016 / 03 October 2014 / Features
The Lonely Room
Photography by Romain Le Cam
In Conversation with Caroline Mason
At a first, quick glance, one could easily mistake Romain Le Cam's photos for paintings. Luminous, Vermeeresque skin tones contrast with gritty details: an angelic-looking boy with the trace of a black eye, the lust and loneliness of youth, or macabre imagery of black magic. Fashion writer and journalist Caroline Mason spoke with Romain about the thought-process behind these images and if there is such a thing as universal beauty.
Caroline Mason: When did you first develop your interest in photography?
Romain Le Cam: It all started when I was in high school. My specialization was art history and I really liked all the lines and symmetrical composition and it kind of pushed me to go towards photography, so then I started to work in fashion which also kind of drove me there.
CM: You said you learned it in boarding school, but did you go to art school afterwards to train more formally or did you teach that to yourself?
R: A bit of both. I did a two years prep after my high school that was about Greek and Latin culture and art history. Then I entered the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs de Paris (ENSAD). I studied there for five years, but I actually started to do analog photography because of a friend who was doing it, and in the end he suggested I buy a camera. I think this was about four years ago. So I bought this really old camera at a flea market, which I still use now. It’s medium format.
CM: So it was your friend who originally inspired you to pick up photography?
R: Yeah, his name is Irwin Barbé, he showed me how to use the film and he taught me a few techniques about using light. I wanted to reproduce the light that I saw and loved in the paintings that I had been studying.
CM: That’s interesting because the way that you utilize the lighting in your work is really what makes it stand out. The light seems to create these romanticized, vintage effects, which are reminiscent of a more classical style of art.
R: Thanks. Well, I like to be an artist on the side since my daily job is as an art director in advertising which is very commercial and linked with something as despicable as marketing.
CM: Are there any other fashion photographers that you look to for references or feel that your work has been inspired by?
R: I don’t regard myself so much as a fashion photographer, but if I had to relate my work to other photographers, I would say that I really like some of the earlier work of Yelena Yemchuck. She was related to the Smashing Pumpkins in the ‘90s and she used to do these really grainy pictures, I also love Tim Walker of course.
CM: Besides names, can you explain a little more about your process of inspiration? Do you have any particular methods or rituals that help you come up with new concepts?
R: I find inspiration surrounding my life or in the things I read, from the movies I see, or even from childhood memories. Mostly childhood memories actually. So I get these ideas and I try to link it to my model who is usually someone I met that is not a professional model. So then I do a list of the kind of elements I need to gather and prepare, like the space or the styling or the use of props. Then I make an appointment and I try to choose a day when the light is fitting for what I am looking for. I usually have a chat with the person for a couple of minutes about what I am looking for from the person and how I am looking to see the angle of the person’s face, or to try and see what is the best angle to use. Because I use only 15 pictures on a film and I never use more than 2-3 films to shoot. So I never do more than 30 pictures.
CM: So there is a lot of pressure to get it right on the first try.
R: Somehow. I usually place the person like a doll. I put the hands and the fingers in the way that I want. I put the legs… I move the face myself. And then I guide the person’s eye with my finger to have the right angle of the look. Then I will ask the person not to move at all and I will place mirrors around to have the light. So when it is all set, I move around the person to take the pictures. I do this again and again until I am done with my film, at which point we are finished.
CM: That seems like a really involved process.
R: It’s quite short actually! It never really takes more than two hours. I also do the makeup and the styling myself.
CM: You do all of that yourself?
R: Yes. First I dress the person up. Next I will put the makeup on. The person has to just let go because she is really like a doll. She doesn’t have to do anything special.
CM: Just exist.
R: Right! Sometimes I try to help them feel comfortable. Like I will make tea or put on some music. We can smoke a cigarette. This is because I like it when the person looks relaxed, almost to the point of being bored. That’s a good feeling because it doesn’t add anything too expressive to the picture. When the person is almost emotionless, you can actually get more emotion than when she is trying to fake it.
CM: Because when they are blank you can project onto them?
R: Often, models in my pictures look kind of similar. Because I think I somehow project myself a lot onto them. In this way even if it is a portrait of them it’s also a portrait of myself.
CM: You were mentioned that you choose all of your models yourself. One thing I was noticing as I was looking through your work was your tendency to shoot a lot of men. But the way that you are shooting these men specifically is really beautiful, and a bit ethereal. Do you think that is also because you’re trying to capture a bit of yourself through the lens?
R: Yeah, maybe. When I see a boy that I think is beautiful it might be because he has some aspects of a charisma that I admire somehow.
I think a lot of my photography is sometimes linked with something a bit like death or like memory. It’s like when you’re happy. You know when you are happy you’re not really thinking of yourself as being happy in the moment you are living it.
But when you have been happy and you’re now thinking of it as something that has been happening it is really what makes you happy: the memory of that moment.
So when I see something beautiful in a person or in a mood that I want to recreate, I would like to capture this moment to have a trace of it for myself or for the people who are going to remember me.
CM: That’s a good point to bring up, about ‘what is beauty’. I think that as a society our ideas of beauty are constantly changing and being disregarded. Do you have your own idea of the definition of beauty?
R: When I was studying art history I was sometimes thinking to myself, ‘Why is this painting or this piece of art that was just one of many at the time, now remembered as a classic sign of what is aestheticism?’ Or ‘Why this one? Why not another?’ It’s like when you take a bunch of pictures and you print them and you put them in front of a bunch of people and in the end they’re more or less going to agree on ‘This one is best’. And you don’t really have a real reason for it. It’s something that you can’t explain. But I think that even if there are many different types of beauties and many different tastes, there is something that is timeless and universal, somehow beyond culture. A sort of universal notion of beauty.
Often when you see women in art there are codes coming back like the red lips or a round shape of the face because that is something soft. Often light eyes are also signs of being linked with God. These codes that you can find in many pieces of art from all over the world are something a bit unexplainable. It’s something that has always been really interesting to me. And of course I have my own personal taste and what I like in life and what is maybe linked with my childhood or my vacation. But I really think you have some notions of lights that are universally beautiful. I try to think of these as well as my personal notion of what beauty is.
CM: How did you come to get involved with the magazine?
R: Usually I don’t get involved in magazines, because I am not really interested in working with a stylist or working with a modeling agency since I think the people from modeling agencies are quite despicable. There are so many magazines I don’t like because they are just using artists without paying them and not caring about their work. It’s just like a machine that is taking money off the back of people who work for free. But I wanted to work with this magazine because it seemed quite different from the others.
CM: It’s impressive that you have that sense of integrity at your age even though you could make more money from it, you’re staying away from it because you don’t believe in it.
R: Well I really don’t know if I have so much integrity. There are a lot of photographers similar to me, but they aren’t doing a job that is helping them as much as what I am doing. I think I am really lucky because I am doing a job that I like and a job that is bringing me enough money to be independent from it and to do my art outside. So it’s difficult for the photographers who make their whole lives about their passions because it means that you have to make enough money out of your art to live off of it. So I wouldn’t put the blame on other people who are doing photography for more money because they really have no choice.
CM: You’ve got to survive somehow. Do you think there might be a change coming in both fashion and photography about the process surrounding the work?
R: To be honest I don’t really see myself as being in the industry. Because even though my work does have some followers, not too many people know of my work. I mean I do have a certain audience but I don’t consider myself very successful. I don’t think I am a part of the industry and I intend to keep doing things my way on my own. Maybe one day it will work, but I don’t want to push further. About the industry in general. However, I think there is this big trend happening of doing analog, vintage-style pictures. I am afraid it is really just about aestheticism and that it will become branded as a mass-market trend, keeping this aestheticism with the digital process of retouching. So I am not very optimistic about it. I think it’s going to be just a way of using after-effects and retouching. I am quite pessimistic about cutting back on true values.
In terms of magazines it’s neither bad nor good. It’s just as it is. But I don’t want to sound like someone who is truly attached to traditional values because I really don’t give a shit. I just like to do my thing. I don’t have a choice if it’s going to turn good or bad.