An interview with François Trézin

by Marine Cabos, Photography of China, 2013

François Trézin (born in 1982 in Valréas, France) is a young French photographer based in Shanghai since 2007. He has first studied Graphic Design and Fine Arts before becoming the assistant of several photographers in Paris, Sapporo and Shanghai. This period was a watershed in his approach to the medium. Today he collaborates with numerous magazines, such as The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Surface, Esquire, ELLE DECO, as well as with local advertising agencies. Endowed with particular talents and emerging recognition, François has already shown his works in many cultural institutions in France, China, and US.

Through his artworks – which are between photography and installation – François has been focusing on the object as the main subject matter so that to question its function and its aesthetic. His artworks reflect a personal expressivity and mingle sensitivity, spontaneity, concept, and everyday life elements. As a prolific artist, François has already created many series in addition of his commissioned work, which is actually complementary and enriching.

“Shanghai Parks” (2008), “A Sculpture A Day Keep Doctor Away” (2009 onwards), “Moins que l’infini” (2010), “Hubei” (2010), “Villa Pan” (2010), “Rock Speaker” (2011), “Frfr Bazaar” (2011), all these series explore the peculiar relationships between the object and its surrounding, the object and the photographer. These places often embedded with historical meanings allow him to re-interpret his environment and to recreate his own universe by appropriating materials found within the place or by building his ephemeral and fragile installations.


On June 2nd 2012, I am invited to cross a turquoise blue door – frfr studio’s ‘brand’ – in Jing’An district. We sat on a comfortable couch and start our conversation while drinking a cup of homemade coffee.


Do you remember your initial experience at making art? What were your motivations?

I started to take pictures when I was nine during a trip to Canada; my father gave me a compact automatic camera. Since this trip was planned during school time, my teacher asked me for a full report of this journey, this was my first travel book. It was amazing, it was a perfect opportunity because he understood what impact it would had on me while making me work. I shot touristic photographs thus devoid of interest per se, yet it was as well a good experience for my writing since I had to think about the narration, to determine how I should write what I felt, what I saw. After this I did not take much photographs, during six or seven years. I started again to take pictures more seriously during high school when I was sixteen.


Do you have a specific process of shooting a photograph?

It depends on the place and things that I see, which trigger afterwards a creative impulse. For example the series “Hubei” was created directly there; it corresponded to a desire to understand better this environment that was utterly strange to me, to understand better these objects which were not mine, which I was not using everyday. I tried to analyse them somehow. I wanted to get closer to them, thing that I do by touching them, by reorganising them.

To give another example, I created “Rock Speaker” also in a spontaneous manner. In truth, I had this project in mind after my arrival in Shanghai. I did not start it immediately because I did not find the accurate approach at the time, however the final result is rather simple: close-up photographs with details of outside elements. But it took quite a long time in my unconsciousness before I decided to start this project.

Nevertheless there was also another triggering factor: a solo exhibition in which I was invited {exhibition “Flashback” set up from 19 April to 19 June 2011 in Grignan, France}; this was my true first solo show that gathered almost all my works created from 2005 onwards. Hence on that occasion, I created the series “Rock Speaker” because I realized that I wanted to start this series for a long time. Then everything went naturally.


Can you talk more about your relationship with the object? Because this subject-matter seems to fascinate you.

This is a very important question because everybody is always asking me why I shoot objects and no human. I am out of my comfort zone with people, some knows how to cope with this issue but I did not find the solution for me yet. Actually shooting objects is equivalent to shooting portraits of people somehow because these objects belong to them.

My relation with objects is determined by their functionality, which is always linked to human being though indirectly. Rather than shooting straightforwardly someone I prefer to shoot his surroundings. In the end, it is maybe a timid manner to approach people.

Few years ago, I used to take pictures of close friends without any problem. But when I started to do commercial work I changed my thinking about photography, and consequently it changed my personal work. The two of them now evolve all together. When I started to assist photographers in Japan I realized what meant to shot a portrait from a commercial perspective, I realized the relationship between the photographer and the model. This relation implies seduction but more importantly power that can be more or less aggressive, and this situation made me feel very uncomfortable because I don’t like to impose things on people. Besides, I am not sharing the same codes, such as the fashion model poses. So I impose my authority on objects, they don’t move and say nothing {laugh}.


Still regarding your relationship with the object, do you use the same approach when it is a personal and a commissioned work?

Several possible scenarios exist. First it is important to mention that in general a shooting session lasts a whole day, the photographer’s mission is to put the light and collaborate with the stylist. Regarding still-life photography, sometimes the stylist chooses the objects, sometimes the editor in chief is the commissioner, sometimes I create the setting by myself, it depends. Most of the time we collaborate. The editor in chief, the client, the stylist or I can give the main idea. It is quite complex, thus difficult to find out whose work you are looking at.


In general, your collaborations go well?

It depends on people. In general everything goes well and now it is even getting better and better because of our emerging recognition, people contact us for our ideas, which build a creative freedom.


You said that you are not looking for ‘exotic’ things when you travel. What do you mean by ‘exotic’ objects?

It is an object that gives information about its own value, the place, the country, the history. Perhaps I contradict myself inasmuch as these kind of objects appear in my photographs from time to time. I try to think straightforwardly because when you travel you are often attracted to things you are not used to see. In China everything can be a subject-matter for your photograph, but you discover then that the same people took the same picture. For instance there is a curious phenomenon: French people would take the same photographs; it seems almost cultural.

Irrevocably I cannot escape neither my own culture nor my origins, so I shoot colourful bowls like in the series “Frfr Bazaar“. However it makes sense when they are put in context because the project was to integrate the artwork into the street {the Bazaar Compatible Program is a creative space situated in a tiny bazaar street, the Art School XiYitang launched this project}. This place is by the way amazing; it maintains an ambiguity for there is no window, no barriers, and no signs.

In general when I arrive in a place that I don’t know, I take my time before taking any picture. I want to understand what is local or not, what is interesting beyond its cultural, temporal, and historical specificities.


How has your experience in China changed your approach to photography?

The work context changed things a lot more than the place. The fact to work independently allowed me to meet people, it made my communication skills evolve and me by the same token. For instance before I thought as a French and talked to people differently, now that I have understood better how Chinese people communicate I had to adapt and think otherwise. So these shift in viewpoints and places made me evolve.


You talk about evolving, was it an aesthetic evolution too? Are the photographs you shot in Japan similar to those shot in China?

I have done things in Japan but it was not as mature as it is now. I was still young and just finished my studies. Hence I took snapshots, in other words photographs taken on the spot. I was harder to conceptualize an idea beforehand and to achieve it technically. I created the series about trees’ roots {Bottom of Trees} that I find interesting and that man people like; yet I don’t like its technique anymore. I should have a stronger concept, I am not satisfied with the light and the shadows, but I did not realize at that time.

This series can be parallel with “Rock Speaker“: the composition is similar, but I knew exactly what I was doing for “Rock Speaker”, the viewing angle remains the same from one rock to another, the setting was thoughtfully chosen, each light was different so that to the rock becomes a landscape in itself. The idea was not really to create something like the Becher, even though I have been a big fan for a long time of the German school, I like the cold and repetitive dimension of these photographs. I realized that it did not fit my discourse this time.


Tell me more about your series “A Sculpture A Day Keep Doctor Away” please.

The whole idea is based on a plate in which I ate almost everyday {laugh}. This plate is made in China and ‘an apple a day keep doctor away’ is written on it. It corresponds to a proverb but I have forgotten the exact origin, besides the formulation is incorrect since it should have been written ‘ONE apple a day keep THE doctor away’. But I decided to keep the clumsy Chinese translation.

I liked this sentence; I found it funny. Then I once shot food in this plate and the series started. This series examines everyday life in general. I have been thinking about it since 2009-2010 but I truly started it few months ago.


Will you continue this series indefinitely?

Yes I think especially if I stay in China. Here it is becoming slightly more exotic because it involve things I have found down the streets, and I am sure that other people have taken the same pictures. This time I give myself some slack {laugh}.

I deliberately decided to move away from the technique I am able to use when I shot inside studio. I generally grasp the first camera I find, I try to have a good light but if it is not possible never mind. Sometimes I use the flash, sometimes not, it does not matter. This is a freestyle series and concentrates to a greater extent on content. In other words, it is not necessarily an installation that I have made but common people’s installation, as a sort of ready-made.

It became almost a research book. Everyday life can inspire me for my personal installations when inspiration does not proceed from my commercial work.


Is the practice of referencing important in your work? For instance in your series “Rock Speaker“, it seems you refer to Chinese tradition and its fascination for rocks with strange shapes while having a sense of humour.

I don’t have much reference, even though these rocks are everywhere, at the main entrance of museums, in all touristic places, practical information are written on them and so forth. Hence I found very quirky to see them as accessories, the aesthetic dimension completely disappeared, they are devoid of any cultural meanings. I think it is quite funny. I think there is a western and Asian humour that is culturally different. Among westerners there is a tendency to have prejudice against China, so you need this embarking point in order to get the humour of this series.


Do you feel close to other contemporary artists?

I don’t feel isolated from other artists. There are many photographers (and artists) who inspire me, whatever they call themselves commercial photographers or artistic photographers. I draw my inspiration from art in general rather than from photography. Gabriel Orozco’s artworks inspire me a lot for I like his sensitive approach through his photographs, sculptures and installations. Erwin Wurm’s humour also touches me a lot.

For a long time, I was interested in documentary photography – such as Raymond Depardon among others – because I knew nothing else. After when I started to work as a professional I figured out there were more openness in commercial work at some point. You have to experiment many things, to keep up-to-date with what is going on.


What do you think about Chinese contemporary photography? Which Chinese photographers do you like?

Chinese photography interested me for several reasons. For instance Maleonn’s photographs astonish me; they belong to a theatrical and almost expressionist tendency, with emotional excess and feelings. Nonetheless this taste for staged photography attracts me less now.

Another example of the same genre is Han Lei who also uses also mise-en-scene. Chinese are quite surprising even though this phenomenon is international as well. They dare to spend time and money on their installations, which give them both magical and slightly ‘too-much’ features.

Recently I have also discovered Meng Jin and Fang Er; I think they usually work separately but they have done one series together: photographs shot in ‘love motels’ using objects they found there so that to make kind of ‘bondage’ put on each bed of rooms they have been into. The final result is quite impressive and makes me think about my series on the drawers {Drawer Story}. In the end, I am obviously part of this tendency {laugh}, I am not the only one who mingles installation and photography. It has been already a long time since we tried to transcend documentary photography.

I also like Quentin Shih and Chen Man for she extends the limits of photography. Apparently she is coming back to pure or traditional photography. I saw some of her starts portraits and I found them beautiful. To her credit she dares to create such artworks.

I think as well about the documentary photographer Li Wei, who shoots people from his surroundings in Mongolia.

I cannot make much reference to Chinese photographers; I don’t know if they really have an impact on me but for sure they interested me. I think they manage to detach themselves from photography, they do not hesitate to blend it with painting, a sort of in-between, as if it was theatre. To me these features seem peculiar to Chinese photography.


What are your future projects?

I am taking a twelve-year-old laptop to pieces; this machine had a hard time during eight years. I did not what to do with it, I was about to sell it but I realized it was worthless because it did not work anymore. Then I decided to take it to pieces in order to see what was inside, each piece one after the other each screw one after the other. It permits me to discover the beauty of a hard drive among other components. I am classifying them by categories and aim to transform them into a sculpture, which maybe will become a photograph afterwards. All these elements seem almost abstract and very pure, each piece possess a function that captivates me. I have always been attracted to tiny things: since my childhood I created objects composed of several ones or composed of dismantled toys. In the end, everything becomes interesting as long as you look at it very closely.

The criteria employed in the selection of these components are still changing. For instance I have made a category ‘metal stand with a flat surface’. The installation in itself will not correspond to these classifications because it has already been done. As a step in the creative process, this is very interesting to be conscious of what it looks like it terms of form and colour. Then you have to go beyond this step so that to turn into something else.


Photography of China


See post about “Hubei” series