Ambroise Tézenas on the Evolution of Photography in the Digital Age
Portrait of a Photographer of a Generation
I had the great opportunity to discuss with Ambroise Tézenas who shared with me valuable lessons and advice on pursuing photography as a career path and, in essence, on becoming an artist or rather, on living from one’s art. We talked about his own accomplishments, his career, but also discussed the evolutions of the photography industry and implications for younger generations. I’d like to share with you some moments out of this encounter.
But first, let me introduce him. French, 43 years old, with three kids, Ambroise Tézenas is a Parisian photographer or, as he would put it, he is a Parisian that lives from his photography. His passion for photography started when he was as young as 13 years old. He has since then earned multiple prizes, traveled to over 70 countries for (thanks to) his work, and published five books, of which two are collaborations.
Tézenas studied economy in college but he quickly decided that he wanted to live from his passion, photography. He studied at the School of Applied Arts of Vevey, near Lac Léman in Switzerland. He was then about 22 years old. At that time, military service was still mandatory in France, so, for a year, he became photo reporter for the army. After that, he moved to London for 3 years. That was the real starting point: he was a photographer for the Independent Magazine, the Telegraph and a French correspondent in London for L’Idée. He then decided to move back to a place he holds dear, Paris. As the discerning reader may have understood, each time he moved, he was following another love story. Once in Paris, he worked exclusively for an agency called Agence Editing, for two years.
By 2000, he came to the realization that photography is a profession of the independent. It was no longer sustainable to work exclusively for one magazine or agency. A photographer is a free spirit, if you will. Ambroise rethought his career and adapted to the changes in his industry. Since then, he does enough commissioned work to nurture and fund his personal projects – those that require the luxury of time.
Detailed below Ambroise Tézenas dives into his 30-year-old love story with his camera.
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What do you like about photography?
My goal is to capture history through the prism of my eyes.
A.T.: Through my photographs, I want to give my own testimony and representation of reality. And, in some way, what I try to do is to render photogenic the reality and to sublime it for my clients. Most of my reports have been on “post-news” events. So my main goal is to capture history through the prism of my eyes.
Pictures are made to spark interest.
A.T.: I enjoy the intellectual aspect of the photographic act. It is a real brain teaser to manage to reconcile the form with the substance, to transcribe the vision of reality in my pictures into real life. I particularly like to trigger questioning and debate through conceptual work. I think that pictures are made to spark interest.
It’s a never-ending story that I am building picture after picture.
A.T.: I know when and where I start but I never know when my work is over or where it will take me. Picture after picture, I am building a never-ending story. One of hardest parts is knowing when to stop, what will be the last shot of a series for a book, without feeling that your work is unfinished. It may seem frustrating but I’d have to say that it is also what drives my passion for photography, this constant search and the unknown time constant.
The Turning Point
Tézenas published his first book, Beijing, Theater of the People, in 2006. After he won the Picture Editor Laika Prize that same year, Kathy Ryan from New York Times Magazine (head of photography since 1987) stumbled upon his work and was instantly swept away by his pictures. His book was translated into seven languages and his career, propelled. This was the culmination of a self-funded personal project from 2001 to 2005, on the urban transformation of Beijing prior to the Olympic Games of 2008.
What was your best memory in your career so far?
A.T.: Without a doubt, receiving the price at Arles by the very hands of Raymond Depardon (French photographer, 30 years his senior), was a real privilege – one of the best memories. It gave me a boost, a confirmation that I was on the right track and recognition from my peers of what I had accomplished so far.
But truly, each minute I spend on the set abroad for photo reports is an incredible memory (he did start citing a very long list). Well, I’ve been doing this for 22 years now and I am not blasé at all. I realize how lucky I am and it’s one of my drivers. Icing on the cake: when your commissioned work is in line with your own interests and nurtures your personal projects – I’m lucky enough that more and more of my commissioned works align with my personal objectives.
I have to admit that, really, I have the most wonderful job in the world.
A Trigger Moment in His Commitment to Photography
Tézenas recalled with emotion his first commissioned report. In 1993, he was asked to make a report in Lebanon on the Shuf Christian society (southeast of Beirut). Encouraged by his father to go “do his job,” after much dithering, he agreed to leave in spite of serious family issues. It was a decision that he didn’t make lightly. Hence, choosing photography over his personal life marked his deep commitment to his camera and confirmed his inner calling. When he came back from Lebanon, his father had passed away. Tézenas already had an undeniable relationship to photography but that moment anchored his commitment. The photographic act now channels his emotions and has helped him move forward. It’s his own kind of psychotherapy – his way of doing and standing the test of time.
Living from One’s Art Versus being an Artist
Everyone wants to be an artist… But it doesn’t mean a thing.
The very notion of ‘artist’ is fragile. You may have something to say once, but you don’t necessarily have things to say twice… “We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!” (Marlow in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). So much interest renders the notion meaningless. It has been overused. The ambition you could have is that of living from your art, not of being an artist. Tézenas values hard work, the thirst for knowledge and curiosity over talent. For him, what’s at stake is not having a spark of talent but rather being consistent to pursue that talent and work on it every day. That’s how you build your career – it is a long and windy road.
People call themselves artists a little too fast.
Fun fact: did you know there actually is a wikiHow on “How to Become a Professional Photographer”?
Digital vs Film Photography: a Return to Film?
There is an ongoing debate amongst professionals of the industry over a significant return to film photography, as if a professional photographer would distinguish oneself from amateurs with their digitally enhanced photographs, with film photography. To be truthful, Tézenas was very clear on this and rendered that debate mute.
Yes, for all of his personal work, he uses silver photography, 4 by 5, working in the dark room – but he also uses digital for most of his commissioned work. And yet, even 90% of the work commissioned by the Times is, on the other hand, done on film. He has a preference for film photography but unlike some peers, he does not claim that it’s the only way to work. It is only his personal preference.
What’s to understand to end the debate is that these two forms of photography imply two very distinct photographic acts. Whereas with digital photography you can take as many pictures as you’d like – all the work then lying within your selection and digital retouching – film photography is more expensive and will restrict the number of pictures you can take. When using film, one strides up and down the landscape, waits for the right lighting, analyzes the environment, before taking the picture. It requires more time and patience and you can’t take more than 10 shots in a day!
Interestingly enough, film photography implies a completely different photographic act: in digital photography you spend a lot of time picking the right picture through the lot you shot but in film photography there are times when you finish a work day without a single decent shot! This frustration of the photographer is part of the essence of the photographic act. Ambroise honestly explained that out of all the pictures he takes throughout a year, there are maybe 4 or 5 he would legitimately defend as works of art. Although that may be severe self-judgement, his point here is that photography, and especially film photography, requires patience, perspective and involves frustration.
Photo Credit: Ambroise Tézenas
How the Digital Age Influenced the World of Photography
Tézenas’s first commissioned works were for magazines. This was a time when magazines still commissioned photo reports, and when digital was not prominent in the industry but that time is long gone. Ambroise had to adapt, to reinvent his way to work to live from photography and mostly to evolve in a world where the job of photographer was still undefined, blurry. No doubt, the digital revolution has had a tremendous impact on how companies now view photography and visual content overall.
Tézenas was then at the crossroads of two generations: the old school claiming “it was better before” and the digital natives. He made the choice to be true to himself, by sticking to silver photography for his personal projects, all the while adapting and living in his time, by taking up social media for instance. This table synthesizes the evolutions and interactions of different generations towards digital and their communication preferences. In a world, where millennials are growing into the working population, it is more than crucial for a photographer to adapt! The boom of social media and smartphones with high quality cameras have made it easier than ever to take a beautiful picture – anyone can do it. So my question for him was rather to know if this was a threat to photography as a profession, and if it would diminish the value of visuals and of the ‘beautiful image.’
For Tézenas, this uproar for photography is a tremendous opportunity – sure it may be leveling down the overall appreciation for visuals, but nothing alarming. Our American peers (journalists, agents, even photographers…) have understood how crucial it is today to be influent on social media and particularly on Instagram for photographers. Yet, Ambroise nuances and pinpoints that Instagram is just a fad: handling the new marketing tools is essential but balancing them out with the “old fashioned” way is more important.
Further, we had a very interesting dialogue on cultural management jobs at the digital age. We came to the conclusion that what is really threatened by the digital evolution are not so much the professions of photographers but rather all the collateral professions. Indeed, this photographic craze has brought contempt towards the professions of curators, galleries and intellectuals reflecting on photography. Can anyone claim to be an expert?
Nevertheless,Tézenas appeared to me as an advocate of the digital age and encouraged the democratization of the image. To him, it represents an opportunity that photographers need to embrace rather than anything else. Taking a beautiful picture won’t make a photographer out of you. Reality check. There is an intensity involved in the photographic act that you cannot fake.
What actually is challenging for a photographer is to insert a story and time dimension to the picture. Even more so, to create a photo series that could make a book.
4 Pieces of Advice from Tézenas to Younger Photographers
Entering adulthood, you come to wonder what it means to actually accomplish yourself, fulfill your ambitions. Will you get there? When will you make it? Will you ever feel that you are making something out of yourself? “One is not born a woman; one becomes one” according to Simone de Beauvoir. Well, the same goes for photographers – it requires, yes, talent, but mostly a lot of hard work and patience. But then again, nothing great ever came easy… Here are some key points from Tézenas on how to get there.
I wouldn’t want to be a millennial photographer. Younger photographers, on top of everything else, have to find their way past all those amateurs that claim to be photographers today and have tools to promote themselves as such.
1. Learn from the elders. Photography is surely a “young” art but it has history. The masters of photography will provide you with the best advice. You need to learn from the masters before claiming that you went beyond them. I do several talks in photography schools and I am astonished by the lack of culture of younger photographers! Knowing about the history of photography is part of your legacy.
2. Look at what others do. Today there is some disinterest which blinds younger generations of photographers and confines them in their own arrogance and yet ignorance. But the richness of our industry lies in our sight and curiosity, that’s how we get our best inspiration, from the world surrounding us.
3. Be true to yourself, honest and sincere, always. That sincerity needs to be nurtured, to grow, to mature in order to have a solid base in your style. That foundation – your values, style and subjects of predilection – will help you affirm yourself as an aspiring artist. You must take ownership and live like it is truly your profession.
4. Don’t satisfy yourself with a couple of successful shots you took. It’s important to manage to take a step back from the heat of the moment. Get out there and take pictures. As many as you can. Work on your photographer’s eye. It is not innate. Being a photographer is first and foremost constantly engaging in the photographic act.
Concluding this impactful encounter and thorough insight into Tézenas’s photographic world is one of my favorite shots by Ambroise Tézenas. He took this at Parc Monceau, in the 8th Arrondissement in Paris. I occasionally go running through this park and I have to say that he captured beautifully the emotions that the park may inspire on a cloudy day.
Photo Credit: Ambroise Tézenas
What truly struck me most about Tézenas was his critical perspective on his work and career, his sincerity and accessibility. I admire the humbleness and pragmatism of this down-to-earth author-photographer. His biggest challenge now? Finding the right balance between his personal projects and his commissioned works: essentially being able to dedicate more time to the former.
The best is yet to come and I encourage you to keep your eyes wide open for more series from this photographer. Until then, to go beyond the snippets reported here, check out his three monographs Beijing: Theater of the People, Tourisme de la désolation and I was here.
You can also find him at the Arles Photography Festival in France this summer from the 7th to the 9th of July 2016 and before then, you can visit his exhibition in Nantes at Mélanie Rio’s gallery, if ever you’re in town.
Recommended reading: “THE SOCHI PROJECT“
Images courtesy of Ambroise Tézenas.