There is an evolutionary trajectory and a satisfying sense of artistic Darwinism to the career arc of Gérard Rancinan, one of the most celebrated fine art photographers of his generation.
Today, Rancinan’s grand painterly compositions and glossy, glib spoofs hang on influential gallery walls across the globe. But our story begins some five decades ago, when a school dropout took a workmanlike gig as a darkroom apprentice at a French regional newspaper.
Set loose as a beat photographer at 18, Rancinan’s images of the Spanish Basque conflict soon got him hired by the then-leading agency Sygma, covering the most newsworthy events of the day – from warzones and national disasters to sporting spectacles and Hollywood stars. He would become the first person to win the World Press Photo of the Year award six times.
In the mid-’80s Rancinan struck out solo and found his reputation had travelled far enough to gain audiences shooting the world’s most influential people – dream portrait subjects such as Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, Yasser Arafat, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods and Dalai Lama – while commanding the covers of leading publications such as Life Magazine, Paris Match and The Sunday Times.
And then came the suprise third act in an already glittering career: Rancinan’s remarkable, dramatic reinvention as one of the world’s most in-demand – and handsomely compensated – fine-art photographers. His prestigious exhibitions have travelled from London’s National Portrait Gallery to the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, and individual works frequently sell for six-figure, US-dollar sums. Rancinan’s income is meanwhile subsidised by charging around US$50,000 for private portrait shoots. In 2013, the year of his 60th birthday, he was made an Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Despite its divergent strands, throughout this career arc – from hard news to portraiture to fine art – Rancinan’s voice has remained constant, his integrity intact, each experience shaping and feeding the next. He is and always has been, he says, a mirror of the world he encounters.
“Today all this work – Sygma, the war in Lebanon, the Olympics in Los Angeles, the movies [sets] I shot for Bernardo Bertolucci and [Akira] Kurosawa, portraits of Fidel Castro and the Pope – today it’s all my inspiration,” he says. “They built me – all these people brought me on their shoulders.”
Over the past two decades the Frenchman has authored a bold and distinctive style, marked by a painterly precision, stark social critique and copious references to culture high and low: overt homages to renaissance art and religious imagery butt heads with playful pop culture riffing.
From his monumental Metamorphoses series, Rancinan recast Gericault’s 19th century masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa as the apocalyptic vision The Raft of Illusions, while Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is echoed in the unsightly overweight diners of The Big Supper. Gluttony is a recurring theme: the Mickey Mouse-masked Family Watching TV were inspired, he tells me, by watching an identically dressed “big, fat – very fat” family gorge themselves on fast food at an American airport.
Grandest of all might be The Feast of Barbarians, a five-metre spectacle featuring a cast of 20 models (and two rhinos) which broke records, selling for more than US$300,000. It closes the Trilogie des Modernes, a confrontational, 50-image series spawning three books, films and soundtracks, conceived and executed alongside writer and frequent collaborator Caroline Gaudriault.
At its core, Rancinan’s work pulsates with paradoxes. He presents historical grandeur with the gloss of a fashion shoot, biblical weight with internet age irreverence – images at once deep and shallow, shocking but profound, erudite yet facile – instantly comprehendible, while haunting for hours. Beautifully composed, yet grotesquely ugly in what they reveal.
“I don’t make a decoration – it’s impossible for me,” adds Rancinan, wrapping up the second of two long, warm but charged calls from his studio in Paris. “For me, art is always a pollical act, we have to be a witness of our contemporaries, it’s the role of the artist – because we are free to say what we want.
“Nobody else can say the same, so the responsibility of the photographer, of the artist is so, so important – we are in competition with god,” he adds. “We stop time.”
Can you remember your first camera?
It was a Rolleiflex, I was 16 years old exactly. School for me was complicated, I felt like a prisoner – my father thought about me: “Gérard is very creative, I have to find something for him”. He was a worker in a newspaper in Bordeaux, Sud Ouest, so he asked the photo department, “are you looking for a young learner?”. I started like that – for me, I didn’t want to be a photographer, I was very young, but I learnt with very incredible people, very chic, elegant, very sensitive, and they explained to me not only what photography is, but what is life.
When did you realise photography was your life?
I learnt very fast. I spent three years in the laboratory, printing others’ photos, after that I started learning as a photographer, and my ambition was so big. I pushed the limits since the beginning, because the people around me pushed me, and after three years working I dreamt to go to Life Magazine – I imagined myself to be the best photographer in the world.
Then you joined Sygma and shot some of the biggest news events of the period. What did reporting from all these diversely charged situations – warzones, sports events, film sets – teach you about human nature, and how does it effect your fine art work today?
One day I can shoot the Pope, another a big movie star, another a 100-metre [sprinting] champion – it’s completely different, but also it’s the same picture every time. It’s not different, since I started my work it’s always the same picture. Because I talk about humanity – I am a witness, of the metamorphosis of our contemporaries – this is the role of the photographer. So my work is to make a portrait of our humanity.
It’s exactly one line – it never stopped since I shot my first, first picture until today – it’s just one picture. I have more than 100,000 pictures in my library, but it’s always the same picture, there is no hierarchy in my work.
Critics have noted the one thing which unites all your work is provocation – a power to shock.
Of course – it’s very important to shock, to be provocative. Many photographers and artists provoke just to provoke – “oh look at that, I have the big dick” – but I don’t care about that, it’s not my problem. My goal is to provoke a reaction – when I shot The Raft of Illusions, 15 years of ago, it was provocative because I took a picture from the Louvre and I rebuilt it with modern people – but it’s exactly the same thing, nothing changed, it’s humanity.
And also, I want to talk about the link between the artists, we are just nobody. The artist who thinks they will change the world is just a little bit pretentious.
How do you approach a shoot with a public figure, and is it possible to prepare too much?
When I was invited by Fidel Castro, for example, I prepared nothing, nothing at all – I have just a camera, maybe sometimes one assistant, and I go directly to visit the guy. I just find a location that’s easy from where these people live, we go and I shoot a picture, that’s all. Because I don’t care about what these guys do – it’s just an interpretation, what I can imagine of him.
How do you get such an invite? You just call them up?
Exactly – I have staff, people who work with me, we send pictures – at the beginning it was a little bit complicated, but now because everybody knows my work, it’s easier.
Anybody ever say no to your approaches?
No, not really, because I choose who I want to meet, who I want to photograph.
What do all these diverse public figures you have shot have in common, what connects them?
All these people are for me – and for humanity and the world – very, very charismatic and important people, very powerful. Today the dream for me is to shoot a portrait of Donald Trump, or [Vladimir] Putin – fantastique – fantastic people.
Of course –
You find Trump fantastic?
It’s a provocation – this is my work. Today Donald Trump is very charismatic, I’m not in agreement with him – of course, because he’s a political person, and it’s impossible to agree with any politicians – it’s impossible, because all is fake. But it’s like a theatre. When Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un, it’s an incredible image, it’s a human comedy. You have to be the witness of that.
What inspired the creative stirrings that led you to art photography?
As a photojournalist, at the beginning I believed the reality, the sincerity – when I went to Lebanon for the war, several times, I imagined myself as a witness of the war – but all, was, fake. Everything was manipulated by the government, PR from the army – British, American – everything fake. And I realised… I’m not free. That is why I said if I want to be free I have two things to do: First I have to win the economic war, to be free to produce all my work myself. And after that I have to create what I have in my head. How I imagine what’s happening in the world, maybe it’s a little bit more sincere compared to the official version.
What comes first, the message you want to get across, or a visual concept? The image or the idea? Talk us through the process of realising, say, Batman Girls.
I think of the concept: How can I present the perfect European family – a stupid one – the guy is working every day in finance, the woman is a complete depressive because she’s bought many expensive handbags and says she wants to save the world, but really she saves only herself, and the children will be even worse than the parents. This is the aim of the picture. In fact, I think that [idea], and afterwards I try to find the perfect simple image, how I can illustrate this idea. All my work begins with an idea, I never start with an image.
It could be pointed out, when you sell paintings for six-figure sums – such as Batman Girls – that you’re part of this elite, consumptive, world you satirise.
Of course I’m a part of that, which is why I can be a very good critic – it’s easy for me, because I am in this modern world – I’m not an outsider, I don’t say “I’m not in this big shit”, I’m in the middle of it. I’m a consumer, I use an iPhone, I watch TV, I read the newspaper, magazines, I make a lot of exhibitions, a lot of people come and say “Gérard, you’re fantastic” – I’m completely in this world. And the people who buy these pictures, or people who ask me to shoot a portrait of them, are also the people in my work. They buy themselves. And I am in each one – it’s a self-portrait of me in each picture.
Tell us about your upcoming new series, Before Memory (which opens at Beijing’s Sea+ on October 10).
We’re talking about the idealisation of our past – why human beings always idealise the past… when it’s completely wrong. People died at 25 years old without teeth, everybody was completely sick – but maybe we do that because we are afraid of the future. To live in the present – every day to go to work to earn money, in big traffic – it’s very hard. This is why people idealise the past.
How much do you worry about how your work performs at auction?
It’s just a market – the market is not art. We don’t care – okay, of course we have to be proud when it’s a good reserve [price], and we need to sell a lot of photos because the production and studio are expensive and we have to pay everybody – but we fight for that. The market is just a nightmare and it’s impossible to control it. There are four, five, ten people who make the market in the world… But it’s fake, completely fake – the price of one Picasso is US$500 million? Why? It’s just a painting.
The work of Jeff Koons is just stupid, but the piece of art is not the work, it’s Jeff Koons himself – it’s completely polished – glossy on the front and empty inside. It’s nothing. Art is completely dead today, dead because it’s not courageous – today there is no more provocation. Who today is engaged? Jeff Koons? [Takashi] Murakami? Marina Abramović? What does their work mean? Nothing, nothing, it’s just for the decoration – it’s a bourgeoise art. Today there is only one art.
Only one art?
Everywhere in the world, you see the same artists – you can go to China, Hong Kong, Paris, Madrid, London, and in the museums see exactly the same thing. There is no competition, no personality – it’s a global art, really, it’s a global shit – because all the curators of these museums come from the same school. There are just ten people who make the art in the world. It’s a political message. It’s political ideology. And ideologies are nothing – nothing. Don’t talk, nothing. Really, it’s incredible.
But where is the freedom of art if you think like that? This is why it’s impossible to produce only one art, we have to have revolutionaries – an artist is good only when he’s part of the revolution. We have to fight, to explain the world, to push the limits – if not, it’s a decoration. Voilà!