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Meeting with Gilbert Garcin

By Barbara Oudiz

Published in EYEMAZING Issue 7 – Summer 2005 -


He poses in his pictures as an ordinary Mr. Everybody, dressed in a non-descript tan overcoat. In fact, 75 year-old Gilbert Garcin’s photographs and method are outrageously unique, and the story behind his career no less extraordinary. Mr. Everybody does raise, nonetheless, a number of universal questions about the meaning of human existence – or the lack thereof. By placing himself, via the character he embodies, in absurd or inextricable situations – labyrinths, concentric circles, deserts, or struggling with boulders, like a modern-day Sisyphus - he invites us to ponder such philosophical quandaries as time, solitude and the weight of existence.

Before retiring, Gilbert Garcin owned a company in Marseille that made lamps. He knew next to nothing about photography, and had taken only the most banal sort of pictures, the kind everyone takes on holiday or special occasions. At the age of 65 he gave up his business, began taking photographs that resembled still lifes, and entered a few of them in a competition that had been organised in his region, in the south of France. He won first prize, which consisted of a week-long workshop under the direction of Pascal Dolemieux during the festival Rencontres internationales in Arles. That’s all it took for Garcin to plunge head-first into photography with the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year old. Ten years later, he has published four books*, his work has been shown in dozens of exhibitions in France and abroad, and many of his photographs are now in prestigious private and public collections. Despite his weighty subjects, this thoroughly charming and tranquil man frequently laughs when talking about the way the world turns, and never seems to take himself seriously.

Your work changed considerably after attending Pascal Dolemieux’s workshop in Arles. What did that experience bring to you?
It opened all sorts of horizons. All of a sudden I realized that photography was a means of expression that could really suit me. That discovery was purely a question of chance; proof that so much in life depends on little things! Pascal provided me with a tool and inspired me to invent imaginary scenes, rather than photographing reality. That approach suited my temperament perfectly. He gave me the idea of making photomontages and taught me the techniques by which I could make them. In his own photomontages he introduced all sorts of household or discarded objects that he transformed into other objects. That gave me the idea of doing the same thing but by inserting a person, a sort of fictional character, in my photographs. My next step was to make dozens of photocopies of my work and send them to photo festivals, museums and galleries everywhere, in France and abroad.

What kind of replies did you get?
They were predominantly negative. Most of the people I wrote to didn’t reply; others did so in a very negative way. One museum director said to me “Sir, come back to see me when you decide to make photographs!” Just like that. It was radical. If I’d have been 18 years old I might have given it all up, but being 65, I didn’t allow myself to be discouraged.

And the other reactions?

Yes, I got some positive reactions from directors of festivals and galleries. Surprisingly, I soon was shown in five or six exhibitions in a row, which was very encouraging. Among these was an exhibition at the Festival Encontros da Imagem, in Braga, Portugal. They published a beautiful catalogue and chose one of my pictures for the cover. During a dinner, the Festival’s organizer, Rui Prata, told me that the photography museum of Braga had decided to buy all 36 of the photos in the show. I thought to myself, “Things are looking up!». Then, things accelerated.

What drives you to make photographs?
We accumulate a lot of questions and thoughts in the course of a lifetime. I find that photography is an absolutely fabulous way to share these questions and points of views with others. This is the principal and most profound reason I take photographs. I am not out to demonstrate something. My sole motivation stems from the need I feel - that we all feel, to varying degrees - to communicate with the world around us. As it turns out, those who buy my photographs often identify with the situation or the character. That’s why I chose to create a character that looks like “Mr. Everybody” in the first place.

Can you tell us about how you work?
I have an atelier at my country house in La Ciotat, because if my wife found me dragging bags of sand into our apartment in Marseille…!!! It’s just a small room, with a table and a film screen in the back. First I make a drawing of the way I want the photograph to look. Then I go out on the terrace of my apartment in Marseille and strike up a pose – my neighbours always look at me funny when I do this…(chuckles). I photograph myself with a 24x36 Reflex and develop it so that I am about 15 cm tall, and cut out this picture of myself. I cover my table with the sand that I get from the beach nearby. I glue the cut-out character onto a thin wire that I stick in the sand on the table, so that it’s standing. (He picks up the photo Etre maître de soi (Controlling Oneself) and points to the sky, in the background). This is the film screen onto which I project a slide showing clouds or other things. Then all I have to do is take the picture! It’s a little naïve as systems go; people always think I use all sorts of sophisticated technology. Not at all. It’s so simple that no one does it, or almost no one. It doesn’t appear “serious”, I suppose.

What advantages does this technique offer?
First of all, it requires very little material. And because it’s not a collage, there is a real depth of field into which I can introduce real objects, such as stones or mud. These objects cast real shadows. It’s also possible to vary the light on the objects. In fact, it’s a bit as if I were in the shoes of a theatre director; I have to think about where to place my characters on the stage and what kind of lighting I’m going to use.
I work roughly five half days a week, sometimes more, and produce about four images a week. My ideas don’t always work out. Sometimes I try the idea again, sometimes I just have to give it up.

Do you see an evolution in your style over the years?
I don’t think so, although I make fewer mistakes in technique now than I used to. But I strongly believe in the principle of producing a series in which there is continuity. That’s why the character is always wearing the same overcoat. That’s also why I cut out my face from the photos I took 10 years ago and glue it into the new images. I don’t show myself aging, in order to get that idea of continuity. It’s a bit painful to constantly be cutting your head off, but… (laughs). In all modesty, I often think of Simenon and Inspector Magret or Hergé and Tintin. You have to be a real expert to know which of their works were their early ones and which ones were done later. I sometimes think that, if I listened only to myself, I would make the same photograph over and over again for years!

There are recurrent themes in your work related to the idea of time: your character holds clocks, walks in concentric circles or labyrinths, is seen counting endlessly. How would you describe your own relationship to time?
Like everyone else’s : total anguish. Time just flows through our fingers. I began photography when I was 65. Sometimes my friends and family think I am in too much of a hurry. But I have no choice; I don’t have another 50 years ahead of me! This being said, I’m not trying to get a message across with my images. I’m not saying “this is the way things are” but rather, “this is the way I feel them”. Those feelings are not always fun, but they aren’t negative either.

You have given interesting titles to your photographs. Are titles important to you?
At first I was completely against the idea of titles, I wanted to leave things as open as possible, so that an individual looking at the picture could find as many personal interpretations in it as possible. And titles do, after all, direct the viewer, and “enclose” an image in a framework, so to speak. That’s why originally I just numbered my pictures. But people around me strongly encouraged me to replace the numbers with titles. Being the easy-going type, I said okay, why not.

How did you come up with the title of your 2002 book “Simulacres” (Enactments)?
I spent a long time looking through dictionaries, trying to find the right title. I thought this word fit because it refers to things that look like they’re real, but aren’t real. And everyone knows that these photographs are of me, and yet not of me, they are about a character I am playing.

There is also an underlying humour in your images…
On the contrary, it is not underlying; I try to place it on the surface! The kind of exercise I am doing with my photographs can easily become pompous, pedantic, or overly serious. It’s important to put a layer of humour right away, to let people enter into contact with the subject. Humour for me is not an end in itself, but thank goodness it’s there!

Critics and others often describe your artistic vision as Surrealist, do you agree with that view?
My pictures often contain a notion of absurdity, which is one of the characteristics of surrealism. It is only in terms of this vision of absurdity that I identify with Surrealism. I love Magritte and can’t stand Dali, for example. In fact, I identify more closely with Douanier Rousseau than with the Surrealists!

In your more recent photographs, your wife begins appearing alongside of you. Does she often work with you?
We live together, so of course she is involved to a certain extent in my projects and we often see things in the same light. She has posed with me in about 30 photos. I had intended to make a book for our 50th wedding anniversary, which is next September, comprised of 50 photographs of the two of us, one for each year of marriage. But the book never came about. I believe I had under-estimated the difficulty of introducing a second character. The problem is either she is passive, a sort of witness, and in that case it doesn’t add much to the photograph. Or else she is active and then her presence becomes too anecdotal, a bit like a comic strip or a photo-novel. I haven’t given up on the idea, but I have yet to find the right approach to make it work.

So for the moment at least, you will continue the series only in the form of “self portraits”?
Yes, though the series is by no means an autobiography. And thank you especially for not asking the question that many people ask me: “Isn’t it a bit narcissistic what you’re doing?” You know, lots of artists put themselves in their own works. Look at Tati and Charlie Chaplin, who I’m often compared to, or Woody Allen. And all the people who publish autobiographies and their personal diaries; they are revealing much more about themselves than I am. Or politicians! My work was once being shown in a town that I won’t name. There was a big electoral campaign going on there, with posters and all .The Mayor of the town came up to me and asked: “Doesn’t it bother you to have your photo shown to everyone like that?” And I replied “Does it bother you to have your picture everywhere?”

Barbara Oudiz.