ARTIST: OLIVIER VALSECCHI
WORDS BY IRVIN RIVERA
Theatricality and drama is evident in artist Olivier’s works. His photographs provide an illusion of movement and grace, like a slowly moving tableau of classical painting that you have to appreciate slowly.
In this interview, Olivier opens up about the importance of doing personal projects, photography akin to taking self-portraits, and his process as an artist.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you came from and where are you currently based.
I was born in Paris in 1979. My parents moved to the South of France when I was 2 and I was raised in Toulouse, and still live there.
When and how did photography start for you?
My father had a passion for photography. I remember him taking pictures with slide film, then we would project them on a curtain. I was around five years old at the time. He had a Polaroïd camera and a Chinon. He had an eye for it, although he never pushed it to an advanced artistic level; but he sure had an artistic eye for it. Somehow, life made it so that he stopped using his cameras. I regret that.
He was probably too busy taking care of me and my sister.
And then there was my mother who had this encyclopedia about classical painting that I used to read, and I think by the age of nine I did my first exposé on Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Marat. So, reflecting back on that I guess it was meant to be: I took photography from my father and an inspiration around paintings from my mother. They both shared a passion for music as well, and they sure transmitted that to me too! So as a young teenager I would compose music and write songs and even record them on tapes, which would annoy my little sister because I had a terrible voice. And once the demos were recorded I would think about the album cover and take pictures, which were mostly self-portraits.
Until one day I realized that my pictures were better than my songs. I think that's how it really started.
By the age of 25, my interest for photography became a passion. I was harassing people, including friends, every weekend to take pictures of them. I even started to get paid for portraits. But I soon felt limited on some technical aspects. I wanted to control what I was doing instead of hoping to get lucky and randomly take a good picture. Every passion makes you want more and you become greedy.
I also started to expand on my creativity. I had these ideas and projects in my mind but didn't know how to achieve them. Looking at professional photographers' works, their sophisticated lights, I had so many questions about reaching that level of quality. Sure I was learning some stuff on the internet, but some questions remained unanswered so that's when I decided to attend a photography school. I needed real teachers in front of me who were capable of answering my questions.
Your works look like modern photographic take on renaissance portraits. Where do you draw your inspirations from?
As I said, my taste for chiaroscuro lights and colors rapidly structured itself, as I was already reading my mother's art encyclopaedia by the age of 5. Now inspiration works in mysterious ways. For a creative person, sometimes a wallpaper can be inspiring. If I take a look back on my previous series, I am either driven by the urge to tell about an emotion, or a story I saw on the News I want to comment upon.
Who are your photography / art idols (dead or alive)?
Arthur Tress, Jeff Bark, Erwin Olaf, Tori Amos, Picasso.
In your opinion, what makes a fine art portrait stand out from the wide pool and variety of fine art photos available?
Technique must be flawless. It really makes a difference when you can feel the photographer was very attentive to every detail and know his job. Also the model must be incarnated, and honest. One of the best examples I have in mind to illustrate my point is Ryan Pfluger. Every picture is perfect, the frame, the light, and there's always a little detail that is a bit odd and surprising - that can be an uncommon gesture from the model, or an unexpected look, and that's what we call style.
Walk us through your image-making process. Can you show us an example of a portrait that you created that you feel is really successful to you?
Okay. This is a portrait of a young actor and dancer I shot last month. When I first saw him with his hair length and thickness I vaguely remembered Arthur Rimbaud in Henri Fantin-Latour's painting "By the table" as well as a painting of Henri Fantin-Latour himself by Carolus Duran.
So how does it work? Well, the more references you have in mind, the more intuitions you can have about what the photo should look like, and you can relate a model to a painting, or an actor in a movie, something you have already seen and that is going to guide you in the image-making process, because we all need guidance, especially when there is no brief nor specification. I'm not saying you're copying something that already exists; I'm talking about guidance, the muses in your mind that are showing you an inspiration and saying "with this face, this hair, this blue eyes and feeling, you have a poet-looking guy in the studio, shoot him like you had Rimbaud in front of you."
How often do you shoot personal projects and how long does it usually take you to complete a series?
I think I've been launching a new series every two years for almost ten years now. Working on a personal series, is a personal process, depending on the urge and rage to create. There are no rules. You may have an idea - that's the easy part - and achieve it many years later, because you had to find the energy and the right moment to work on that particular theme. I will be working on a series soon that I've been holding for five years, mainly because I had to find a specific ingredient and an appropriate location.
There are so many reasons why you rush into working on this series, and on the contrary why you delay working on that series, but I think it's always a question of where you are in your life, and what you live.
I've generally worked from 4 to 12 months to complete a series, the longer the harder, because the trickiest thing is to find models who match with the story you want to tell, and also, not repeating yourself throughout the different images that compose the series can sometimes be a long way when you want to keep a certain level of quality.
Whenever you work with models for your projects, do you consider those as portraits, self-portrait of any kind of art altogether?
Interesting... I've always considered portraits as reflections of yourself, so in a way, as self-portraits. But is it a mix of both genres? Is it a portrait of two people, of their encounter?
I think: portraits in a personal series can be seen as self-portraits, because you create a space for yourself, that is what a personal series is, a space for yourself, where you choose every detail, and so of course, the models who incarnate best your story.
Commission portraits... is rather a "this is what I see when I look at you" type of exercise.
Is there any advice that you can give to any aspiring young artist out there?
"Follow your instinct" would be the best advice I could give. Sincerely. Because all the advice I received a long time ago was the worst thing a young photographer could hear. Try not to be someone else, because someone else is better at himself than you, and you are better at yourself than him.
If you’re a book, what type of book are you and why?
I am a Grand Grimoire, a black magic book with texts and drawings. I am tormented and dark, fascinated with bizarre, but yet still related to the funny child I was.
If you will be given the chance to help any charity/institution in the world, what would it be and why?
Being gay myself, I support LGTB rights and associations who fight for them.