In his darkroom
“Photography is an amorous act”
To get the picture, you have to see Guillaume Geneste standing on his bench, before a board lying on two sawhorses. On the board, a large sheet of light-sensitive photographic paper is held down with weights in each corner. In the semi-darkness, Geneste gently waves a stick with his right hand, as though conducting an orchestra. Above him is the enlarger, holding the negative. His body engaged, he filters the exposure. Then he pulls the paper from the board and plunges it into a tray, then another tray, then a third, a fourth… Geneste, who has made prints for the greatest contemporary photographers, is the author of Le Tirage à mains nues. This unusual, poetic work is a compilation of thoughts, anecdotes and substantive interviews on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the profession. Generously and elegantly, the craftsman opened his laboratory to us.
What led you to becoming a photo printer?
I always printed photos. I found it magical that you could take the same piece of letter paper for writing something, and in treating it with chemical elements (gelatin, albumen, silver nitrate), the process turned the paper light-sensitive. The first albumen-treated papers were pieces of stationery. Already as a teenager, I wanted to know how it was done, so I did some internships. I learned a lot with Claudine and Jean-Pierre Sudre. Then from 1986 to 1990, I worked at Atelier Sillages with Marc Bruhat. That was great. He worked for Viva, a parallel agency of Magnum. There were major photographers for whom we did lots of printing for publications, photo proofs, film developing, and also quite a bit of printing for exhibitions.
How does a printing project start?
Printing is what accompanies a photography project. The photographer turns his film over to us, and we develop it to get the negatives. Then we make contact sheet prints – small-size positive views – from the negatives. From the contact sheets, the photographer selects the images he or she wants to keep, then can decide to do photo proofs. This step allows the photographer to decide which features will go into the final print. When I start a new project with someone, the photographer is often with me in the darkroom.
How does a printing session take place with an enlarger?
You set the negative into the viewer and you enlarge it: the enlarger projects the image onto photosensitive paper. The image becomes positive at that moment. Then the paper is soaked in several chemical baths before being rinsed and left to dry. I use different masking tools and vary the exposure times to get the image desired. The process can be repeated several times. In printing with an enlarger, there’s an entire process we use to get the subtleties the photographer wants on the different areas of the image.
What about digital proofs?
Before digital, lots of photographers did proofs in huge quantities, on return from reporting a news feature, for example. Since digital came along in the 2000s, we have been able to do proofs by directly digitalizing the film. These are small scans but they already give you the idea, the atmosphere… Digital has a dual advantage: on the one hand, it allows you to get inkjet prints, thus a positive image. And on the other hand, you get a digital file that can be indexed in a database. This is a huge advantage in terms of time-saving and organization.
What other types of prints do you do?
There are also prints for publishers: you print images for publication in books. When I was working for Contrejour [a photo lab on Rue Daguerre in the 1990s], with no digital photography, photographers made simple prints in 18×24 or 24×30 to be able to publish a book. There were no large prints… The prints were then turned over to the publisher who sent them directly to the printer, who digitalized them to produce them in the book. Since then we have been able to regain control over this part of the process. Then there is printing for a show, where I can work directly with the curator. And then there are collector prints: these are the photographers who sell their photos.
Photographic images have become real collectors’ items. How do you explain that?
You have to understand that photography has huge power over painting, both for the photographer and the collector. What I mean is that a photographer can produce or have his images produced ad infinitum, and can sell the images. But a painter who hasn’t actually painted his canvases… At age 80, he can no longer do anything. And for collectors, a market has opened up. Not everyone can afford to buy paintings, but photography allows a certain clientele to create a fine collection, which can take on great value later on. It’s an investment. Love of photography and investment.
So collector prints mean the artist can keep control over what he/she shows?
Right. It changes the notion of exhibiting as usually understood: the show can only happen if the works are on loan. I’ve worked for a long time with the photographer/artist Valérie Belin [see interview in Geneste’s book]. She produces absolutely everything she does. When she does a series dealing with a certain theme, she can decide to use ten or fifteen photos, of which she then makes six, nine or twelve prints of each. She does all the framing and storing, then she sells them directly. She did a show at the Centre Pompidou where each photo was labeled as belonging to “x collector,” “x museum” or “artist’s collection.”
Do artists ever sell their negatives?
In the history of photography there were people who burned or destroyed their negatives to mark them as unique pieces, but sell them? No. The negative is an intermediary object that has no value in itself.
Have you noticed a return to analog, meaning film photography?
Of photographers producing work, there are as many in digital as in analog. Mostly I’ve noticed a return to analog in people under age thirty, who are not photographers by profession – even though they might go as far as exhibiting their images. They find it more playful to have a mechanical camera. On the other hand, in terms of printing, they tend to digitalize the film to share it online. There are a few young purists who want another materiality and who do their own prints, but it’s rather rare.
You are one of the last analog photography printers in France. Why are there so few of you?
Let’s say some have made different choices than I have. They’ve gone all digital. Others prefer to say “digital printing is bad, it doesn’t really do the job” and have dedicated themselves solely to analog printing. In my opinion, that’s a mistake. As for me, I can say that analog is the only thing that’s authentic, but I can say it all the better because I sell digital on the side. It’s very clear to me: black-and-white film prints are clearly superior to an inkjet print. Yet digital is a super powerful tool that can be very interesting to use.
Right, so, in your opinion what is the basic benefit of digital?
The appearance of digital printing allowed photographers to really take hold of color photography. To quote François Hébel, who directed the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in 1987, “the arrival of digital didn’t mean the end of analog photography, but the end of black and white.”
Digital offers extreme precision in color, which you couldn’t get with analog printing. That really was the game-changer. Then came the arrival of mat inkjet printing on paper. That really pleased lots of artists. Photographers really seized on color at that point.
From black and white to color, analog to digital… Do you have a preference?
As a lab, no. I like black and white because there is a lot of abstraction. But for example, we have also printed Lartigue in color for the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. It was fabulous! It’s true that the chemistry – the wet photographic process – gives stronger creative power in the lab, in the sense that you can tinker around a bit more. But with an inkjet cartridge, I never saw anyone take a sheet of paper, print it, crease it… That’s not what’s happening.
You’ve really worked alongside the greatest photographers. How do these collaborations come about?
The only niche that I carved out for myself, and for a good long time now, is to work for artist photographers. I work neither in advertising nor fashion. It’s not that there’s no creativity in these fields. Of course there is. I even worked for Helmut Newton! But the production is huge. We could print 100, 150 rolls of film of a young woman posing in every possible angle. I didn’t want to print or produce that. I wanted to print for artists.
You write that “digital is about reproduction more than creation,” and that “the world thinks more than it feels”. What do you mean by that?
I say it from my point of view as a printer of photos. Digital is tool of extreme precision, which, in terms of creating a faithful rendering, allows you to do it incredibly well. But we are perceived as technicians in digital. In the same way that one says “chromists” to talk about people who work with color, as though there were specialties. It’s strange. When you make a color print, you are above all a printer. You are a printer in digital just as in analog. It’s ridiculous. It’s the same process, the same destination: a sheet of paper, a work of art, which is exposed and put on the wall.
You cite the photographer and theoretician Arnaud Claass, who describes printing like a “chore he wouldn’t turn over to anyone.” When you work, do you become anxious at the idea of not successfully rendering the image?
No, not anxious! I just feel interest. That’s what’s at stake! When a photographer comes here with a tiny little piece of transparent 24×35 film and wants to leave with a beautiful, well-made print, it’s exciting.
You write that to be a printer “is not to have a style but to know how to adopt the photographer’s.” Do you have to resist the temptation not to add your own interpretation?
But I don’t resist! I am the interpreter of someone. That’s the crux of what I do. I’m not an artist. The photographer knows exactly what he wants. At a stretch, some younger photographers can be requiring of my experience, but it all happens very naturally. What’s interesting is that when you work with an artist, you have to know that you must look through his eyes. I am in empathy with the photographer. The aim is not that the print pleases me, or only pleases me, but that it pleases the photographer. If I can offer something, modestly, I do so over time, as the relationship that I build with the artist develops. Sabine Weiss, for example, who came to see me at the age of about ninety, asked if she could give me some models. I could propose things for certain photos but that’s all. She printed her photos for fifty years! Obviously I’m there to do exactly what she wants. I can’t imagine going to her and saying, “Well ma’am, this image here, this is how I feel it should be”!
You say you work “too” well. What does this mean?
It means I can’t take the path less traveled. Some photographers, notably those I mention in the book, are photographers who discover, who explore. Under the enlarger, they are going to experiment and do things, do their own thing. Alix Cléo Roubaud, for example, reinterpreted her work a whole lot as she printed it. She had little pocket flashlights, she veiled. These artists allowed themselves to do things that I can’t allow myself to do any longer. This is where I am not an artist. I am in a process of reproductive craftsmanship in terms of technique. This means I can redo the same thing two, three, five times.
But your work of composition when you go to print requires a commitment, both physical and in terms of sensitivity…
There is sensitivity. Obviously. But I am very wary of people who say to me, “Ah, you’re the one who’s the artist. The printer is like the photographer.” That makes no sense. In fact, on this subject, the whole point of this profession is to assist the artist. I have technical skills to make use of, and tools that allow me to help the photographer compose or render his image, exactly as he wishes. It’s not a question of humility. I am happy to highlight what I do. But this is my job. Quite simply.
You write, “All photography is autobiographical.” Why?
A photograph necessarily says something about oneself. Denis Roche often said “A photograph is not ‘that was it’, it’s ‘I was there.’” One day Cartier-Bresson asked him, “Oh really? And I was there, too?” and he answered, “Yes, you, too, Henri, you were at the spot where you shot the photograph. So all photography, even yours, is autobiographical.”
In addition, aren’t you about to publish your own series of autobiographical photos?
Patrick Le Bescont, of Filigranes Éditions, published my Autoportraits de famille, which represents twenty-five years of photographs. It’s a boxed set of four books of self-portraits that I take at arm’s length with a small camera that I always have in my pocket and that I turn on myself. It’s purely chronological, with no layout, as life unfolds. I started it when I met my wife Colette. Then I continued with my children. It’s an amorous act, photography. I love: I photograph.
Do a lot of photographers do self-portraits?
All photographers have done it. It’s an action, above all. They don’t necessarily show the photos they’ve taken but they’ve all done it. With a friend, their children, their parents, their love. It’s an act of love. To hold the moment. That’s what photography is: a kind of trick that keeps making you think you’ve stopped time. It’s comforting for a time. And then obviously… it’s not true! But that’s how I see it.
How do you distinguish a self-portrait from the narcissism of the selfie?
My photos are not online. I’m not on social networks. The destination makes all the difference. My wife and my children are shown in photographs. But in this book, they are sheltered, in a refuge. The book is an intimate space…
Warm thanks to Guillaume Geneste, founder of the lab La Chambre Noire, Paris.
“Le Tirage à mains nues”, published by David Fourré, Éditions Lamaindonne
Interview: Marie Cheynel
Photos: Jean Picon