Thursday, January 19, 2017

Photomed: Italian Cinema, Antonioni, and a talk with Richard Dumas.

Antonioni projection - Alain Fleischer
Antonioni with his wife's hand - Richard Dumas
On the set of Antonioni's Red Desert - Sergion Strizzi
One cannot accuse Byblos Bank of doing things by halves. After Nino Milgiori, Mimo Jodice, and Edouard Boubat - this year's theme of the opening of Photomed was Italian cinema, and we got treated to three photographers, not just one: Frenchmen Richard Dumas and Alain Fleischer in addition to Italian Sergio Strizzi.
The works, all 57 of them, could at first seem disjointed - especially that no photograph was dated or named, which is an oddity to an exhibition of such a professional caliber. Inside the Photomed yearly magazine was a paper inserted with Richard Dumas' names of the works, but there is no direct annotation besides the pictures themselves. However, the more one delves into the works, the more dates and names cease to matter; either because one is not acquainted with the celebrity in the photo (as all of them are taken from the golden era of Italian cinema), or better - because one recognizes the people, but wishes to preserve the air of mystique around them.
Fleischer projects his images on the walls of Rome, a man famous for saying "I do not write my books" (for he is among other things, not just a photographer but also an author) - only to continue "I dictate them". The same process is used in his photography, he does not shoot his subjects, he projects them and then captures the moment. His written thoughts need a screen to materialize, so does his photography.
Strizzi, a man who was on the sets of Antonioni, captures the later's actors hauntingly, the incredible gaze of Monica Vitti, the Delon nonchalance, but it also seems as if he is casting them in a photoromanze series. Each frame seems like a truncated story. Sufficient on its own but oddly waiting for another installment.
Richard Dumas, with whom I had an opportunity to speak, plays it all in shadows, rarely going to the territory of colors. His images have common traits all while being individualistic.
Everyone seems to live in joyless cities, but despite a clin d'oeil here and there as to the settings the images were shot in, all there photographers' works all have this "out of time" feeling about them. As if floating above the sense of time and place all while being encrusted in a narrative of a story wanting to be told. As if everyone is waiting - but waiting for the wait itself, something which shows in Antonioni's "l'aventura" - a vicious circle where time waits on the sideline while the wait consumes itself.
Nada Tawil, head of group communication department had already warned me in a private talk that "this year, the team is handling the Photomed opening, I am just being briefed of the final result" - sadly, Mrs Tawil was not in attendance at the event, and considering her affable and welcoming nature, her absence was as noted as her presence. But Rouba Taouk who was MC at the event, Diana Abi Hachem, and Elie Wehbe surely managed to orchestrate a happening which went flawless, being everywhere yet still unobtrusive.
Which brings me to having a protected time to speak with Richard Dumas who was present for the opening of the event. It is first interesting to note that, as the speeches were being delivered, Mr. Dumas takes his camera from his field jacket and takes a snap - of a photographer photographing him reminding us a little of the Lumirere brothers' film "l'arroseur arrosé" - the waterer being watered. So as we sat down in a (relatively) quiet corner, my first question of him defining himself as "photographer rather than portraitist". Dumas concedes saying "to be able to be a portraitist one must be a photographer and I do not just take portraits, I also do other forms of photography as well". Well, when does he know that he took the photo of the individual not of the curtain that person wishes to hide behind? "Oh there is nothing wrong with curtains! Curtains are interesting. Here I go back to Richard Avedon's definition of portrait - which is someone who knows they are being photographed and the way they choose to project themselves with that knowledge says a lot about them as individuals".
But how does one end up having an expressive shot? "it is a dialogue, a communication". Do they communicate with you or the photographer in you - "with me". And when did the "you" and "photographer in you" merge? The answer lingers in the air as he shifts position of his battered Stan Smith and adjusts his posture.
So what about that sense of immortality in photography, do people use that medium to win over death? "Oh there is no immortality, at all". So why do it? "to kill time".
Apparently, Dumas spent five years chasing Antonioni to be able to get the shots he wanted, and he did so as a tribute for the director's movies - notably - "Blow Up" (in case you do not know the movie, it is about a photographer who may or may not have witnessed a murder in one of his photos).
"OK, so you write with light? That is a direct quote" I say. "Oh that is just the Greek etymology of the word not some philosophy! Light/writing. Light is the first special effect!".
At this point, Dumas seems to want to be elsewhere - "any other questions?" - I frantically looked at my long set of research and zeroed in on "how do you work with people when they are in front of the lens?". "Oh some like to be directed very specifically, "chin up, a little bit more to the right" while frankly it does  not work with others. Which is why I always say, there are no rules. You know the camera jargon does have a meaning, they are "objects" which I shoot with an "objective" and therefore I become "subjective"".
One of the people this did not work with was legendary musician Miles Davis. The anecdote goes that while being a photographer for the set of a movie about Miles Davis, Dumas finds him alone as the rest of the crew went for a lunch break.
" – Mr Davis, can I take a picture of you?
– You know how much money you have to pay to take pictures of me? Five thousand dollars.
– But you deserve more money than that.
– You’re right, OK, for you it’ll be free."
So Dumas snaps two incredible shots of the musician and the starts to direct him. At which point Davis simply walked out and left.
And at that point, similarly, Dumas had walked out and left joining back the well-heeled crowds. And as I packed my things and reached the empty streets of Beirut at night outside the Byblos Bank headquarters, they seemed like a "red desert" to me.