le Creux de l’enfer - CENTRE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN

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Jean François Lecourt

Shooting Cameras, 1977-2010

du 13 October 2010 au 30 January 2011

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The artist is represented by the galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris

Jean-François Lecourt

* 13/10/2010 – 31/01/2011 * reception Tuesday 12/10/2010

Shooting cameras, 1977-2010

Jean-François Lecourt, in 1977, produced his first "Camera shooting" series, undertaking a unique and now today, essential, experiment in his domaine of photography. The artist photographs himself, as he fires live rounds at the camera lens, aiming at his image to be, at the very moment he pulls the trigger. In this complex situation, the photographer is himself under question just as much as the egocentric author in ll and each of us. The result, aeshetically and formally, is quite astonishing, the frozen image, promising eternity, is captured either directly on photographic paper or through delicate prints from damaged negatives. The Creux de l’enfer presents a retrospective of his recent work as well as some of the artist’s very latest experiments in digital video in a project undertaken in 2008.

Frédéric Bouglé, 2009

Shoot in the camera

Interview published in the Art presence review, n° 24, Oct.-Nov.-Dec,.1997. Resumed on the Groupe Laura, Tours website and review. Extract inserted in the invitation leaflet for the invitation to a retrospective of his work at le Creux de l’enfer, 2010, with English translation by Matt Hill.

"Due to the fact that the photograph is pierced there is a sort of black hole on which light doesn’t imprint. It is a passing place; it is photographic killing which is itself killed."

Frédéric Bouglé: What is the origin of shooting in the camera?

Jean-François Lecourt: The initial idea was to find a symmetrical expression, a language possible between photography and me. In fact, I wanted to establish a type of mechanism in my work and apply it to photography. It is a rational explanation which can link to an analytical explanation. The first attempts that I made took place from 1977-1980 and today it is a little difficult to remember the true motivation which prompted this research. I think that it is also partly accidental, without exactly remembering the reasons; also I could not confirm that I undertook this work for this or that precise reason; there were probably several reasons. When I was a student at the Beaux-Arts, Le Mans, I had Gina Pane as a teacher, and it is certain that her artistic commitment prompted me to question the way in which I was going to undertake a corporeal relationship with photography.

Frédéric: Was photography already the favoured medium for you then?

Jean-François: No, photography was like all the other mediums, and I didn’t have a particular predilection for this one. I was a student and I was looking for a style of expression which suits me. At the time there were the supports-surfaces dialectics, with problems linked to the symmetry or the notion of inside out. All that without a doubt played a role in the direction of my research. I painted, and I painted targets whilst continuing to practice martial arts. It was a way, like Lucio Fontana with his spatial concepts, to directly attack art material. I got involved with targets that I painted on canvases by producing a sort of hunting course in nature. I fired at these canvases that I then touched up according to the impact taking the ballistic curve into account. It is only after that, that I turned to photography.

Frédéric: Was the first self-portrait experience through shooting in the camera in reaction to something in particular?

Jean-François: Doing your self-portrait is consequent to a specific desire to represent yourself in relation to the means used, which leads to a realm of reflections about what you bring into play with your behaviour and your gestures.

Frédéric: Is shooting in the camera a metaphor for instant death which allowed the birth of photography?

Jean-François: For me, it is not instant death, it’s the after effects. It’s the possibility that the instant has a suite, in contrast to traditional photography. Due to the fact that photograph is pierced a sort of black hole on which the light is not imprinted. It is a passing place; it is photographic killing which is itself killed. We are getting into, as I said earlier, dialectic and symmetrical problems which reflect the small photographic blacking out, and shooting in the camera acknowledges it in its idea of death. It’s mirror photography, except that it’s not a camera or a mirror which are in front of the camera; it’s a device which resembles it: a firearm.

Frédéric: But it’s also the destruction of your photograph? You are nonetheless shooting your own picture?

Jean-François: Yes, but I would not interpret it as a person or individual who has continuity in the other. Besides the word ‘continuity’ is barely suitable, I would say it’s a release regarding one’s own image, in relation to the fixed traditional portrait.

Frédéric : It’s an emancipation from your own representation?

Jean-François: From my depiction of the fixed moment. As if it could lead to a continuous film…

Frédéric: about the narrative suite of the photograph!

Jean-François: I am talking about everyday life, not on an artistic or photographic level. I mean on the influence that it can have on the being.

Frédéric: You then went on to develop work from identity photos, which involved the premature and accelerated ageing of the photograph.

Jean-François: It is something that I indeed tackled, but that I would have liked to have been more precise. I wanted for photography to no longer be regarded as the ‘that has been’ defended by Roland Barthes, but as the ‘it will be’ of photography, that is in its possible future, in fifty or a hundred years. The fixing in photography is no longer in relation to ‘it went well,’ with history and with its past. I wanted therefore to go into the future of photographic material as much as its representation. That is to see the present as someone could see it in a hundred years.

Frédéric: The photo is aged prematurely, but the subject of the image remains the same.

Jean-François: As it stays the same if you take a photo now and you develop the print the next day, or in a month or in a year, I simply wanted to accelerate the process of the deterioration of its matter. At the beginning I wanted it to be a photograph older than its date of creation, until its destruction. Only now, with the new supports, it’s more complicated as these papers are very resistant to the deleterious atmospheric conditions which I subject them to. This ageing cannot be standardized in time, which is what I wanted to come to. That is, that a photograph that I present corresponds to a photograph which would have, for example and precisely, ninety years old. Only a specialised laboratory like the one in Italy could do that.


Frédéric: And the experiment carried out in the former water reservoirs in Marseille?

Jean-François: There is the ageing of the silver film support and all sorts of experiments are possible, like the one in fact carried out in Marseille for the International Biennial, in 1990. I subjected photographs there to great ambient humidity, excessive powerful artificial lighting. It can also be done in natural conditions by placing the photos outside with the rain and sun. The same result can still be achieved in special rooms with lots of hygrometry and an alternation of hot and cold. What hampers me in photography is precisely its cold support, this matter as smooth as a mirror. I wanted to find, to restore a matter to photography. That is why I also picked up forgotten techniques like with coal, or gum bichromate. There is a thickness in the photograph, and I was able to find this material that I was missing.

Frédéric: With shooting in the camera, it was the negative which was affected and the print was developed on paper thereafter. Now it’s the paper which is directly hit by the bullet as you arrange it in the pinhole, a black cardboard box which you fire at.

Jean-François: With shooting in the camera there is the photography of shooting; and if the shooting destroys the camera, it also destroys the photograph. When I shoot in a black box with the sensitive paper inside, the bullet makes the hole in the photograph. The bullet creates the photograph instead of destroying the camera; this time it is the one creating, which goes to show that there is constant firing between all these problems and this research.

Frédéric: On a technical note how is the exposure time for example?

Jean-François: That’s a question of feeling. There needs to be lots of light. Old-fashioned photography is linked with the pinhole technique. The exposure time is from five to fifty seconds, it depends on the clouds. There is therefore plenty of time necessary to shoot in the black box and then go and block the hole left by the impact of the bullet.

Frédéric: Shooting is quite an obsession all the same!

Jean-François: It’s the fascination for firearms that I introduced into my work, as I could obtain the same result with a bow; an arrow would do the job… but I haven’t tried it yet.

Frédéric : Shoot your photograph with a rifle, as the poet Jacques Vaché did in his time onto a photo of his portrait, is a really iconoclastic act on yourself (1).

Jean-François : Salvador Dali had a twin brother who had Salvador Dali’s name and who was dead…it’s killing the photograph of the other that you have within you…at least it’s a little like that. But it’s even more difficult to kill the photograph of the other who is not dead and who you have inside you. More mundanely, to have your own photograph in this way, luck is partly required too, a stroke of luck if you like, as to obtain an image of yourself in the pinhole from shooting, so many parameter are required at the same time that it is really a question of luck.

Frédéric: A photograph isn’t produced each time then?

Jean-François: Certainly not.

Frédéric: You remain very attached to shooting and what’s more, you don’t manage to separate from it.

Jean-François: It’s true, it is difficult find something else which would have such a force, but it is also a changing system. For me photography is above all an opportunity for discovery. I began with work with lamps: I was casting a beam of light on a body that I was photographing in a camera obscura, or someone was moving this beam on my own body. It was already the idea of involving the photographer’s body, as a designer, in the photograph that it was able to produce. It was often a question of self-portraits, produced with a technique which left me considerable freedom for intervention: photomontage; inclusion, and from there directly to shooting. As soon as the lamp is turned off, the light goes so the photograph stops being produced. It can therefore be picked up again when you want; it was really fascinating.


Frédéric:In your last works, you are naked on a horse and you are shooting into pinholes; your body is not subjected to photographic equipment; on the contrary it is you who is turning around, you are the subject and the object of it . Should we see a reversal of the situation between the photographer and his photographic instrument?

Jean-François: In this series where I am on horseback and where I am firing two or three gunshots by going in front of the black box to create a photograph, the result could be on the verge of visible. I am freeing myself from photography, but at the same time I have to obtain a photograph, it is paradoxical therefore… what’s more, it is very complicated as horses do not like the sound of the shooting, it makes them jump! It remains extremely subject to the technique and to the photographic rules. It is true that it is very difficult to give a photograph its own life beyond these rules. When you shoot into a pinhole, in a camera obscura, it makes a hole but the bullet always indicates the positioning of the shooter and produces a sort of passage; whilst the reality of the photographer’s presence with a camera will disappear and be forgotten. An intellectual effort must be made by looking at the photograph to remember that there was a photographer behind the photograph, whilst with this technique, the bullet hole in the support shows where the photographer is; the hole is a finger showing the person looking at the photograph where the photographer is who produced it. It opens up a passage between reality and depiction, which materialises directly, and without any effect.

Frédéric: Isn’t it dramatised taking a photograph like this?

Jean-François: With regards the result it’s possible, but the fact of taking a photograph in these conditions releases really big challenges deep down. Furthermore, you are obliged to pay close attention to what you are doing. It is dangerous. And it is complex, as complex as anticipating where the bullet will go after the shot. The impact of a bullet represents as much violence as the impact of a photograph… but the fact of shooting in the pinhole and the fact that the impact of the bullet creates the photograph ends up by naturally merging. At a pinch, a burst of gunfire on a wall in a town at war is as many images as you will be able to see in each impact.

Frédéric: In the photographic language, the exposure, the conduct has a strange resonance with firearms (2): load, unload, fire, shoot, aim… words which give photography a virile connotation, and even warlike. Which maybe explains the appeal that artists have felt for shooting, as was the case for Chris Burden (3), Niki de Saint-Phalle (4) and William Burroughs (5).

Jean-François: But a photo captures an image and doesn’t destroy; bullets destroy, but it is not obliged to do it, it all depends on your dexterity; William Burroughs had it and Chris Burden too! As for the violence it’s a normal impulse, I would even say healthy, and which can be accepted by art like a shooting stand at a fair. If the telephoto lens, in particular with its crosses, responds well to what you are saying, those who hunt/ photograph also catch an image in the distance. What interests me in photography, is to be able to reach something in the distance, something inaccessible, too far away for the body, an impossible space to reach. I want to fill the emptiness of this distance and therefore satisfy my fascination for shooting.

1. Jacques Vaché et le groupe de Nantes, by Michel Carassou, p. 217, Editions Jean-Michel Place, 1986. 2. ‘Shooting has been associated with photography since the origin of this technique, in particular because of the “aiming” system which is common to cameras and firearms (considering the photography gun which was used for E.-J. Marey’s studies about the flight of birds); the Second World War cavalry were bearers of a fascinating operation to acquire the image of death, the cine-machine gun, which recorded the fate of the gunfire; more agreeably, in the past fairground shooting was equipped with a small camera close to the target, and a well-placed bullet rewarded the player with their image in the virile exposure of the shooter who is taking aim.’ in Jean-François Lecourt, Le Témoin oublié, by Didier Semin 1986. Produced on request by Mario Toran for the Second International Ateliers, FRAC, Pays de la Loire. 3. In 1971, the American Chris Burden asks one of his friends to shoot through his shoulder with a .22 long rifle in an exhibition space. 4. During the 1960s, Niki de Saint-Phalle replaced her cartridge buck with colours to compose her canvases. 5. In 1951 William Burroughs, a great firearms enthusiast, killed his wife during a game of ‘William Tell.’


Jean-François Lecourt was born in the Perche region on 3rd November 1958, into the heart of a farming family. At the age of 17 he enters the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Le Mans where Gina Pane teaches, one of the founder artists of the body art movement. At the same time, he follows classes by a master of martial arts in karate-do (the way of the empty hand) from the Shotokan school, and devotes himself diligently to gun-shooting practice and archery. His approach is based on analogy and identification. A method which leads him to the discovery of the cyclical and symmetrical aspect of shooting and photography processes; hence the main concept of his work: shooting in the camera. This artistic act is an unchanging ceremonial that he has practised since 1977. For him it is not a question of illustrating a self-destructive neurosis but to try, with an instant result, to abolish the inevitable freeze-frame of the photograph. Here photography is therefore a martial art. Like in kuy do, your target is yourself; the aim being the execution in the present of the one who is taking part. In other experiments carried out in the past, he denounces and questions the relationship that we have with photography. In his ‘The Curators’ series, Jean-François Lecourt artificially ages the portraits of his models, situating them at a time before the appearance of the first photographs. His work is associated, perhaps wrongly, with the French plastic art photography movement from 1980-1990. During this decade in fact, he took part in significant exhibitions, like Fabricated Images ICP New York, La photographie française or Primavera Fotografica, and some of his works enter leading public collections, such as the FNAC (National Contemporary Art Collection) in Paris, or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His work however remains relatively confidential in spite of the important questions of aesthetical, philosophical and sociological order that his work generates in contemporary creation. Since 2000, whilst continuing to pursue his studio work, Jean-François Lecourt stepped back from exhibitions to devote himself to the creation of an intravenous drug addiction centre. This social investment is not such a far cry from his artistic reasoning. He highlights the passage of a symbolic suppression of the ego, in photography, to the very real one of drug addicts through injection.


Today, Jean-François Lecourt lives and works in the Sarthe department, close to his native land in the Loire region. In 2008 le Creux de l’enfer proposes a retrospective of the photographer’s work for 2010, and which will also show a new video creation. He is then invited by the Centre Pompidou to the Shoot exhibition, and to the Rencontres d’Arles. In addition he exhibits at the Galerie Anne de Villepoix in Paris. The Creux de l’enfer exhibition condenses a work begun at the start of 1970, up until 2010’s recent works. The collection presented authenticates self-portraits between fixed photography and animated photography, between photographic series and video creations. Here we discover the three essential constituents of his current work, certain pieces of a series able to link to another. All the works or series of works come under one creative process, bearing a heading indicated on the signage: 1. Shooting in the camera: the bullet destroys the camera and produces the image on a negative, physically pierced by the projectile — then either the photo is developed on argentic black and white or colour paper, or the negative is digitized then the photo is developed with the help of an inkjet printer. These cameras will be 6/6s, 24/36s, disposable cameras, sometimes even handcrafted by the artist with lenses. The photo presented is smooth. It is the device that he started with, the one used for the first experiment carried out in 1977. 2. The bullet creates the image (or Shots in the camera obscura): these are home-made black boxes and used inside or outside, like the 1992 series called, ‘Shots on horseback.’ The photograph is then directly developed onto paper or sensitive film. The photo presented will either be physically pierced by the bullet or printed after the digitization of the original support. 3. The shot in the mirror: a previously unseen series of video films, embarked on in 2009-2010, and which le Creux de l’enfer is showing for the first time. If numerous analogies with the photographic work are found there, the video shows the fascination that the act of shooting on your photograph exerts, like the impact of the sound of the shot (that had to be turned down here so as to not disturb the peace necessary for the interpretation of the photos). The collapse of the shooter’s photograph brings about the collapse of the landscape in the videos reflected by the mirror, and its immediate renaissance in another situated in the background.

by Frédéric Bouglé and Jean-François Lecourt, 2010

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