IN CONVERSATION WITH ANNETTE LANG
As long as she can remember, Annette Lang has been fascinated by observing people in everyday life situations, trying to make sense of their actions and to understand how they relate to their environment. Even as a child, she can remember being dropped off somewhere, offering a young Annette a viewpoint of life unfolding before her eyes, and then to be picked up hours later. This fascination naturally took her down the path of studying anthropology and cultural linguistics. While others thrive on exoticism, it is the normalcy and the underlying web of cultural and personal significations that attracts Annette and provides her with a sentiment of happiness. This influences her photography greatly.
Living in Nice, France, Annette uses her camera to witness life beyond postcard views and to celebrate the beauty of people in everyday activities around her home city. She loves catching that tiny but significant moment. In her recent series of photographs, Annette has explored the colour blue more intensively to reveal another side of the denomination "Cote d'Azur" (Blue Coast) used for the Nice region. Annette captures life in Nice with eye-popping beautiful colours, in an almost painterly style, that just makes you crave summer or hope it never ends, depending on which hemisphere you live in.
Tell us a bit more about yourself and your background. When and how did you start getting interested in photography?
I was born in rural Germany. From that childhood, I keep among other memories that of people constantly observing each other, curious to know who was doing what and somehow eager to spot something exciting. I would never have thought it at that time, but it significantly influenced my gaze upon the world around me, doping my observation skills all while skipping the potentially judgmental streak. I also left me with a deep understanding how important a local community is and that membership involves both benefiting from and contributing to it.
I left Germany on a study grant for Lyon, France. I immediately loved living in a big city discovering that different areas kept and thrived on their village character. After graduating in anthropology and cultural linguistics, I spent some years in lecturing and research before transiting into the corporate world. I was lucky to work in the video game and augmented reality sector as a consulting anthropologist and intercultural advisor at the beginning of the new millenium when the whole concept of a virtual world sounded like a substance fueled utopia. Ever since, I have been working both in higher education and the corporate world, travelling for both professional and personal reasons, constantly focused on my very fundamental interest - people and cultures.
At the same time, I had my three boys within four years - my by far biggest source of happiness and most exciting trip, above all for myself. Raising them on my own, it has at times been a little sporty and bumpy, chaotic and creative, but a wonderful journey.
Photography has been the one element allowing me to hyphenate it all. When on a field trip or otherwise abroad, I had photos of my boys with me. I brought the big wild world back home in pictures and used them during lectures to foster curiosity and to open minds. My first conscious use of photography was during a stay in Mumbai, using the lens as both a looking glass for better understanding and celebration and beauty, and as a shield for the heartbreaking sights. I seem to be twisting a lot in this immersion - distance dichotomy with my camera.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that resonates with you the best?
I think it's a quote from Marcel Proust. Whose novels I never managed to read, by the way .
"The real voyage of discovery does not consist in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing it with new eyes."
As an academic, I know I should quote the exact source...but can't, for the 'aforementioned' reason. Photography is exactly that mental voyage of discovery. The viewfinder, making me see beauty where there was a concrete wall before. And seeing the world through other photographers' eyes is very eye opening and always a new ticket to a discovery trip. The last decades have shown that a lot of people travel, without mentally moving away from their standards, assumptions and expectations. It's often about seeking the milder climate, the bluer sky or the wilder ocean. If that travel doesn't occur in our minds, that we risk to ultimately reinforce our prejudices. It demands an effort to step back from what we want to see to really see. I am of course working on that myself.
Where do you find your inspiration?
This is where we sort of go full circle, back to my village childhood. I find my inspiration in the ordinary life around me, the seemingly unexciting scenes of everyday life. I recently described my street photographer self as that of a truffle pig happily roaming around in the undergrowth. Nobody would call a truffle beautiful when inside the forest, nobody would even give it a second look. Once on the table, it is then hailed as a delicacy. I often feel the same about my street photography. The scene looks boring everyday tasteless and tedious, but holds all the potential for an eyeful of flavours and spices.
What do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
My photography sets out to celebrate the beauty of real life and of real people in an iconic place known for its scenic views and often instagrammable places. I operate on a much trodden territory to deter the hidden visual gems of human life. As a village child, I always feel more like a member of a community than as a a mere inhabitant. With my camera, I try to act as the liaison agent or go-between between the community that surrounds me and the viewer of the picture in a relationship of visual ambassadorship.
My street photography reflects my curiosity with regard to different life paths whose bends and curves make each personal history unique and precious. The moment I press the shutter, the subjects' and my own life path cross leaving a lasting imprint on mine. Street photography is the visual translation of a brief encounter into a mute and yet luminous visual language. My pictures often, but not exclusively, show single subjects allowing me to fully concentrate on every tiny expressive element when pressing the shutter. I put people centre stage without ever exposing them.
Understanding life as an often unexpected and even improbable occurrence of co-existing elements, my photography intends to freeze these in an attempt to create a seemingly paradoxical archaeology of present times. Pressing the shutter button enables me to pause the passage of time for a split second I order to shine light on the seemingly mundane, yet poetic qualities of human encounters and emotions. Comparable to a film still, I try to spur the viewer’s curiosity, imagination and empathy through my photography as to the before and after naturally attached to each frame. My aim is to offer the viewer a glimpse into a stranger’s life inviting them to uncover - in their mind’s eye - what might have been and what might be once that split second has passed. I put particular attention on making sure people in my frames are free to walk their very own path again, without my photo putting a tripping stone on their way through unrespectful exposure. The subject of my frame is a person in real life and as such deserves respect and benevolent attention. I believe that the world would be a better place of we looked beyond big figures and representations of groups to concentrate on individual people. However analytical or seemingly accurate a collective or generalization is, every single person can transcend. Through my photography, I would want people to visually meet people and thus open mental passages. To a certain extent, I would want my photos to be a visual Esperanto, allowing people to relate to a place by understanding its human dimension.
The central element in my pictures are people. I am currently trying to use larger frames to see people in a wider context.
Who are your favourite artists or photographers? Who has mostly inspired your style?
For reasons I ignore, I am often more inspired by humanly accessible people than by the true masters. I somehow feel too insignificant to claim inspiration by people like Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange or Ruth Orkin. It feels like whistling in the street and claiming Bach as an inspiration. Instagram has been truly a treasure trop of inspiration, with so many talented people having each something to learn from. Adrian Whear for composing wider frames with people having an essential role of scale and meaning as well as his portraits, Iddo Pehdazur for color and color coordination, Anna Biret for horizontal layering and particular framing, Gisèle Duprez for life scenes, Vicki Windman for her eye for surprising or touching details, Bayéré Zouzoua for soul touching black and white, and many others… The problem here is omitting people…and I’m not mentioning any of The Pictorial-List team members here not to sound 'fawning'.
Talking about seizing life, I am deeply impressed by Hokusai and his manga art in the original meaning of impromptu pictures. He was one of the first to consider everyday life scenes as worthy to be recorded. I prefer his sketches to his ukiyo-e.
I feel inspired by orchestra music by how every single voice is needed to create that overwhelming sound. It’s similar to how a frame needs to be composed, with the photographer being the conductor. My eye sometimes is mentally on music.
Has your style of shooting changed since you first started?
I hope so. I think I have evolved on composing the frame beyond the central subject. Looking through my pictures, they seem to 'grow' like my children – going chubby, grow in height, go chubby again, stretch again. My frames were too close, then to wide, closing in, reaching out…I’m trying to progress every day.
Where is your favourite place to shoot?
Definitely the street. Since I gave up travelling to finance my sons’ studies, I have chosen my direct neighborhood, declaring it my favorite place. My favorite place are the little alleys and surprising corners as well as the odd Promenade shot for a soul lifting dose of blue.
How does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? What would you say to someone wanting to start out in your genre of photography?
As a very spontaneous street shooter, I definitely need a very good autofocus. I still prefer shooting through the viewfinder sometimes crawling on the ground. It still feels more organic to me.
My two preferred focal lengths in full frame measures are 35mm and 85mm, one for context, one for people.
My advice for newcomers sounds quite paradoxical and certainly stems from my musical paths: Don’t care about technique and do care about technique. Photography is first of all about seeing for me. Seeing with your eyes and heart, hone your vision. I would suggest sitting in a street cafés for hours to see life flow by and spot the wonders. Become a truffle pig of sorts. Then put the camera to all auto and concentrate on the scene. I knows it’s deeply frowned upon among street photographers but I think it’s a walking aid to start with.
At the same time, know your camera inside out. Understand how aperture, speed and ISO work together, dive into field and spot measurements. Embrace a musician’s or martial art discipline and practice your scales and kata. Beyond understanding how it works, it’s about your fingers doing their part without any of your mental energy taken away.
In music, you must be able to hear the sound before you play it. It’s similar in photography. See the scene when it is about to happen.
Do you prefer to shoot alone or with company?
I definitely am more of a lone shooter. I’m so tuned in to my environment I’m afraid conversation with me would be very dull.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
I have spend a lot of time with and put a lot of passion into music. I played the flute and loved playing in the orchestra most. I never considered it as a career option, most certainly out of lack of talent. Many of my best friends are professional orchestra musicians and music played an important role in my sons' childhood, so I have the chance to spend a lot of time around music.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
I am strangely more inspired by books that deal with art and semiotics in a wider context than photography only. Asa Berger’s books on the mechanism of seeing and Umberto Eco’s work on Ugliness and Beauty have been eye opening. On colors, patterns and symbols I treasure Michel Pastoureau's work. And surprisingly, children’s picture books and French and Belgian comics (“bande dessinée”, quite different from comics) are a true inspiration to me through their astute way of using tiny but essential details.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
Operating within a strict legal frame on non-authorized pictures, street photography in France requires a high level of sensitivity and personal ethics. People in the streets are not a zoo you look at through the protective bars of a zoom lens, but a community that sustains street photographers as artists through their very existence. I would love to edit a picture book on people in Nice and to realize a project inspired by JR: printing people’s faces and expose them on the walls of the city. Give part of Nice back to the population and make the unnoticed and untouristy “hoi polloi” the stars again.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on?
In addition to its sunny, glamorous side, Nice has a lot of homeless people. I regular engage with those in my neighborhood and am impressed by how observant they are. They are the invisible or the voluntarily overlooked, but they see us. I am thinking about a project that would equip them with cameras and have them document how they see us. It is only a budding idea right now.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...
...Read. And cook. Sit in cafés and observe people. And listen to music."