I’ve always had difficulty speaking about my work. So I’ve gotten authorization from my friend Raphaëlle Stopin to reproduce the interview that we did about my images as part of my collaboration with Artligue Publishing:
Rémi Noël is not one of those people who started photography at age 6 with their grandfather’s Rolleiflex. He was already 30 when he felt compelled to create images and shot a few still lives in his Paris apartment. As someone who trained in advertising and masters the language, he enjoys concision: in literature, he tends to prefer short stories – in cinema, short films. As a photographer, he tries to tell brief stories captured at a glance. He quickly left Parisian interiors behind to embark on annual ten-day expeditions to the American West, where – in black and white – he explores the archetypes of American mythology: motels and their neon signs, desert expanses and the highways that crisscross them. Noël often includes a picture in the picture, sometimes borrowed from art history’s glorious achievements (say Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde) or from Z-movie and airport novel culture (Le Secret des Antarix or the jigsaw puzzle pinup girl). All of these visual references are remixed in Rémi Noël’s photography, resulting in fun images full of tongue-in-cheek references.
YOU STARTED AS A COPYWRITER IN AN AD AGENCY, AND YOU’RE NOW A CREATIVE DIRECTOR. IN THE MEANTIME, YOU BECAME A PHOTOGRAPHER. HOW DID IMAGES COME INTO YOUR LIFE?
I started late in photography. I hadn’t studied graphic design: I started in an ad agency as a copywriter. I didn’t really have a visual culture, but rubbed shoulders with art directors, photographers, and understood that my main interest was basically visual, even though I had no technical skills whatsoever. As a copywriter, I was denied access to images; I started taking pictures to compensate for the frustration. And in adworld, where things always end up with a logo in the corner, photography allowed me to create more freely. I was probably around 30 when I got started, and soon realized I was really keen, almost obsessively in fact.
YOUR PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS VERY MUCH LINKED TO TRAVELLING…
Very much so: I need to go abroad. In France, the scenery looks all too familiar, it doesn’t inspire me. I work almost exclusively in the United States because it’s not that different from France: it’s a modern, Western country – the ingredients are almost the same, but there’s always an added hint of exoticism. I travel to the US once a year, on my own, stay ten days and take pictures. Apart from then, I don’t walk around with a camera.
The only pictures I took in Paris are still lives I shot at home in the very beginning.
WHY ARE YOU SO ATTRACTED TO THE AMERICAN WEST, TO THE GREAT OUTDOORS?
There’s a form of streamlined simplicity in the landscape. I mostly visit Southern and South-Western states, Texas or California, often in winter, for the light and milder weather. I find it hard to work in urban environments, in saturated places, probably because I’m a bit shy and need a quiet comfort zone when photographing.
THESE BARE EXPANSES FEEL A BIT LIKE CANVASES ON WHICH YOU STAGE YOUR SCENES: IS THAT HOW YOU SEE THINGS?
I do like purely contemplative images in which nothing happens, but I leave that to others who are better at it. Perhaps it’s a professional bias: I always prefer pictures where something’s going on, where there’s an idea. In my work, I always try to tell a little story and keep it simple. Which may be why I have chosen to use black and white to focus on the idea, to be more concise. When I do colour, it feels scattered and confused. When I place an object or a Batman figure in a landscape – as I have often done – it serves as a kind of excuse for me to stick my tripod in a beautiful landscape that would otherwise be difficult to shoot just for itself.
MANY OF YOUR IMAGES CONTAIN REFERENCES – BUT FROM A VERY BROAD SPECTRUM! FROM COURBET TO Z-MOVIES?
That’s right: I would say they extend from Hopper to Snoopy. It probably comes from my day job – being a sponge, absorbing everything around me.
When I was a kid, I used to love Sempé; now, I love American cartoonists, with their permanent witty nods to things, as much as Friedlander, Boubat or Courbet.
DO YOU PREPARE YOUR IMAGES IN ADVANCE? HOW MUCH YOU LEAVE TO CHANCE?
Before I set off for the US, I usually have images in mind, things that come to me all year long; I take notes. I often scribble a sketch, and once I get there, I just wait for the right moment, the right location.
For these two images, for instance, I had been looking for that puzzle for a while: I ended up buying one on eBay, from a U.S. seller, and took it back to the States. The book is also something I brought along in my suitcase. I leave home with ideas I want to bring to fruition: sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t – if so, I try again the following year. There’s a constant in my work, which I think can be felt in these two images: they were taken ten years apart, but they could be contemporary.
I have old habits too: I still work with film, using the same camera and the same 50mm lens. I work in daylight or ambient artificial light. I use no lighting, flash etc., I just have a tripod allowing longer exposure times in low light. Like in this hotel room. It’s very hand-crafted in a sense, it always leaves room for chance. For Flying Saucer, for instance, I had planned everything, and then this car drove by with its headlights on, which was just perfect. There are always happy little accidents that can make an image lively and magical.