and darkness, they go hand in hand. We go through days and nights. It feels so strange when the sun never sets, like above the polar circle in the summertime. It gets really confusing. The opposite is even more difficult to handle. Pictures representing bright lights and strong shadows simultaneously maybe sum up in a way what life is about, making them very intense and powerful. Makes me think of the Ying and Yang logo. So many popular things in life are based around that basic principle: chess boards, piano keys, dice. I was just on a trip around Europe and I randomly happened to photograph people wearing clothing with b&w stripes. Seems very trendy right now!
What about the constant interplay of lines, curves and symmetries in your pieces? How important are they to you and how do you normally proceed in selecting the perfect location for your compositions?
Only recently I started to try figuring out where this strong attraction could come from. I almost need to do a therapy to really find out! In the first place it’s got to be connected with skateboarding. The spots we skate in urban environments are often graphical, especially as we skateboarders like to skate things that are not made for skateboarding. It’s the challenge and rebellious aspect of it. This often brings us to very cool architectural constructions. The stairs, the banks, the handrails…. all made of lines, flat, vertical, diagonal… Then it must have to do with my personality. I’m a perfectionist, I’m very precise in my work. I’m very clean, organised and minimalist in my pictures, while my everyday life is much more messy. My office never gets tidy more than 2 days in a row. Life is overwhelming, especially when constantly racing against time. So maybe my pictures are the only place where I manage to keep a certain order. Don’t go and believe I live in a minimalist super modern loft. It’s the complete opposite! I live in a building that was built in 1890! I like my place to be colourful and made of organic materials!
Your photographs are usually taken from afar. In these photographs, each compositional element (lines, curves, subjects etc..) seems to combine with others in order to create a very specific narrative or scenario. How do you usually work on your aerial perspectives? Do you normally adopt a silent – almost deferential – approach with the scene you decide to capture?
When it comes to shooting pictures of strangers in the streets, it’s really not easy to get close to people. It is so damn intimidating. That’s surely where that distance with my subjects originated. I’m a shy person, and very respectful of others. Sometimes photography can give you the feeling of stealing something from people. This is also why I shoot a lot of reflections, that keeps me discreet. I like to be like a ghost in the city, I’m right there but people don’t know, which also keeps them natural.
We live in a crazy world. For many many years, I’ve been feeling totally out of place. There is a reality in our societies and we are supposed to be part of it. That’s why skateboarding attracted me, as it was totally different and unformatted… full of freedom. In the “real” life, I always felt like an outsider. Being different made me believe it was negative and that was killing all of my confidence. The weight of society on individuals can really get dramatic. I would only feel good within the skateboarding community. Therefore I looked at the world from an outside perspective and could not confront to it. In my first photographs, people appeared very tiny in huge environments. That’s how I got into that style of shooting, and started to apply it to skateboarding. I also always thought it was a pity to not showcase the amazing environments in which skateboarders were evolving.
I also keep a distance from this quite crazy world we live in. So much is going on.
Nowadays I still strongly feel like an outsider, except that I now believe it’s a tremendous advantage to think and act different from the norm, so I transformed this into positive energy, and it’s a real driving force for me now. It’s hard to be a true individual, and I think that’s the most important thing skateboarding brought me. On a sociological aspect, there are very important things to learn and understand from skateboarding. I’d say to parents in general, if your kids want to skate, don’t be scared. I surely know some skateboarders that went in the wrong direction, but that’s maybe 2% of all the people I know. It brought so much good things to all the other ones.
Last but not least, I also keep a distance from this quite crazy world we live in. So much is going on. There are a lot of negative sides to it. I naturally stay away as much as possible from the chaos, the violence, the commercial visuals, the ugliness of cheap modern constructions (suburbs/malls…) and instead I look for beauty, poetry, geometry… those things that keep me sane. Although it is true that strangely enough, certain beauty, or should I say photogenic, can be found in dramatic slices of life.
Attraper au vol (Catch in the Air) provides an incredibly detailed picture of your work as a photographer in the last few years. In addition, the book can also be seen as the tangible evidence of a true friendship with Thomas Campbell. How did you guys first meet? And what was it like to collaborate with Thomas again?
We first met long time ago in Huntington Beach as he came to have lunch with Geoff Rowley, but that was just quick. I’ve always been a huge fan of Thomas’s works. It’s only recently that we really connected together. He had been enjoying my various works also, and my vision on skateboarding. But it’s because of Javier Mendizabal, pro skater from Spain and very good friend of mine with whom I worked a lot. Thomas was about to make a film about Javier, and naturally they asked me to join the project to be the director of photography. I was blown away that Thomas wanted to work with me on his film. It was a really great and natural collaboration, so we got really close, and ever since, we’ve been working on many projects. It has been years that I wanted to make a book, I also had proposal, but I never made anything happen. When Thomas proposed to published my first book, I said yes right away, and understood why I waited all those years. I needed to do it with the right person, and that was Thomas.
What criteria did you adopt in selecting the images for the book?
That was a tough process. Thomas was always saying “it’s so hard to select pictures and leave some on the side, they are all like German chocolate cake!” That was really funny. That’s why I wanted to work with Thomas on the book. I totally trust his experience. All the books he made before are just beautiful. It would have been very hard to make it on my own. We did a wide selection together, then he worked on the layout, with his designer Tosh. The whole process took over 2 years, on and off, but we didn’t want to rush it. Now we are really satisfied and proud of the finished product.
Lastly, what’s coming next for you Fred?
Right now the focus is fully on the book release, which will involve some book signings and some exhibitions… I’ll keep people updated on my instagram feed: @frenchfred