Brussels-born Serge Leblon is one of the few Belgian photographers who’s made a name for himself beyond the borders of his homeland. His shoots have graced the pages of renowned titles from Dazed to Vogue, and he’s fixed his lens on everyone from Goldfrapp to Julianne Moore. A few days ago the exhibition ‘Composite’ launched at Paris’ Edition Photo Gallery, a showcase of Leblon’s personal work that reveals an unexpected side to the famous Belge. He popped his head round the office door one recent rainy Monday afternoon to tell us about the show and to have a moan about the unfortunate demise of fashion photography.
Your exhibition ‘Composite’ opened in Paris a few days ago. The images I’ve seen so far suggest that it has actually nothing to do with fashion photography.
Exactly. In this show I present my personal work. There’s no real theme, they’re images of a complex world. Nowadays we’re living in this binary system of black and white and everything has to be simple to be easily understood and easily sold. I’m not a big fan of this trend in photography, and in art in general. I’ve always appreciated things that show a certain complexity and are not easy. You can find complexity in every situation. Even in fashion I’ve never been attracted by the heroic model in front of a white background. I want context. All things are part of a system, our body, the couch we’re sitting on. Body and soul are not separated. There is information in every detail. That’s the aspect I concentrate on in the Paris images.
Where and when did you shoot the images?
The scenes are not based in one single subject, I actually shot them very spontaneously. I was instantly attracted to them. I just let my mind wander. They’re shot in lots of different places I’ve been to in the last two years, from Argentina to the US.
Everything has to be simple to be easily understood and easily sold.
You say it’s hard to find complexity in photography today – but where can it still be found? Which photographers can pull it off?
I like Luigi Ghirri, for example. Actually, I’m not such a big fan of photography. It’s a very difficult medium to work with; you’re so restrained by technical aspects. I also like photographers who work with collages. Maybe I’ll try that myself one day. Oh, I just love the work of Daniel Gordon.
Is the problem that everything has already been done? Are you a bit nostalgic?
No it’s not that, it’s more that everything is changing so much. And I’m not at all nostalgic, I love shooting digital. I’m not going to go analogue ever again.
Why is that?
Before, you had to set up an entire scene. Here in this room for example: I’d have to decide if I want the plant sharp or the rocking horse. With digital you can do both, even with a little pointer shoot. If I wanted that effect the analogue way I’d have to get a tripod, organise the scene, etc. I like doing things instinctively. The problem for students and beginners is that they have direct access to the result. It doesn’t require the same brain work. They can just shoot around. Before, you had to think without seeing. Now there is the immediate memory, and it’s more important than cultural memory. They take loads of pictures and can compare them straight away. You get trapped like that, especially in fashion. They turn the curves until in the end there’s a completely fake image.
It’s hard to escape the history of photography. You have to try to educate your view, to realise what is really from you.
How would you describe your approach, then? You mentioned you like to bring out complexity in your images…
I’m a very instinctive photographer. When that’s the case, then your images always bring out something that’s inside you, an auto-biographical element. Often, I’m just attracted by a scene, I don’t think too much. But it’s important to analyse why you’re attracted to a certain scene, sometimes it’s just because it’s built in the kind of aesthetic that we were taught to like, because we remember certain scenes from images we’ve seen before. I try to avoid that. We learned to use certain asthetics. But it’s hard to escape the history of photography. In a way, I’m instinctively trying not to get caught by this, which is a paradox in itself. You have to try to educate your view, to realise what is really from yourself. It’s not easy at all. I take a lot of pictures, but I don’t keep a lot. Many times I think, oh, that looks like Eggleston etc, and then I kick it out.
How much time can you actually dedicate to your personal work?
Quite a lot, actually. I don’t work that much. There are maybe 25 fashion photographers in the world like Testino, for example, who work every day and have 25 Rolexes and a woman they never see. In December I have three very busy weeks where I shoot for Dazed, the Italian Vogue and others.
You photograph a lot of big stars, from actress Julianne Moore to director Wes Anderson – how’s it different to photographing ordinary people?
I love it, it’s actually much easier. They are very aware of their bodies, it’s a real pleasure to work with them. They know how to move. Recently I shot Kerry Washington, she plays in the new Tarantino movie. So many of the stars have nose jobs, though, and things like that.
You can tell?
Sure. It’s disgusting. It’s something you directly see in front of the camera. How the skin doesn’t move naturally and stuff. And they’re always so concentrated on trying to look good.
Who has been you favourite subject so far?
There’s this French singer who isn’t even that famous. His name is Albin de la Simone. My daughter and I just love him, so I was very honoured when he asked me to photograph him.
Going back in time a bit: do you remember your very first camera?
Yes. I was 19. I had gotten into this great film school, Insasse, and as a reward my Dad gave me a camera, a Nikon FM2. But with that camera I realised that I actually wanted to have nothing to do with film and take photographs instead. Right from the beginning I felt that this was what I wanted to do.
We didn’t care about the clothes, just the quality of the images. It wasn’t about selling clothes, sometimes there would just be a tiny shoe somewhere in a corner. We had so much freedom.
Why were you drawn to fashion photography later on?
That happened more or less by accident. One of my friends at school wanted to be a model and asked me to take pictures of him. We went to the agency and they asked me for more tests. So I started shooting models for their portfolios. Shit, that was such a long time ago! I did that for about ten years. After the first Iraq war there was a crisis and lots of clients closed down. I went to London for a while, but it was tough.
Well, I was all alone, I had no work, and you know how expensive London is. I lived in this tiny shoebox with no space. But it was at that point that I got some calls from Belgium to do fashion shoots. A Dutch magazine followed, I got contacted from an agency in Italy,… and then it just kept rolling.
Now all fashion photography is the same, it’s just copy and paste.
You’ve been around for ages now – how has the scene changed over the years?
Oh, it’s terrible! It was so human before. Even Robert Frank was doing fashion shoots. Or Paolo Roversi with his blurry polaroids… We didn’t care about the clothes, just the quality of the images. It wasn’t about selling clothes, sometimes there would just be a tiny shoe somewhere in a corner. We had so much freedom. I’d shoot 16 pages for Dazed and almost all clothes were marked as stylist’s own. You could really express yourself. Now you can only express yourself in a certain manner and with lots of restrictions. Paolo really didn’t give a shit about showing the brands and Lindbergh‘s photos were so grainy.
What exactly do you mean when you say it was “more human”?
There was so much humanity, it was more about the people. What Newton did, if you like his work or not, was not a caricature but there was a true statement in it. Now all fashion photography is the same, it’s just copy and paste. Of course there are a few exceptions, but very few.
What’s your advice then for young photographers that would like to get into fashion?
Put black tape on the back of your digital camera and only take it off in the evening when you upload the pictures. And get a really small card that only stores 36 images. Look at books, read, learn. And don’t spend too much time on photoshop. The young ones, I mean. Later it’s fine, of course, use as much overexposure as you want. But only once you’ve found your own way.