Since his first exhibition in 1983 dedicated to actress Isabelle Adjani, photographer Jean-François Lepage (born in 1960) has shot spreads for the most important fashion magazines, collaborated for renowned couture houses and portrayed various top models. Distancing himself from the homologated glamor of fashion, Lepage’s photographs speak of surreal landscapes and enigmatic, solitary and meditative characters. His language marked a great change in fashion photography. Closer to plastic arts, his rigorously analogic works blend drawing, painting and collage. Following his solo show "Memories from the Future" (2013), Lepage tell us about his creative process, his method and his imagery, while dispensing advice for those taking the first steps in this field, which is increasingly lacking in originality and courage.

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
Untitled #7, 2013 © Jean-François Lepage  - "Memories from the future"

Let's begin with your latest exhibition, part of Festival Hyères 2013 and called "Mémoires du futur", an atypical journey into the universe of fashion photography. How was it conceived and why this title?Festival Hyères is beginning to be a very well-known and interesting event. It started as a way to showcase and help young designers and couturiers thanks to an important prize, and with time it also opened up towards photography.
In the beginning I was invited by the organizers of the Festival to be part of the judges, a very interesting role that allowed me to evaluate the work of various photographers. Then, they asked me to set up a solo exhibition.
I collaborated with one of the curators of the photographic section, Raphaëlle Stopin, who has been working for the Festival for some time and whom I had already gotten to know. We chose the Tour des Templiers, as the exposition space, an ancient and fascinating temple, built in the 12th century by the Templars. We chose it together in a very subjective manner, setting it up so as to enhance the photos. We had a lot of fun playing with the sizes, formats and supports: on the lower floor we displayed a series of photos glued on cardboard and on the upper floor framed inkjet prints, as well as a few original deconstructed collages. Since I always work in an analog fashion, I added these to better describe my technique.
The title comes from an image I composed years ago, which I believe fits well both with the setting and my way of working. I am very interested in the past but in my work I always look for some form of modernity. I like mixing the two terms to express the idea of a memory of those that preceded us that will be handed down to those who will come after. To me this is the ideal artistic expression:  to draw from the past to speak of the future.

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2013  - "Memories from the future"

You intervene a lot on the actual film, with tears, incisions or cuts. How do you decide when to do this?It depends, sometimes I already know what I want to do, while others not, because I want to have a clear head before the shoot. I can decide what to do during the shoot or before, though I don’t know what will happen. Photography interests me since I was 20 years old because you can physically modify it. It’s a natural act for me.

How do you obtain these effects? What tools do you use?Simple tools. It’s the same principle used in metal incision, except I work on luminous canvases because I take advantage of transparencies both in negative and positive. Instead of the drypoint technique used on metal – too big for me – I use compass points, a cutter to cut and a stapler to join the pieces.

Let’s talk about your artistic career. Since the 80s, what was the moment that most influenced your photographic research?I began at a young age, I was working a lot in fashion, advertising and commercial photography. Then I started working with magazines. In Italy I collaborated frequently with the group Condé Nast, with Franca Sozzani, who at the time was director of Lei and Per Lui.
I was shooting often and I liked it, it wasn’t boring, but little by little I became more exigent. I considered my shots to be good, but not enough. I was lucky enough to work for Jill Magazine (1983), the first independent French fashion magazine, which unfortunately closed after 2 and a half years. At that time in the UK i-D and The Face had appeared. We were young and concentrated only on the image. It was as if we had forgotten we were working for fashion, and this opened up new visions. At least for me, it allowed me to express myself in a more interesting way and to experiment. This wasn’t possible elsewhere, in that moment I was collaborating also for the French editions of Marie Claire and Vogue, but it was more limiting. It was thanks to the experience at Jill Magazine that my work evolved.

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2013  - "Memories from the future"

You always pay special attention to colors. Do you define them during shoots and elaborate them in post-production?I work on the colors in all phases of the process, but in a rather traditional manner, I always pay attention to the light. Nowadays digital retouching simplifies the work on light, but I operate on the film and am always forced to consider the technical aspect. When I work in exteriors, I use a flash that allows me to regulate with a certain precision the luminosity between sun and flash. I can thus immediately obtain quite saturated hues, as I like them. In post-production, on a digital level, I work more on the contrast of colors, to fine-tune them. Another phase is that of developing and printing, again done analogically.

In your works we always find a dream-like element. What role does the dream have in your creative process?A large one, if we’re speaking of daydreams. I can stare at the ceiling for two hours while the visions flow in my mind. This is important not so much before, as much as during the long process of shooting, when makeup artists, stylists, couturiers and hairstylists are operating. I observe and reflect on their work, on the place, and in my head images form quite naturally. I see them before constructing them in my photographs.

How do you transport the models from the set to your personal imaginary world?As with all jobs that entail working with people, with kindness and gentleness.
I often work with the same people, who eventually are at ease. I don’t ask them to do anything in particular, because after a while it comes naturally. I observe their gestures, the context, the environment. I don’t want the person to feel he or she is a model, but rather someone I chose that already had those clothes on. I try to extract them from the context, to avoid artificial poses. I try to photograph a character.

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2013  - "Memories from the future"

You usually work with makeup artists, stylists and hairstylists. What do you most appreciate about working with a team?I enjoy working alone, but in groups an exchange takes place that enriches you reciprocally. I feel a bit like the director of an orchestra, in which each element has a role, ability and talent, and I am just there to manage them and take them in a certain direction, so that together we create a single, coherent effort.

And what are the new frontiers you would like to explore in the field of photography now?I am particularly focused on artistic photography because we live in an age of worldwide economic crisis and even magazines have less resources. My primary interest has always been collaborating with fashion magazines, which I continue doing, though less often than I used to.

Fashion campaigns are often concentrated on the product these days, with a glamorous approach which is very stereotypical. Do you think this situation will change? Are there examples in this sense?I find there are few examples. I see efforts being made, but they are rare. I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the crisis. Campaigns have been going in this direction for the past 15 years, so much so they all end up resembling one another.
I don’t know why, I’m not an expert in marketing. I think those working in advertising for fashion brands are satisfied with the results. Except for Mark Jacobs, whom I think works in a more personal manner, the majority of other fashion campaigns are quite sober, chaste and "ok", to put it kindly...
With regards to possible changes I have no idea. I’m surprised fashion designers and ad men have not realized this uniformity and attempted to differentiate themselves. But at the moment nobody is taking risks. I believe it will change one day, but I don’t know when.

What is originality to you?An original person is someone who is inspired by others and one day manages to re-interpret the ideas of others and create a personal linguistic code. It’s true that we are living in a very delicate time frame, I think the golden age of fashion photography, as for other creative fields, was the 60s and 70s, because the economy was booming and by consequence creativity was less crushed. Today there is more fear and there are more difficulties, it is not a favorable time for photographers and other creative figures, but this is exactly the reason why it’s worth taking a risk and being original like in the 60s/70s.


© Jean-François Lepage, 2012  - "Memories from the future"

What do you look for in particular in the creative relationship with an art or fashion magazine?Freedom. Ever since I was young I’ve always told directors: "I enjoy working with you, but if you have faith in me and leave me free rein, you’ll get the best from me". I have always tried to explain this and fight for it and it is something that allowed me to get better and progress.

What advice would you like to share with youngsters interested in this line of work?Don’t try to be liked at any cost. This does not mean creating work that speaks to no one, but rather to give oneself the time to find one’s own universe, expression and method. Often people don’t realize that working in a way that is not your own will result in expressing yourself in a way that is not your own. It’s important to progressively find a personal way of working. If you are slow, work slowly, if you’re fast, then run. Try to be yourself as much as you can. It takes patience to get to a point where you can develop your own images and not everyone finds their voice at 20 years of age.

What do you consider elegance to be?To possess some form of class or grace. I love grace. It doesn’t mean being objectively beautiful or well-dressed, but having that extra something, an aura about you. This is the pinnacle of elegance. It’s not a question of image: it’s something inside us, visceral, that emanates from us and that can even be translated into clumsy movements, or that are different from normality.

Is this grace hard to photograph?Yes, but it’s very interesting to choose people that possess it. Which does not necessarily mean I am able to describe or express it. It’s something that always fascinated me. When I choose a model, whose beauty is objective, I first and foremost look for that little something, that to me represents elegance and which is difficult to explain.

Photos © Jean-François Lepage

Interview by Fabio Falzone

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
Untitled #10, © Jean-François Lepage, 2011 - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2012  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2011  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2012  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2008  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2007  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2007  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2007  - "Memories from the future"

Jean-Francois Lepage, Interview, Memories from the Future, Photography
© Jean-François Lepage, 2006  - "Memories from the future"