Martine Fougeron: Teen Tribe at Hermes

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 16, 2013

Martine Fougeron, whose work is regularly seen on the pages of the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, and The New Yorker, among others, is a quintessential New Yorker, transplanted from France. Her exhibition, Teen Tribe, continues at the Gallery at Hermès through November 8th. Martine stopped shooting last week long enough to do this Q&A for DART:

How were you first introduced to photography?

I was introduced to art and photography by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was an artist: a violinist, a cinematographer who shot the “Libération de Paris,” a painter and a photographer. He had a keen eye and befriended many artists and collected their paintings. My grandmother’s parents designed bronze lamps and did casting for such artists as Auguste Rodin. The house was full of these wild sculptures, which I would gaze at for hours.

My grandfather had cameras and photographic equipment, which fascinated me, so he taught me how to make photographs. I would observe how he measured the light, how he positioned himself, how close he would get to us—his subjects. He was also making big color prints of his favorite pictures in the 70’s, which at the time was unusual. My father was also an avid photographer who bought a Leica, which was his constant companion, and which I now own.

My grandfather and my father would talk, compare their technical prowess and shoot incessantly during their spare time. Photography was part of my daily experience. The process also became part of my daily life. We would have family reunions during which we watched the 16 mm films shot during the holidays or for a wedding anniversary or of an exotic discovery: Amsterdam, Hanoi, all these amazing places which populated my mind in a world where television was still scarce.

Upon entering Wellesley College, I took a black and white darkroom class and learned how to develop film and make prints. I also took my first night job, and as soon as I had earned enough money, the first thing I bought was a Nikkormat, which I carried about all the time.

Nicolas Resisting.

You took up the camera for a second career. How did you make the transition from the corporate world to photography?

I have always sensed and thought visually.For thirteen years I was in the luxury perfume industry as creative director. I was in contact with artists all the time, the perfumers or the "noses" as they are called. My talent was to smell a perfume and immediately translate it visually, to be able to see colors, structures, and compositions and make a story out of the fragrance in visual terms to enable the clients to understand the emotion and concept of the fragrance. As the evanescent nature of a perfume is difficult to describe, I was constantly referring to my visual sense to "see a scent.” I guess that I have these synesthetic capabilities, from the olfactory to the visual and vice-versa.

At the beginning of 2001, it so happened that my twenty year old camera broke down and could not be repaired because the manufacturer no longer made parts. This depressed me greatly. However, in a way, this became a saving grace because I explored new technical and expressive avenues, and in 2002 I entered the digital age, and discovered the International Center of Photography (ICP,) where I learned to print in the “digital darkroom.”    

Another key factor was revealed on September 11th, 2001. I was working in the corporate world, managing a group of 20 perfumers and 80 assistants on an entire floor of a building on 57th Street. I had arrived at 7:45 am to prepare for a big meeting and once finished with the preparations went with my assistant to a café where a businessman, on his cell phone, said loudly: "A small plane had hit the World Trade Center" I immediately thought of terrorism, as I had lived through that in Paris. So I went back to the office to find out more. Then reality seeped in. Manhattan was shut off. We were all trapped inside the city. So where would all the 80 assistants, most of them from the suburbs, be sleeping that night? All this took so much effort that I did not think of my kids. I just asked a friend to pick them up from school. By the time I reached home it was 3:30 pm.

My younger son, Adrien, with anguish in his voice and eyes, softly said “Why were we the last ones to leave the school and where were you?” Suddenly, it seemed my priorities were not right. I immediately understood that, with an overload of corporate duties, I had estranged myself from my sons, just when they were entering a crucial age. I felt I was not leading my life. That conviction plus the personal desire to get back to my own creative voice created a shift in my life. So I made the leap, quit my corporate job and went back to school at ICP.

Who has most influenced your vision as a photographer?

Rainer Maria Rilke was a definite influence. Reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet gave me the license and freedom to accept that "the humus" on my life could be the terrain of observation and introspection of myself as an artist.

I am also influenced by conventions of cinema, especially the dramatic effects of lighting a set in order to capture the feeling of a timeless cinema still locked in time. Three films, which I saw at a young age, that moved me profoundly in their intimate portraiture and close-ups of the human psyche, are: Fellini’s La Strada, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.

Vermeer in his intimate approach to domesticity and his slow life process was another inspiration. Vermeer painted in his home his direct surroundings and relationships, setting the stage with his décor, which was a reflection of his being. The question must be asked, "How does one immortalize a quotidian scene? Of a milk maid pouring liquid from a jug in the morning light? Or of young boys enjoying a hamburger? Of a pre-adolescent resting on a blue couch? Of a young man reading a novel?" These questions haunted me, so I kept a diary of the scenes and actions and emotions I had connected with and which I wanted to photograph with my sons and their friends. Each photograph is like the cumulative visualization of many similar key experiences or meta-moments, which I observed and felt.

Adrien and Nicolas.

And where do you look to for continued inspiration?

I am an avid museum and gallery goer, and reader on the arts and culture. My love for my sons (who call me a “culture freak”). Also my daily meditations, which sharpen my intuition.

You shoot on assignment for magazines and advertising. How does commercial work inform your personal work, and vice-versa?

Photographing for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and New York magazine is always a fun challenge. It taught me to zone in more on my uniqueness, and not to disperse myself. The photo editors I have been fortunate to work with, like Kathy Ryan, Elisabeth Biondi and Jody Quon, have an exacting eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary photography. Their angle of attack on a story as well as their editing skills have taught me a lot about what makes a good and better and more daring photograph, as well as a tighter edit.

Also these editors give great creative license—and they know how to translate the personal style of a photographer into the style of their story. I have also worked on artist’s commissions for highly sophisticated companies—mostly start-ups—in the sphere of luxury goods. I enjoy these commissions as they give me the chance to explore my imagination in a new way and also allow me to work with a group of talented professionals whom I have to direct.

How did Teen Tribe evolve as a long-term project?

I had not intended it to be an ongoing project but just a one-year project during my year at ICP's General Studies program (2005-2006). But during the summer of 2006, I continued in the South of France, expanding the work to include the childhood friends of my sons, who had grown up together there.

Back in New York that fall I continued and I realized then that most of the work on youth at the time had been centered on girl culture or on boy drama. There was a lot of beautiful work focusing on the "drama/drugs/violence sequence" usually associated with teenage angst, and especially of male adolescents. I decided to portray, in a more introspective manner, what I was seeing as my sons and their tribe of friends grew up. I decided to concentrate on the normal anger, existential quests, social questionings and playful freedom that seemed to be elemental to the adolescent years.

So the creation of this body of work was a long process—from 2005 to 2010. I constructed it slowly, year after year, until it consisted of eight ”chapters.” I would add a series or two every year, giving each chapter an edge and a sub-theme, such as the teen tribal night life with its exploration of the off-limit activities, or the relationship of boys to nature and their roots in the South of France, or the ritual of the after-prom, or their fantastic quests and inner voyages. I always saw the work as a book in progress, yet I always saw each photograph as a single image.

This year, with the exhibition at The Gallery at Hermès as well as the publication in 2014 of the Steidl book Teen Tribe: A World with Two Sons, I will finally see the work in its complete form.

How did you go about selecting locations?

I didn’t. I only shot in my home in New York and in the South of France where I go to see my family and friends every summer. But I would rearrange the settings in my home. Here Vermeer was my guide.

And the kids seem to bloom more at home, in a tranquil setting. That moment when the pendulum of banal and restless activities stops swinging and you delve into a moment that seems like a quintessence, with frozen gestures and inner murmurs, like a film still but a film still that is really still, the movement is for the viewer to imagine and animate. That is the beauty of photography.

Many of the scenes that unfold in this series are highly complex, with several people interacting—which could descend into chaos. How did you decide when to start—and to stop—shooting?

I think here that the management of people in my past corporate occupation taught me that you can afford to lose a battle but you do not want to lose the war. So I came up with a set of rules and practices along the way that enabled me to build trust, and for the series to flourish, as I knew that it would stretch over a long period.

First, I respected their intimate moments when they absolutely do not want me around. It was very difficult with my older son at first, as he was in full revolt against me. And one year it got difficult with my younger son as well. At times, their absolute power over me was to refuse being photographed—fair enough. I am a divorced mother trying to raise my sons as well as possible, and this added intensity to the artistic and personal struggle. I must say that most of the time, I was welcomed by my sons and their friends whom I have known since they were seven years of age when they were all in school together. I was always looking at the printed photos on a ledge in my office. The tribe loved them, as they felt it spoke of whom they were. This helped a lot in turning my older son around.

Secondly, if after setting up my lights and equipment, I had not succeeded in getting a satisfactory picture after 30 minutes, I would leave, so that neither the shooting nor my presence were too heavy–handed. I tried to avoid creating self-consciousness and sought the spontaneous truth of each situation.

Third, my sons had veto rights over the edit of the pictures. If ever there were a photo of themselves or their friends they found offensive in any way, it was removed. It rarely happened but it was a safeguard, which fostered mutual respect and freedom.

And lastly, everything I saw and heard while shooting was confidential. I would never reveal anything to other parents. I did, however, talk directly to the kids if I personally objected strongly to some behavior. In fact, I did have to tell one kid to never to set foot in the house again, and this set an example. One more thing: I would always have great French food simmering on the stove or in the oven.

My creative process involves anticipating scenes I want to capture. I studied sociology at Wellesley and Science Po, so I observed habits, customs, patterns and unique expressions of my sons and their close friends. So I am not always in the house with the camera, photographing.  

And I always had kept a notebook where I would jot down scenes and situations that would might express these adolescents’ heightened states of minds. A picture is the accumulation of subtle and similar memorable moments, which come to life. I did organically center on unguarded moments that adolescents usually try to hide from adults: that Goethe-like spleenishness, their intense bonding as a cohort, the casual hanging out in my sons' bedrooms, sleepovers, the first flirtations and love relationships or the experience of forbidden activities (smoking, drinking).Those "heightened states" speak to the eternal adolescent within us all. Or so that is my intent.

Sleepover Party.

How did you form—and maintain—such an objective eye, photographing your children and their friends?

Viewers of my photographs constantly ask me how I could have been “a fly on the wall” or as the kids suggested, “just one of them.” At the beginning that comment shocked and offended me, as I thought my photos portrayed some more depth that a 16-year-old could project. Later on, I took it as a compliment.

I think that the nature of the work, the idea of a visual diary stemmed first from my intention to get closer to my sons as persons. I wanted to raise my sons to be who they were, not who I wanted them to be. The camera offered a great way to seize that core objectively. I did not want to raise my sons as I had been raised. My parents were old fashioned in the sense that one would never speak of personal things. My adolescence had been a mixture of extraordinarily intense discoveries and journeys, with many inner convictions and hopes, which forged who I am today. And yet I felt I could not share that with my parents who were very loving, but distant, in a particular way. I was determined for that not to happen with my sons; that the door—and the lens—would always be open. For me adolescence was a magical age, not one I dreaded. So as I embraced their journey. It also became part of mine.

Was there ever a time when you thought it would never work?

When I started the project, my two sons reacted in completely different ways. By focusing on the two boys as protagonists, I soon ran up against reality: Nicolas, then 14, was in full adolescent rebellion and resisted being photographed. On the other hand, Adrien, then 13, took a boyish delight in pleasing his mother and an equal delight in my slow 4 x 5 shooting process.

At the outset, I wanted to take a photo of my older son Nicolas going through his rebellion against me but never managed. I embraced his necessity to cut the umbilical cord but as it was too hurtful, I never had the right balance of compassion and artistic detachment, so I kept missing the shot. I wanted to explore the feeling I had in me of his rejection in order to supersede it as well as really understand the intense hate he exuded. One day it came together in Nicolas Resisting. Finding that balance between the subjective personal feelings and the objective canvassed photograph was an important stage in the process.

When did you know you had what it would take to make a book?

As soon as I committed to making a project about my sons and their friends during their adolescence, I decided to add work in "chapters," as I always envisioned the project as a book. And as early as 2007 I did a maquette, with Blurb. Deirdre Donahue, the legendary librarian at ICP, immediately ordered a copy of the book, which has only 3 chapters. That gesture also meant a lot to me.

Shot over a period of six years, how many images did you finally select for the series? What was the process of editing the images for the book with Steidl like?

I do not know yet. When I had my miraculous encounter with Mr. Steidl, on January 28, 2011, I was showing a maquette to a friend, Marc Yankus, at the Mercer Hotel. (I had just seen another publisher so I had the maquette in my bag.)  

As he and I were leafing though the book, I raised my eyes and I noticed Gerhard Steidl, just a table away, having dinner and sipping some white wine. I knew what he looked like because I had been at a book symposium in Switzerland the year before. I said to Marc, "Gerhard Steidl is sitting right in front of us, over there." He gasped,then said to me, "He's staring at the book. You should go over and show it to him" I said, "No, he is having dinner. It is past 10 pm." We continued to leaf through the pages. "He is still staring" said Marc. I said "I really do not think it is appropriate to barge in." And then things happened very quickly. We both sensed that Steidl was about to leave, and I think Marc took the book and started moving towards Gerhard, I followed and we sort of projected ourselves towards his table. So I was now face-to-face with Gerhard, I composed myself and said: "Hello I am a fine art photographer. This is the book I am looking to get published. Would you take a look at it?" Steidl said, "Sure" and made a gesture for me to sit down at his side. My friend Marc very discretely vanished.

After looking through the book for about 20 minutes, not saying a word, Gerhard remarked, "Ya. It is a good subject, these are good photographs, and it will make a good book". Then, I asked a succinct but important question, “Yes but would it make a good STEIDL book?” I do not think Gerhard was expecting that. “Yes, if you are not in a hurry!” I said “No,” and then I spit out “as long as it is before the end of 2012!."  I will be going to Gottingen in Germany to work on the final maquette and printing with Gerhard Steidl early in 2014 for a Spring launch. So we are not far of from the promise on that snowy day.

How did you arrive at the final group of 23 for the exhibition at The Gallery at Hermes?

Both myself and the curator, Cory Jacobs, wanted the exhibition of 23 photographs to have a clear chronological sense of the key rituals involved in my sons’ journey of discovery and metamorphosis. We also wanted to have a clear spatial component sense of the two settings of my work: New York and the South of France. And the third consideration was that, in the end, each photo should represent a key heightened state of mind in my sons’ adolescent experience, which could be like a universal adolescent moment. The nice thing about working with Cory and The Fondation Hermès is that we took our time to make those decisions. The process of working on the show, with all the aspects of it, started a year ago.

For me, this show is a real celebration. It is the story of six years of "my life" and "our life" unfolding as well as folding. My sons see the photographs and understand more fully who they are. That might be the greatest gift, the gift of revelation. My older son realized he had a tendency to be too introverted, and a rebel. The photos made him conscious of his adolescent distress, which he worked marvelously hard on overcoming. My younger son, Adrien, realized how loved he could be and that he needed also to love himself first and foremost. The photographs are revelations to the photographer but also to the subjects, in that they are a catharsis for growth and realization for the subjects involved, and perhaps, ultimately, for the viewers. As an artist, once the work is completed in its production and public display, I came to realize that it does not belong to me any more. So this exhibition is a kind of liberation for me.

Nicolas Napping.

What are you working on now?

I now realize that my work is about "A World with Two Sons," the subtitle of my book. So I have expanded the work into my sons' twenties, to show the subtle and specific rituals of passage involved in this young urban and highly aware generation. Nicolas is going to the NYU Tisch Film School, living at home (and he camped for 27 days at Occupy Wall Street). Adrien is studying at Bennington College, in Vermont, with a concentration in visual arts.

I am now organizing a Master Photographic Retreat, a one-week retreat for 12 to 14 committed photographers, with four mentors. I thought of creating this retreat for advanced photographers who want a break to reconsider and reposition their work with the help of key professionals who will provide one-to-one mentoring sessions as well as group master discussions. It will be the first program of its kind—not a shooting trip but rather a time to pause and reflect on one’s work and advancement as a photographer/artist, to build a stronger body of work and a strategy for the future. It will be held in my house in the South of France, which is a haven, near Arles, with breathtaking vistas. The workshop will be held immediately after Les Rencontres d’Arles, next July.

I am also continuing my work on Trades/Oficions/Métiers, which I started in 2011 in the South Bronx, where my studio is located. I photograph these "forgotten trades" and create portraits of workers whom I see every day as I walk to and from my studio. I portray the interiors of factories and workshops, machines and products of these diverse industries, from hard-core steel production and recycling, to seafood distribution, to more artisan trades like baking, printing, and canvas stretching.

In addition, I will soon begin a new multi-layered project on a "scented diary," uniting my love of scented constructions and visual imagery.

Martine Fougeron: Teen Tribe, continues at the Gallery at Hermès through November 8. Presented in association with FIAF/The French Institute/Alliance: Crossing the Line, the exhibition anticipates the Spring 2014 release by Steidl of Fougeron’s book, Teen Tribe: A World of Two Sons. The Gallery at Hermès, 4th Floor of Hermès at 691 Madison Avenue, NY, NY. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am-6 pm, Thursdays, 10am-7pm. Information.

Martine Fougeron was born in Paris in 1954 and studied at Wellesley College and l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris. After a successful career as a creative director in the fragrance industry, Fougeron turned to photography, studying at the International Center of Photography in New York. Fougeron has mounted solo shows in Los Angles, New York and Philadelphia and her work has also been exhibited internationally in China, France, Italy, South Korea, and Switzerland. Her work is held in major private and public collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She lives and works in New York.