presented by BERNARD PERRINE
Born in 1958. Lives and works in France.
Photographer, journalist, artistic director of the Rencontres d’Arles in 1977.
Léon Herschtritt’s work dates from a crucial period, within the stifled tradition of what is usually called ‘post-war Humanistic French photography’. At the same time new points of view from America and technological breakthroughs were also challenging the very foundation of the image. This did not happen by chance, because Herschtritt’s work, which quickly achieved recognition, corroborated Emmanuel Sougez’s premonitions in Camera Magazine in 1961: ‘It is no longer through its quality but through its subject and significance that an image now attracts attention’. Switching from one theme to another but keeping people as his main subject, Léon Herschtritt presents us not only with a historical period but also with a unique view of narrative. In what were termed ‘picture essays’ (about the Berlin Wall, Algerian kids or an African village) and in famous portraits (De Gaulle, Sartre, Catherine Deneuve), we find the stamp of a generation—maybe even of a school—and above all, uniquely personal style. Technical innovations—photographic equipment, more sensitive film and paper—meant new freedom for Herschtritt, who could begin to concentrate on his subjects and capture the tiniest subtleties and
emotions using whatever light was available. He could deliberately opt for the dim light of a café and black and white graininess to create ambience. Herschtritt also gives his subjects the ‘tender gaze’ that makes his photographs recognisable anywhere. After exhibitions in Berlin, Dresden, Grenoble, Arras and many others to come, it seemed fitting to us that Arles should welcome and pay tribute to the work of this iconic French photographer.
STYLE AND FEELING.
Léon Herschtritt? Since you can’t pin him down to any school, movement or trend, the best thing is to imitate the young couple he photographed at night, pointing at a Paris metro map, wondering where they were, comforted by the fact of being together and in love. Herschtritt, too, is in love: with Paris, life, Africa, women and freedom, all encountered in the few short years between 1956 and 1970 when he first set out with his Leica or Nikon. This vagabond life is the source of the body of work now being brought to a new audience. This strictly film-based black and white photography lives up to a creative talent unhampered by stylistic constraints. Herschtritt creates a new style for each new territory he explores—bright and vivid for children playing in the street, when they were still allowed to; chiaroscuro for discreet tours of the red light district; a soft half-light for lovers who do not even notice his presence. Others steal or fabricate their images, but not Léon Herschtritt. He won the Niépce prize before he had even turned 25, after deciding to visit Berlin for its first Christmas in the shadow of the Wall. The sheer absurdity and trauma of the situation challenged the young photographer, who was quick to capture the pain reverberating through the lit-up Christmas trees and the crosses where the first fugitives had been shot. Then he left the Cold War behind to enter the world of artists, intellectuals and politicians: De Gaulle’s haughtiness, Sartre’s squinting acuity, Deneuve’s ingenuousness. Once again Herschtritt explored genres like a musician changing keys according to the subject—sizzling Algeria, Paris’s prostitutes near Les Halles, a Rom kid with a cigarette butt, a ballerina. Herschtritt’s style is not the product of an artistic stance: he simply immerses himself in atmosphere and mood, striking just the right note with unadorned images that speak for themselves.
Hervé Le Goff
Léon Herschtrit is represented by La Collection agency, Paris.
Prints by Philippe Salün and PICTO.