Homa Taj in Conversation with Photography Curator François Hebel

Le directeur des Rencontres d’Arles, François Hébel, NICCOLO HÉBEL

François Hebel is one of the most influential figures in the world of photography. He has led such powerful organizations as Les Rencontres de la photographie Arles (1985-87 and 2001-2014) and Magnum Photos (1987-2000). Since leaving his position at Rencontres in Arles, Hebel continues to curate exhibitions at various museums, cultural organizations and festivals from New York to Paris, to Bologna and Changjiang (China).

Hebel’s latest curatorial project, Grégoire Alexandre, in New York City can be seen at French Institute Alliance Française FIAFNY. Also, stay tuned for our Conversation with Grégoire Alexandre, to be published, early next week.

Homa Taj – Were you trained as a photographer? Or, how did you began your work as a curator of photography?

François Hebel – No, not at all. I trained myself to travel which funny enough got me into photography as a reason. However, since 1980, I have been working with photographers at various capacities.

HT – You have been based in france for most of your career…

FH – When I worked for Magnum Photos in Paris (1987-2000), I had to go to New York a lot. So, I am very familiar with working in NY. And, of course, I do a lot of curatorial work around the world.

HT – What was working at Magnum Photo like?

FH – When I was hired to work at Magnum’s office in Paris, the company was in a bad shape, financially speaking. I was their first director in many years since it was run like a photographers’ cooperative. I quickly told them that the world is going to become digital sooner than they thought. That was around 1987-89. And, I remember at a meeting, many photographers laughed. They said, “We’ll, will be there with our white gloves on … ” I said, “No. You’ll be dead.”

Back then, archives had begun to digitize their images only to expedite their delivery, at Magnum we did it in order to maintain the best of our memory. We began to organize traveling exhibitions which brought in a lot of money for the organization in order to finance this digitalization and do our PR at the same time. …

HT – You have talked about photography as an elastic art form, using examples of projections, or slide shows. Can you say a bit about this concept…

FH – Well, back in 1986, I saw Nan Goldin’s slide projection of her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency which ran for one hour and thirty minutes. I told her that I loved what she was doing. At that time, everyone was doing – as some still are now – black and white photography in frames hung on walls, etc. So, I told Nan that you are using this low-value medium which is terrific. I, then, invited her to exhibit at Rencontres internationales de la photographie d’Arles – where I was a director – 1985-87, and later 2001-2014. There we had a great Théâtre Antique where she projected her work.

I did suggest that the show was too long and that 45 minutes may be better but that it was ultimately her decision as an artist as to what she wanted to do with it. So Nan made The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the Arles version.

At that time, for me, this was a great revelation in the way artists can use photography. Of course, back then, Nan told me that she didn’t like prints. But, now prints are her signature – livelihood, I suppose, slide shows are harder to sell.

HT – What other examples of unconventional uses of (the medium of) photography have you encountered?

FH – Several years ago, I was in a french suburb, after the riots in France in 2005 which were covered by the international media. I saw a guy gluing photos on the wall. He said, “Hi, my name JR.” So, I invited him to Arles and there, in 2007 he did Face 2 Face which included huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, and on the both sides of the Security fence / Separation wall.

Meeting these types of artists really excites me. It doesn’t mean that I am against selling works. I think that photography is an important market. You can do a lot with it, you can print books, etc. There are all kinds of languages in photography. My fun, my interest, is when photographers try new things. The market for these types of photographers is, of course, difficult but it doesn’t mean they cannot do it.

Look at JR. He is now a big star in New York.

HT – What projects are you working on now?

FH – Last year, I was invited by Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris to curate an exhibition of works by Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. The exhibition was opened on April 14th and will remain on view until June 14.

This was an interesting project for me since what we also decided to do was to curate, if you will, a parallel exhibition at 16 different metro stations throughout Paris. We chose entirely different photos by the artists than those shown at MEP. Also, each of these pictures is 4 meters long which is much larger than we could fit in the museum’s galleries. In other words, we turned the Paris metro stations into an art gallery – in a different way than we treated the museum exhibition.

HT – So you expanded the space of the museum, or the gallery, unto the public space.

FH – I had done similar projects – mixing different art forms and spaces with photography – before. For example, through the years, I invited musicians to perform at the shows of photography that we had organized at Théâtre Antique Arles.

I once invited Anoushka Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s daughter) to perform on Cartier-Bresson indian pictures. And, in 2006, Patti Smith performed a concert for the 20th anniversary of Agence Vu which is a French agency for photographers.

HT – You were invited by FIAF / French Institute Alliance Française, New York to organize an exhibition of photography… and you chose Grégoire Alexanre. Why him?

FH – First, the general public’s idea of French photography is what took place in the 1950’s – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doineau and others. But contemporary photography has evolved quite a lot.
So my aim for the show at FIAF was to set a principal about what is going on with French photographers today. What are their protocals? I like Grégoire’s work because his studio is ‘in dialogue’ with the subject matters that he captures. The background, the behind-the-scene, is part of the scene… It is as important as the models or objects that he photographs.

Also, the theme of this season’s exhibition at FIAF is to introduce photographers from France that deal with fashion. And, Grégoire was the perfect candidate.

HT – Grégoire told me a little bit about the process of ‘hanging’ – or, more like not hanging – this exhibition…

FH – Yes, well, we chose not to frame the images – except for what is in print – and not to hang them either. So, instead, we used this special type of glue that photographers apply to stick their pictures to the wall. of wall paper of a great quality that glues to the wall. And, then, when we are done – when the show closes on June 13 – we’ll just tear them off from the wall.

HT – This is your first curatorial work with FIAF New York. Will you be working with them again?

FH – Yes, of course. This is the first in a series of exhibitions on French photography which we’ll be organizing.

I am excited because I like working with living artists. I trust artists. A lot of curators prefer working with dead artists… Not me.

HT – What is your next project? Beside the one(s) at FIAF?

FH – In 2013, I was invited to create a festival of photography in Bologna – such as the one I had directed in Arles, for more than 15 years.

The focus of the exhibition was is on industrial, corporate or work photography and was is hence named FOTO/INDUSTRIA. The second edition of the festival will take place this autumn (October 2 – November 1) which makes it a Biennale.

This is a very interesting event since Bologna is such a beautiful area and there are 14 venues throughout the historic city which we will be using for the festival.

HT – You are a very busy man.

FH – Did I mention that I just organized TEN shows at the inaugural Changjiang International Photography & Video Biennale – which runs through July 26, 2015 at the Chongqing Changjiang Museum of Contemporary Art (CMCA)?