Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on the photographs of Antoine d'Agata

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Dark Memories,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr. 50, Vol. 52, 21 – 27 May, 2004.

My memories of Antoine D’Agata from three years ago, the first time I met him: he was a man with hair cut very short, with very large eyes like an India, very drunk. He was staggering between the arms of his friends on an evening, cold, under the dim light of the makeshift bar in the old tavern which they had set up to welcome photographers from abroad (mostly French) who came to join the show of works in the First Pingyao International Photographic Festival in Taiyuan, China in 2001.

Today I met him again (with no alcohol) in an old apartment in the middle of Paris. No.37 on the Avenue de la Republique.

“As I told you from the start, I don’t like pictures of myself in the house. I like to keep home and work separate. Most of my work I keep at Wu” (the gallery which handles both our work). Antoine hurried to speak as he saw me looking around his apartment, which had only white walls and classic designs of stucco on the ceiling.

“Bonjour.” Dilan in pajamas, stretchy cloth of red on white, pushed by her father instinctively to greet the new, yellow-skinned guest. This is the three-year old daughter, born from Shereen, Antoine’s present wife who works in the photography section of the Liberation newspaper. (Antoine has two other daughters with his former wife.)

“The child’s nanny is off today. I have to look after Dilan till my wife comes back.” Antoine shows his charming daughter how to put under a cup of coffee the plate she was using to mix color from a tube for her painting.

“Your biodata says you studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. (ICP) in ’34.” I open the conversation.

“My case was special. You know, don’t you, that the ICP receives only professional photographers who want to improve their skills. At that time I knew nothing about photography. My friend introduced me and suggested I apply. The people at the ICP saw that my experience was extensive enough. They decided to try me with other photographers who were professionals. I was their guinea pig, a first for them.” Antoine, at 43, told his story. He pulled out a cigarette and lit a smoke, the artist-photographer, the bright star of the contemporary photographers’ world in France today.

“Why did you choose to study photography?” I asked – like some primary school kid.

“I was bored with life at the time. I had been in New York for two years. I had had many jobs. Before that, I went touring for 10 years, since I was a teenager. You can see the list of places I visited.” Antoine flipped through a catalog for me to scan. There was a long list of names: Europe – America – Latin America – Asia. “I traveled as one who had no money. I slept on the side of the road. I frequented bars and brothels. I used drugs. I really felt very low. I was bored. I wanted a normal life.”

If anyone saw his apartment today, they wouldn’t belief he could ever have done such things. The place was so beautiful, the rooms so well-proportioned; the family so warm. They were so very normal.

“As for me,” Antoine said, “photographs help me control myself. And they are my survival.

The clear and distinctive identity in the photos of Antoine d”Agata is that they are shaky and unstable, as if sliding, blurred and dim. Many times they are out of focus. They look mysterious. Sometimes they look intense, with color, light and shadow, very poetic, whether in pictures of individuals, nude men and women, or pictures of urban landscapes and nature, from the real thing or from the wallpaper in a bar. (He makes it his own…very interesting.)

“Why do your pictures shake? Why are they blurred and unfocused?” I asked directly. Antoine knew I wasn’t critiquing his work.

“I’m not good with technique. I’m not interested in what a photo is. I never plan. Whatever film is in the camera, I use. Most of my pictures are taken at night. They are almost unconscious. I have problems with my eyes a lot. My left eye is blind because a riot policeman once fired a tear gas pellet in my eye. Not long ago, I had an operation to put in a plastic lens. Things are blurred but I can see a bit. My right eye trembles a lot. I have to use contact lens. And I have to take the lens out today because my eye is sore. I apologize in advance if my eyes appear strange. I’m trying to focus.” He finishes his explanation with a laugh.

In addition to the distinctive, shaky, trembling, blurred images which have become something of a fashion by now, some of Antoine’s work have drawn some criticism. Especially images of himself in the act of having intercourse with a young woman. How drunk was he? He had the wit to click the shutter; he controlled his emotion that much. You can see that Antoine has no intention of arousing sexual emotion [by such pictures] at all. Quite the reverse. They rather make us see that these sexual activities are no different from animals who shake and struggle with pain. Some of them look like mutually destructive fights.

“This is the human condition, that’s what I want people to see. I don’t need anyone to follow these examples: this is my life. I don’t take photos of things I don’t know.” That was the reason Antoine gave.

“It looks like many photographers are following your example now, from your picture, Blow Job,” I gave my opinion.

“Blow Job was just one of a number of pictures taken, one of many hundreds. Just one picture! I didn’t mean to disturb anything. I thought of it as a moment in my life,” Antoine said, as if asking for understanding.

The photo diary of the life of Antoine d’Agata looks heavy, dark, and black, as he calls it, ‘Dark Memories,’ in his collection of photos in the book, Home Town, which he gave me as a souvenir. It includes pictures of him in his home town of Marseilles, and the story of his life. It is rather opposite to the diary of the life of Nan Goldin, his teacher and owner of the formula for photographic work recording ones personal life. Such records have varied tastes and seasons – happy, suffering, crying, jolly or in pain, in a rage, beautiful, contemptuous…

It was 7 pm but the sun was still bright. Antoine had to take Dilan for a walk at the children’s playground of the apartment. The same area where I was headed to get to the underground. On the way, Antoine (the dad) and his daughter kicked a plastic ball back and forth on the sidewalk like two kids at play.

“You didn’t think of shooting in Paris?” I asked him before we parted.

“No. It’s too close to my family. I want there to be some distance,” he said with a broad grin.

I was puzzled by his answer.

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