Lucien Clergue, May, 2010
I found out on Saturday that the French photographer Lucien Clergue had passed away. I knew that he had not been in the best of health at the age of 80, but this took me by surprise and actually hit me pretty hard.
Who was Lucien Clergue??? Only the greatest living photographer of the art nude, as I used to say, among other things. Some people called him a poet with a camera. I was truly amazed when models and photographers who photograph nudes had never even heard of him.
Lucien ran with good company. He worked with the poet Jean Cocteau and knew Pablo Picasso. As I recall, Lucien said that Cocteau was the one who told him that he had to choose between working in a factory or being a photographer full time. (He chose photography.) He said that he first met Picasso when he was at an arena in the south of France, watching a bullfight, when he heard that Picasso was there among the crowd. He ran out, got a portfolio of his photographs, came back and waited to show it to Picasso when the master was leaving the arena. I don’t know if I’d have had the guts to do something like that. I guess he knew what he was doing, because he and Picasso became lifelong friends.
He also said that he owed his life to Picasso – quite literally. One day when they were together, Lucien said, Picasso told him that he should go to see a doctor, as he did not look quite right. (Apparently the old master’s eye was so keen that he could see these small changes in people.) Lucien said that he felt fine, but Picasso’s wife Jacqueline told him that if her husband said to get himself checked out, he had better do it – and so he did. The result, Lucien said, was that the doctor told him that it could have been only a matter of a few hours more before something tragic happened to him.
Still, Lucien earned his way into the artistic pantheon on his own, and I consider him to have been one of the pioneers of art nude photography. There are a lot of people photographing nudes now, but I don’t think that was the case in the 1950’s and the 1960’s when he was producing images of the nude figure that are now iconic. I believe that he had a show of his work at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York in 1961, which is not too bad for someone just 27 years old. I’m not sure what the subject matter was, but I’m sure it was very good.
Later in life, in 2006, he became the very first photographer to be elected as a member of the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France.
The reason that I’m writing this, though, is not to give a biography of Lucien Clergue. I really want to write about some of my memories of having known him over the years – and years it was, as I first met Lucien 19 years ago. I can’t say that I knew him very well, but I did know him and I enjoyed seeing him now and then over the years.
We first met on October 28, 1995, just a few months after I first began photographing art nudes. It was a workshop organized by the International Center of Photography that was held at a studio in NoHo at Bleecker and Lafayette Streets. I remember that after the workshop ended one day, Lucien invited us to join him in going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was going to take photos of paintings as part of his double exposure series. I’m really sorry that I didn’t go with him at that time. Lucien’s idea was to shoot a roll of nudes or bullfighting photos with 35mm color film, then wind the film back, aligning it as it was the first to photograph on it again, this time with paintings. Even though the overlaps and juxtapositions on these rolls were random, the results were often startling – and stunning!
My first meeting with Lucien, October 28, 1995
My next encounter was the following summer, when I went to attend the Rencontres International de la Photographie – a large festival of photography which Lucien had helped to found in his home town of Arles, France. On one of the festival’s early days, after he had made a presentation, I went to Lucien and asked if I could meet him in his office so I could see more of his prints. He asked me to come by a few days later, after some of the hoopla of the festival had quieted down a bit.
I did as he asked, and visited him in his office a few days later. I told him that on the way there, I had been in a bookstore where I had seen a copy of his book “Picasso Mon Ami” (Picasso My Friend) selling for the equivalent of US$60. He then offered to sell me a copy of the book for only $40! I told him that I would really like to have it, but that my suitcase was already stuffed (which was true). “So what,” he said. “You sit on it, you squeeze it in!”
Naturally, I bought the book. (He signed it for me and it now sits proudly on the shelf a few feet away from me – along with many of his other books – as I write this.)
Four years later, in the summer of 2000, I was to meet Lucien once again in his office in Arles, when I participated in an art nude workshop with instructor Elizabeth Opalenik. Being a friend of Lucien, she brought us to his office, so it was a treat to once again be there and see the master showing his prints. That workshop, it turned out, had more significance for Lucien and his art than I thought at the time – and I admit that I am proud to have played a very small part in it. How???
One of the other workshop participants was a fellow named George from Louisiana. Elizabeth actually offered two consecutive workshops, and while I was only in the first one, George took both. One of the models the second week was a young woman named Kathy Cooper. She was not only a model, but a student at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie in Arles (a school that Lucien helped to found) and photographed nudes, too, using her own friends as models.
Kathy told George that if he wanted to come back to the south of France to photograph nudes, she could arrange for herself and her friends to model for him. He thought this was a good idea, and he asked some of his friends – including me – if they wanted to join him the following summer. As it happened, the week he wanted to go was the week following a trip that I had already planned to London and Paris, so it fit perfectly with my plans, and the two of us went.
One day – a Wednesday – when we were photographing on the rocky coastline near Marseilles, I was climbing down across a very large boulder when my shirt got caught on a piece of rock sticking out. I instinctively yanked myself away, ripping my shirt and getting a cut on my stomach in the process. It seemed like no big deal, but as time passed over the next couple of days, I kept getting stronger and sharper pains on the left side of my chest. It was so bad that I could barely sleep Friday night because of the pain, and in the morning I told George that I needed to go to the hospital to have the thing checked out.
So, on what was to be our last day of photographing, George and I went from our farmhouse accommodation outside of town to meet Kathy and her friend Francois in Arles. After we described the situation, Kathy got in our car and directed us to the emergency room of the local hospital. Luckily, they saw me right away, and after a blood pressure test, an electrocardiogram and half a dozen chest x-rays, the doctor pronounced (in English) that there was nothing wrong with me other than a pulled muscle in my chest, and she prescribed muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory medications for me.
Revielle as photographed by Lucien
Okay, by now you’re probably wondering, what does any of this have to do with Lucien Clergue? The city of Arles is a beautiful place, but as far as cities go, it is not very large. After the E.R., Kathy, George and I went to a pharmacy in the center of town to have my prescriptions filled. With nothing planned for the rest of the day, we set about to stroll around town – and whose path did we happen to cross??? Lucien’s! I don’t recall if he recognized me as he walked by, but I certainly remembered him, and I said hello as he did so.
Lucien had met George the year before at the workshop, but I introduced Lucien to Kathy. To my great surprise, even though Lucien was an instructor at the school and Kathy was a student (and a student who photographed nudes and modeled nude, no less!), the two of them had never met before.
Now let’s fast forward a few years later to the big AIPAD photography dealers’ show which is held each spring here in New York. On this occasion, as I was standing and speaking with someone, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and who was it? It was Lucien. I thought to myself that I must be doing something right if he remembers me and comes up to say hello to me. It was more than that, though.
“Do you remember that girl Kathy who you introduced me to?” he asked. “She is now my printer!” (She remained his printer and his assistant for all the following years, too.)
So, it really is amazing how chance occurrences can change one’s destiny, but that’s life, isn’t it?
Over the following years, I would see Lucien at the AIPAD shows and at exhibitions devoted to his photography in New York. However, about four years ago, we began a friendly, occasional e-mail correspondence, mostly with him informing me about his plans to visit New York and asking if I could recommend some models that he could photograph.
I was looking over this e-mail correspondence the last few days and I have to say that I now consider it to be something of a treasure, as I think it shows how he still maintained his vitality, his joy at what he was doing and yes, his sense of humor – and all written in his less than perfect but still charming English. I could just imagine the twinkle in his eye as he was writing these messages, and I would like to share a few with you.
New Year’s Card 2011
As a photographer, Lucien was very particular with the type of model that he wanted to photograph, and there are numerous times when he asked for “breasty” and “hairy models” with good proportions. When I wrote to ask by “hairy” if he meant pubic hair, he wrote back saying “yes, pubic and not public.”
On another occasion, when I suggested a model to him that he liked, shortly after the French economist Dominique Strauss-Khan was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in New York, he wrote “You are an angel! Thanks, I will contact her, but after the stories of DSK, French men will have terrible reputation and in particular me doing the nude !!!” When I replied, writing “Don’t worry about DSK. From what I have seen, all of the ladies find you to be very charming. For me, sadly, it is the opposite,” he wrote back, “HGé ! man ! You are a young boy, I am an old monkey! Best wishes to both of us !!!”
As it is, even though he was very particular about his models, he did photograph three of those who I suggested to him – Kelsey, Revielle and Sarah Ann (although one did tell me that he freaked out a bit when he saw the little tattoo that she had).
“Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” These words were spoken by actor John Hurt, playing the part of the War Doctor, in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special on television last year. Regarding Lucien Clergue, I did actually feel privileged to help him find models to work with so that the fire of his art and his vision could continue to burn.
Lucien was generous, too, and was kind enough to thank me for my help with the models by giving me one of his prints as a gift – another thing which I will treasure.
Regarding his enthusiasm for photographing a subject that he had been working on for about six decades, and his desire to keep things simple, he wrote this about working with one of those models: “I try to call Kelsey but there is the voice of her father on the answering machine, so I did not mention modeling. Anyway the most important feel sure she does not cut her hair! Her long hairs will be very good for me as well as her pubic hair of course. Also tell her to do not have her nails painted, and not too strong make up, the simple the better. I can’t wait to see her!”
Then, after he had photographed her, “Dear Dave, You are quite incredible: you introduce me years ago to Kathy and now to this charming ( and lovely ) Kelsey! Thanks a lot, dear !”
In February 2012, he wrote this note, which I’m sure many of the photographers out there can understand: “Any news for the new model like Kelsey? Hope you are not vreezing as we do here just awful ! Wish to have a charming girl in front of my camera, hope will be OK end of March when I come back.”
However, Lucien always remained the teacher with a critical eye, as evidenced by this reply he gave me after I had asked him to look at a portfolio of my nude work online two years ago: “Dear Dave, Congratulations for your work in this gallery. Be careful on: models are too posing, and you should have them more involved with the background, establishing a dialog, but you are in the good way (be careful with the eye they should not necessary look at you) Best wishes, Lucien”
Kelsey as photographed by Lucien
Sadly, though, I could see that time was beginning to take its toll. In February of 2013, the year that he served as president of the Academy of Fine Arts, he wrote: “I am very busy working on 3 books, and President of the Academy of Arts for the year, but still exhausted after this strong surgery …..” The following day he wrote “I feel better now, but still not ready for the Olympic games.”
I can’t remember for certain the last time I saw and spoke with Lucien. It may have been last year at the AIPAD show. The last message I received from him was on January 22 of this year, shortly after one of my photos made in Maine two years ago with four models was published in the French magazine PHOTO:
“Happy New year !
Have seen a photo by you in PHOTO. My God 3 or 4 women together modeling for you ! Fabulous !
I may come around the first of May for my opening at Throckmorton. If you have any new girl hairy no tatoo for me would be great.
My very best
The opening reception for Lucien’s show at the Throckmorton Gallery was indeed held on Thursday, May 1. I wrote to Lucien that I would try to be there, but as I was leaving the following night to fly to London for a vacation, I just had too many things to do that night and headed straight home after work. I just assumed that I would see him again at the gallery or at AIPAD next year. Of course, things don’t always work out the way you plan, and I now regret my decision not to see him at the gallery.
I did eventually see the exhibit after I came back from London, and more than once, at that. The nudes were beautiful, as expected, but what really struck me was how magnificent the abstract photos were. Lucien Clergue may be best known for his nudes, but he was much more of a photographer than that. When I brought my friend Dave Levingston to see the show on his visit to New York a few months ago, he was so impressed that he sent a message out to his friends urging them to see it.
I am hoping that Throckmorton will put up another exhibit of Lucien’s work in his memory before too long. For those of you who were not fortunate enough to see the show this summer, click here for a link to the gallery’s webpage for it. You can click on each photo to see it larger.
Lucien did not have a website displaying his photos like many photographers do, but you can see a selection of his work on this webpage (here) set up by his daughter Anne.
The master can also be seen at work photographing a model on a beach in the south of France in this video here.
Lastly, this video (here) on You Tube titled “Lucien Clergue: In America” is worth watching to see Lucien and other people speaking at the opening of his 2012 show at Throckmorton,
I see that Kathy, Lucien’s assistant, has finally posted a message on Facebook yesterday, two days after his passing. “Et ceux-là seuls sont morts qui n’ont rien laissé d’eux,” a line by the poet Prudhomme. It translates into English thus: “And those alone are dead who have left nothing of them.”
For those of you who have seen Lucien’s prints, or even only seen his work online, you will know that he is still with us and living through his art, as well as in the memories of those whose lives he touched.
- The student and the master
Finally, Lucien Clergue used to say that he was greatly influenced by the work of Edward Weston. I’m sure that Lucien himself has influenced numerous photographers in his own way. I have long considered myself to be one of them. I just hope that I can be worthy of the master’s teachings and his art.
He will be missed.