(Interview originally conducted in French)
I love the work of Charles Petit and not only because it reminds me of my own work. Yes, we both have an obsession with the close-up. Yes, we both love to shoot stray hands and elbows and other bits of the human fragment. Yes, we’ve both worked with cheap plastic cameras. But Charles is not a copy of me, nor am I a copy of him. This difference, this unique “signature” which we each have is one of the enigmas of the art world. How do similar photographers chasing similar subjects emerge in their own right? It truly is fascinating. People often say that everything has been photographed. This claim is gaining ground in our contemporary image-chocked existence. Yet, what I would reply is this: Maybe so, but not everything has been photographed by Charles Petit. I sat down with Charles to uncover some of the mystery. Here’s that conversation:
Michael: Charles, tell us the story of how you came to get a camera in your hands for the very first time.
Charles: My first camera was a Diana 120 that was given to my father as a promo for a black plastic suitcase he bought.
Michael: Interesting first camera. I love plastic fantastic! Now, you have produced both colour and monochrome photographs over the years and have done both exceptionally well. Which do you prefer and why?
Charles: I don’t prefer either; it is just a different way of working in the street and taking pictures. I go back and forth. There is no rhyme or reason, really.
Michael: I agree, Charles. I’m the same. Onto fragments, I thought I had an aversion to photographing the face, but you really take this idea to town. Dozens of your best-known works are faceless people. Why the focus on legs and handbags as opposed to the more commonly photographed face?
Charles: I never made a choice to deliberately avoid the face but it could be because I was obsessed by both hands, bags, and the “close up” in general.
So the face just disappeared, I also used to take a lot of pictures using a flash so maybe I was a little bit afraid of putting a flash in the face of a stranger, although I have done it.
Michael: What equipment have you used over the years and which camera was your all-time favourite and why?
Charles: For black and white I have used the same Nikon F for 30 years, I just moved to the F3 quite recently. It actually feels like I’m using a “modern” camera.
For colour I have been using a Nikon FM2, I have to buy a NikonD750, which I still don’t feel comfortable with, actually. I also use a Metz CT64 for my flash.
Michael: You’ve made photographs in more than a dozen major places in the world, what prompted this extensive travel and how do you think it impacted your artistic output?
Charles: As an executive producer, and before that an art director for the advertising industry, I have the chance to travel quite a lot. This is probably a big help to discover new urban landscapes; on the other hand, I have the feeling that I could easily stay in the same place and take the same pictures. I am now probably more obliged to move because my favourite subject, Paris, is not as much of a favourite with me anymore.
Michael: You definitely have an eye for detail when you’re shooting on the street. What is it, exactly, that draws your eye most often?
Charles: I am myopic. It discovered when I was seven years old. For that reason during my early childhood, objects far from a couple of meters didn’t really exist to me. I guess this is part of the reason I am attracted by the close up, the details. A reason is probably that I am afraid of the too large landscape, they are not to my scale, cities, small buildings, bungalows, are my favourite playground.
Michael: Charles, do you shoot film or digital these days and why?
Charles: Both in a way, I was so desperate because of the poor rate of success of the pictures I was taking in the street for a while that moving to the digital format was a relief. It was so easy – too easy sometimes, so I’m doing both depending on the light. For colour it’s definitely digital because the blend of daylight and flash is so hazardous that I feel that I can experiment much more with digital.
Michael: What is the point of the street photograph?
Charles: I have never considered myself as a street photographer. I am just taking the images I have always been taking. Because I love to walk in cities, I take most of my pictures in the street, so I became a “street photographer”. This is the only way I have found for expressing myself as a photographer, I didn’t make the decision, the photographs did, I guess.
Michael: I suspect a lot of photographers can relate to that sentiment. Susan Sontag once wrote that time eventually turns all photographs, even the most amateurish, into a form of art. This comment in her wonderful book, On Photography, has stuck with me profoundly. Whenever I look at older photography I now try to reconcile it with this claim. How do you think time has affected your work?
Charles: Yes, time has affected my pictures. When young people look at pictures I made in the seventies they look very old, at least to their eyes. For me, they do not look old. Some people think that I am trying to capture the “essence” of the past in my work today, to be honest, this is true! I am.
Michael: Please tell us about Mark Cohen.
Charles: I discovered Mark’s work less than 10 years ago, actually. It was very strange for me to discover some of the similarities. All my pictures, the ones that “look” like Mark’s, were taken between the end of the 70s up to the middle of the 80s, at that time, Mark Cohen was essentially unknown in France. I appreciate that he has not moved too much from his birthplace, I understand that way of working.