An Interview with Michel Campeau

© Catherine Jasmin, 2013

For over thirty years, Canadian photographer Michel Campeau has documented life in Montreal and small-town Quebec, using photography as a medium for expressing ideas about place, heritage and culture.  He has also produced a body of autobiographical work with images of his family and himself, often examining his own role as a photographer. 

Beginning in 2005, Campeau visited seventy-five darkrooms across Canada to document the disappearance of analogue photography. He soon expanded his scope to Mexico, Cuba, France, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Vietnam and Niger. The resulting work is included in his exhibition Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence, opening at the National Gallery on 18 October 2013. interviewed Michel Campeau in his Montreal home in July 2013. They spoke about his darkroom project and upcoming exhibition. This is an abridged version of the interview.

NGC  I’m interested in these trips you made overseas. I know you wanted to see how other darkrooms were different from North American darkrooms. Why did you choose those particular countries, especially Cuba and Niger?

MC  The first darkroom I visited was in Havana. I had made contact with people from the Fototeca de Cuba, who introduced me to some photographers and their studios.

Niamey [in Niger] was a result of my collaboration with Erika Nimis, who lives in Montreal and is a photographs historian concentrating on the photography of Western Africa. And Niamey was an amazing experience because photography and the darkrooms there were sort of frozen in time. They were still available to photographers, who were for the most part studio portrait photographers, doing passport photographs and ID photos, among other things. They did studio photography using colourful backdrops, probably for weddings and graduations...  There were a lot of darkrooms to visit within a fairly small urban area. I photographed almost thirty darkrooms and thirty adjoining studios, which were really colourful, really bright.

It’s a paradox, worn out beauty–how you can see beauty in obsolescence, in decay. I’m very conscious of that, and very careful too, because I’m sometimes accused of photographing decrepit darkrooms. But darkrooms are decrepit. The chemical vapors and splashes are quick to contaminate the place, the walls, doors, light switches, sinks, trays, tanks …

NGC  Are you intentionally seeking beauty in your compositions?

MC I don’t think so… Sometimes I’m criticized for the dirtiness of the spaces. But I tell people that many of the great, iconic photographs were made in makeshift darkrooms. Some of the prints you see today that are worth a lot of money were made in terrible conditions. These days, digital darkrooms are much more sterile places.

So, in the beginning, I had this idea of obsolescence in the darkroom. I worked for twenty-five years in the darkroom, and I loved working there. Like many artists of my generation, I was squeezed between the excitement of digital’s arrival and the desire to continue working in analogue. Gradually, digital took over. It’s true the project seems to reject…  it was sacrilegious to go and do it with a digital camera and flash. It’s doubly sacrilegious, because lighting up a darkroom is against the rules.

In the end, as much as I was focusing on this idea of obsolescence, I realized that in fact, I’d found beauty. The images are a result of the digital process, the pixel, what I call the chromaticity of the pixel, and the chromaticity of ink jet, the pigments, the papers…

But what is really important to me is that I conveyed the work done, the manual work. I feel that all my darkroom photographs are imbued with the sense of work, of manual work.

NGC  So it’s really an homage to handiwork, to resourcefulness. 

MC  It’s an homage to the resourcefulness of artisans, artists, photographers, labourers, technicians, great photographers and not so great, famous photographers and anonymous photographers. I tried my best to photograph in all sectors. If I’d been able, I would have photographed hospital darkrooms, but they no longer exist because they were among the first to move to digital, along with newspapers.

NGC  This image that you made in Tokyo [Untitled 6896 [Tokyo, Japan]],  it’s very clean-lined, very minimalist. It seems very Japanese. Is that what you intended?

MC  No, it was just a chance I had to visit a lab with this great guy. They took me there. There was a line of safelights hanging above a big tray.

Also, another criticism that people make of me is that I don’t show enough of the darkrooms–I photograph details, or abstractions. Two things: first, I wanted to do an artistic project, not just a documentary project. And taking wide-angle shots would have been totally boring. I think it’s interesting that people don’t always know what’s in the picture.

But perhaps because of the digital camera I’ve had a lot of fun, because it’s about the instantaneousness of the instantaneous. You’re no longer dealing with Polaroids. You see the result, and I’m really selective. I don’t keep things. I throw them away right away. So I have fun seeing a project develop right before my eyes. I’m no longer that guy who used to come home right away to develop his film. I used to do that. I needed to see my images fast. 

I’m looking forward to seeing this exhibition because it’ll be the first time different works are brought together. The cameras and the round filters [from the Bruce Anderson Collection] are things I first experimented with here, on my kitchen counter. This is my studio. I don’t have an outside studio. I take over my daughter’s room when she’s away. I’ve got my archives all over the place.  Really, it’s a bit of a mess. But I like working in a certain state of immobility. I like to think. So I’ve done experiments. I set up a camera at night – a Kodak Brownie I inherited from my mother – then I pressed the shutter.

NGC  What surprised you most about the darkrooms you saw in other countries?

MC  The resourcefulness, the danger. But ultimately, my experience in Havana, my experience in Niamey, it was culture shock to see how much, as a western, North-American artist…  the luck I had from an economic point of view to upgrade my equipment, to buy materials. It was light-years away from the opulence in which I experienced photography. It’s a bit outrageous. I’m still benefiting from it because I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life doing this.    

But I’m not talking about that [in these photographs]. I’m talking about the darkroom. Obviously, I turn the spotlight on that with the way I work, with the flash, which, besides, is what my photographs are all about. 

I’ve tried to stay close to photography as an instinctive, jazzy experience. It’s the improvisational side that attracted me to the art of photography.

Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence is on view at the NGC from 18 October 2013 until 4 January 2014.

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