Agnès Varda and photography
As well as working as a costume designer for the cinema and theatre, Rosalie Varda runs Agnès Varda’s family production company, Ciné-Tamaris, based in Rue Daguerre in Paris.
A street named after the great photographer. One of the small details and coincidences Agnès Varda loved to highlight and give deeper meaning to. She did just that with her film Daguerréotypes, a portrait gallery of the street’s residents.
For The Darkroom Rumour, Rosalie Varda talks about her mother’s relationship with photography and working with Diamantino Quintas. She speaks movingly about Agnès Varda’s world of which photography was perhaps the cornerstone.
Emmanuel Bacquet: Photography was Agnès Varda’s first medium and she constantly merged photography and film, photographing film, filming photography: the photo archive must be considerable?
Rosalie Varda: Agnès Varda had three lives: photographer, film director and visual artist.
Her working life began in 1949 when Jean Vilar, director of the Théâtre National Populaire and founder of the Avignon Festival, hired her to play bit parts and assist with stage management. Then she suggested taking photos of the plays and that’s how she became the Théâtre National Populaire’s official photographer! She didn’t only document the plays but backstage too. These archives of the TNP’s troupe are precious.
The TNP was not only an extraordinary human adventure, it actually changed the face of French theatre. The actors were all paid the same, even those who were also film stars, such as Gérard Philipe and Maria Casarès.
Agnès worked as a photographer until the mid-sixties, when she moved to the States.
Before that, she had always been interested in film.
In 1954 she wrote and directed her first feature film: La Pointe Courte.
The photographs she took during the planning stage and the film’s very sophisticated framing prove she was already combining photography and film. Also, her interest in documentary making is evident in this film, which interweaves the tale of a troubled relationship and the life of the fishermen of Sète.
Then, in 1958, she made a short, l’Opéra-Mouffe, for which she photographed the outcasts, tramps and drunks of Paris’s Rue Mouffetard before filming them.
In fact, in the archives, we found a very beautiful book in which she stuck all her location shots after printing them herself in her home darkroom in Rue Daguerre in 1958. It’s a wonderful document, with the photographs accompanied by handwritten captions and notes.
Her archives contain some absolute gems. Shérine, who works with me, and I are constantly discovering things.
I assisted my mother for fifteen years in her work as an artist and film director. I knew her photographic archive to some degree, as we worked on exhibitions together, but not its full extent.
I have to admit that it’s only since she left us that the Ciné-Tamaris team has really started inventorying, cataloguing and actually discovering it… It’s a treasure trove.
Although Agnès and I had our hearts set on her sharing information and anecdotes with me about her work, I regret not having spent longer going over her photos of the 1950s and 1960s. I realise now that we were really focused on the present and the future, with exciting new exhibition and film projects!
Her photographic archive is pretty extensive, with some 20,400 negatives, and is not widely known. Obviously the photographs of the Théâtre National Populaire, with Jean Vilar, Maria Casarès, Gérard Philipe, Jeanne Moreau and all the others, were published in the press at the time then later in textbooks and other books on the theatre, which reproduced her famous photos of El Cid, Hamlet and Ruy Blas. But, in fact, the prints remained in a cupboard and the negatives in the wooden boxes in which Agnès had put them in the 1950s when she catalogued them. Many of the negatives are 6x6, Leica 24x36, or even 9x12.
The work we’ve just begun is very interesting. We’re finally going to be able to show her photographs to audiences, exhibition visitors and collectors!
EB: You recently exhibited a small part of her photographic archive at the Nathalie Obadia gallery in Paris: “Valentine Schlegel by Agnès Varda”. The show featured some beautiful black and white prints and 6x6 and 9x12 medium format negatives. Did Diamantino Quintas print the pictures for this exhibition?
RV: In November 2020, at the Nathalie Obadia gallery in Paris, we presented a small exhibition modestly titled Valentine Schlegel by Agnès Varda. I got the idea when I was contacted by a journalist from the French weekly supplement M le magazine du Monde, Sabine Maida, who asked me for photos of the sculptures and ceramics of Valentine Schlegel – a teenage friend of Agnès – for a portfolio of her artwork.
When I delved into the archive, I realised that we had a huge amount of little-known photographs and I decided to ask Nathalie to mount the exhibition. We showed vintage prints (the prints Agnès made in her darkroom in the 1950s) and new posthumous gelatin silver prints alongside some of Valentine Schlegel’s sculptures and ceramics from my collection.
It’s great to think that today we can show photographs previously only visible on contact sheets and make magnificent new gelatin silver prints.
My decision to work with Diamantino Quintas makes perfect sense: he knew Agnès, her exacting nature and her artistic preferences. He had already printed many pictures under our Agnès’s precise and meticulous eye… Seeing Diamantino look at a negative in his laboratory is always a significant moment. He is erudite and exacting as well as a true artisan. He always tries to enhance the subject, as if he were putting himself in the photographer’s place.
EB: Did Diamantino assist you in the selection process? What was it like to work with him?
RV: He does tests and shows me prints with different degrees of contrast, different degrees of brightness, and different degrees of brilliance.
Talking to his retoucher, who touches up the pictures and removes marks and other blemishes, makes me think of my childhood: I was allowed to touch up Agnès’s photos with Indian ink. Not the faces, of course, but the backgrounds. I loved holding the very fine small brush, consisting of just a few bristles. You had to wet the brush with saliva and then, on the photo, you filled in the little gaps or concealed the stripes on the negative… it was a painstaking task!
EB: What was Agnès Varda relationship with photography printing?
RV: I grew up with the smell of solvent and the darkroom’s red light which, when it was on, indicated that we weren’t to go in because Agnès was busy printing.
So as a young girl, I learnt all about the technical aspects of photography but strangely enough, I have never practised it, or only with disposable or digital cameras to capture holiday memories of my children… as if the only person to practise photography was my mother. It’s amusing that, towards the end of her life, she liked me to make portraits of her as if she were becoming my model.
My “Proust’s madeleine” is the smell of those solvents. I love it, it instantly takes me back to the past. I can see myself coming home from school, walking across the courtyard, where there was a tray full of prints soaking, with the tap on and the constant stream of water sounding like a waterfall, and going into Agnès’s workshop, putting my satchel on the big wooden desk then sitting down and doing my homework.
Bienvenida Llorca (a Spanish political refugee because her husband was a member of the opposition) was often there.
She would put away the photos as they came out of the glazer and retouch prints to be sent to press agencies. I loved being surrounded by all that activity and helping out.
So it was very moving to go and see Diamantino for the Valentine Schlegel by Agnès Varda exhibition prints and to take him negatives that I had never seen before and he was seeing for the first time.
There is something exciting about selecting a picture.
The 6x6 format is already a fabulous format. Removing the negative from its tracing paper sleeve (on which my mother often wrote the reference number in red ink), giving it to Diamantino so he could enhance the photo thanks to his craftsmanship, the choice of paper and his know-how, which is something intangible, subjective… All of this brings the photograph to life.
I really enjoyed working with him. I was usually always with Agnès, but this time it was just the two of us.
Agnès is no longer here, but it is almost a three-way conversation because she is with us in spirit!
We try to do our best and most importantly, we try to ask ourselves, “How would Agnès have wanted this photo?” “Would she have wanted a bit more light, a bit more contrast?” “Would she have wanted – as she used to in her darkroom – to put her hand on the enlarger to diffuse the light a bit?”
Agnès was very tech-savvy, even with the latest technology! She had the ability to adapt instantly. She lived through the twentieth century, from the darkroom to the digital era. As early as 2000, she was adept at digital photography.
That’s when we started working with Granon photo lab, based like us in Rue Daguerre (what luck!), and in particular with Gérard Issert, who has become a friend over the years.
Agnès was always very forceful and amusing. Towards the end of her life, despite her eye problems and the macular degeneration that prevented her from seeing clearly, she was capable of showing us something that needed retouching or telling us to make another print because there was a bit too much contrast in the background! It used to make Gérard and I laugh. We wondered how she could spot details that her illness should have prevented her seeing.
She had a very healthy relationship, I think, with her work. She wasn’t a nitpicker. She was skilled and exacting.
EB: Did she often ask Diamantino to do her printing?
RV: Diamantino is the only lab she worked with for her analogue photography in the final years.
Before that, in the eighties, she worked a lot with Pictorial photo lab. She was great fiends with Georges Fèvre, who was the director of “Picto”.
And then, for colour prints, we used to go to Publiphoto.
After, in 2005, 2006, we went to Cyclope too, in Paris.
EB: Agnès Varda filmed photography a lot; animating her still images and setting them to jazz in Cuba, exploring the mysteries of a single photograph in Ulysse and, with Visages, Villages (Faces Places), finding a playmate in JR. Not to mention, and this is less well known, the 172 shorts each devoted to an iconic image in the history of photography.
RV: Agnès filmed photography a lot.
In 1963, she made a documentary, Salut les Cubains, which she conceived and filmed in Cuba. Before she went, she had already decided to make the film with a rostrum camera, that is, to shoot 24x36 photos with her Leica in Cuba and then, once back in Paris, to film the shots then edit the images and add a voiceover.
It’s a political film which, in a very specific period, highlights the Cuban revolution and its utopia. It is also a terrific, joyful and musical account of what she saw of the country and the people she met!
It’s amusing because when you watch it today, you actually forget that they’re just photos as the editing is so rhythmical and intelligent that you almost get the impression that it’s filmed, when in fact they are photographs.
The second film project on photography that she undertook, which was very interesting, was based on a picture she had taken in 1954, one of her “iconic” images, which is called Ulysse. It’s a picture taken on the beach at Veules-les-Roses, in Normandy, in which we see a naked man from behind, a little boy sitting on the pebbles typical of the beaches of northern France, which don’t have much sand, and a dead goat and bird.
Drawing inspiration from this rather mysterious picture, she decided to make a short film about the before, the after, the why; who is in this picture, what has become of them and the relationship it continues to have, or not, with the protagonists.
This film, Ulysse, which is a short made in 1982 that won the César for Best Short Documentary, addresses in a fascinating way the question of the instant, Cartier-Bresson’s approach of capturing “the decisive moment”. It should be seen by all photography students!
Agnès brings this moment back to life by entering the photograph and trying to explain what has happened. I am extremely fond of this filmmaker’s exercise which, I find, also really highlights what it means to be a photographer, that is, why, all of a sudden, you position figures, frame the shot, choose the angle and push the button to capture the moment.
When she composed this photograph, she did not know that twenty-eight years later she would resurrect the composition’s “models” …
In 1983, she initiated and made, with the help of the French National Centre for Photography and the channel FR3, a series of short films called Une Minute pour une image. It’s a pretty extraordinary idea: to tell the story of a photograph in one minute.
They were supposed to be like albums – ten or fifteen photographs chosen by a personality. Agnès filmed them with a rostrum camera and then spoke in a voiceover about the photograph with another person she had chosen. They talked about what could be seen in it and the emotion they felt when looking at it. They analysed, dreamed, and invented while looking at the image. The idea was one of transmission.
The series was broadcast every day after the France 3 evening news and then, the following day, the picture was published with an extract of the narration in the morning edition of Libération newspaper.
I would love (it is one of the projects I have in mind) to produce a DVD and book set of it.
Une Minute pour une image was really an interesting exercise for Agnès and she threw herself into it. Once again, with it, she found a way to share. One mission she felt strongly about was image education – how to teach a new generation about images. I think Une Minute pour une image should really be shown in schools and high schools.
When Agnès worked with the artist JR for Visages Villages (Faces Places) in 2015-2016, she found in him a playmate (young artist – photographer), she went back with him to Veules-les-Roses, to that Normandy beach. She was able to tell him how she had staged the photograph Ulysse. I like this idea of transmission… returning to a place with other artists, other people… Continuing a story!
EB: Was the show in Paris a foretaste of a future major international “Agnès Varda The Photographer” exhibition?
RV: We would obviously love to see a major Agnès Varda exhibition mounted.
But before that, we have a number of very interesting projects.
For instance, I’m currently working with the Institute for Photography in Lille and its director, Anne Lacoste, on preserving the contact sheets and negatives so they can be indexed. Then there will be several exhibitions at the Institute for Photography in Lille and elsewhere...
The photographs are ready and waiting to travel!!
Rosalie Varda, in Paris on February 17th, 2021
Translated from French by Susannah Rooke
On her return from the States in 1969, the darkroom and studio were converted into an apartment and office. She stopped printing her own pictures.