No need to introduce François Rousseau, the famous French photographer known for his famous Dieux du Stadecalendars, displaying rugby players in their birthday suits. Still, that reference is rather limiting, because beyond his work in advertising, François is a versatile and prolix photographer. His personal and more artistic work is fascinating and spectacular, both in its execution and in the research it involves. François Rousseau was born in Clermont-Ferrand and now lives in Paris. He studied arts and communication but suddenly stopped painting in 1994 in order to dedicate himself to photography. He has since juggled between portraits, fashion photography and more artistic projects. In the past few years, he has also been exploring video shoots and has even produced a few short pieces, including a behind-the-scene look on sports. He gets his inspiration from professional athletes and dancers, from their hard and defined bodies. Looking at François’s world is like stepping into a painter’s studio: light is his palette, form and its many declinations, his personal ambition. François captures the intimacy, the strength and the intricacies of the body and its many shapes. Each of his projects is unique and particular, a reflection of his state of mind, of his desire to share an intimate vision, bare of any latent erotic tension. In his case, men are simply beautiful. Even if movements are sometimes exaggerated and the performance loud and staggering, the model’s pose can also be pictorial, hypnotic, as if frozen in the silence of the studio.
What is your creative process for taking pictures?
I never look for the same things. In Atelier, I wanted to go back 20 years to finish what I never got the chance to complete doing paintings. The abrupt change of direction I experienced in 1993, when I put down the brush, was really hard. One day, I completed a painting and I haven’t touched paint ever since! That shift was traumatic, even violent. For about 15, 20 years, that experience weighed me down, and that is why I decided to do Atelier. I had to come to terms with that event and that is why I recreated a painter’s universe, with the desire to feel the emotion of a model posing for a painter, not a photographer. Then I worked on Habibi and discovered New York City: a whole new environment, a whole new approach to sexuality and a world of tolerance. I had tried to bring together young inner-city guys, dancers and gay Parisians, but they couldn’t work together. I even heard some really nasty remarks 10 years ago. Whereas when I met Habibi, he was training in Mike Tyson’s gym. He was an inner-city guy who had worked for Pieter &Roger, and the meeting of those two different worlds-- the Manhattanite openly-gay crowd and the working-class Brooklyn universe-- happened very naturally. That is what I was looking for. It was all new and exciting. I initially went to New York City to work in advertising, yet I could only focus on Atelier, which was a rather ambitious project-- three years of work, 100 pieces-- that ended up being shown at the MaisonEuropéenne de la Photographie (MEP). I did all my work in a huge theatre-- Annie Leibowitz’s former studios-- in the States, with years of hard work, weeks in Los Angeles, going back and forth between Paris and the States.
What about Photoshop?
Photography is about capturing life, while the painter’s model is static: he comes in to disrobe and pose in a specific place. That was the case for painters like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, to name a few. In painting, the nude is connected to the studio, even if some nudes were painted outside. And in the end, it’s exactly like photomontage, just like Photoshop today.WhenFlandrin painted his “Jeunehomme nu assis au bord de la mer”, he did all his work in his studio, adding in the landscape later. So it was a special effect of sorts. His painting was based on that. Nowadays, we hear a lot of complaints about Photoshop contributing to “a world of fakeness.” But painting was Photoshop’s precursor! Artists have always tried to embellish reality. When Napoleon posed on his horse for David, he asked to be retouched. Anything goes in photography, from raw, realistic shots to fine-tuned images. So that whole rant about Photoshop is utterly ridiculous!
I do a lot of retouching; I did so even when I used to work on film. But I’d rather qualify that as “compositing.” Atelier is so polished that it can be compared to a painting. I mix pictures together, like in my fresco. It took me a year to complete it, since there are 20 different photos in it, with a right side, a left side, the various shadings-- it’s a long process of re-arranging elements together. I must admit I sometimes felt it was too much. I wanted to paint, and I ended up painting with Photoshop! Photoshop offers wonderful opportunities for composing; mixing different proportions, but, unfortunately, it can lead to disaster when it is poorly used. Skin can look like plastic, and that’s a real problem.