„Digital makes things more difficult.“ INTERVIEW with Simon P. Laurent

Red, yellow, blue immersed spaces in  atmospheric light. Architecture transformed into evocative colour spaces. Blurred reflections turn architectural structures into colour fields – Simon P. Laurent’s photographs morphs floors, walls, ceilings into poetic colour abstractions.

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 1, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 1, 2012

The photographs were taken at the school of architecture of Nancy (école nationale supérieure d’architecture de Nancy), built in 1995/6 and one of the most famous edifices by Swiss architect Livio Vacchini (1933–2007). Vacchini’s projects continue the ideas of the classical modern tradition of van der Rohe and Kahn, for example, and are characterized by extreme reduction of structural elements. A precisely balanced ratio between light and structure determines his concepts. Vacchini’s edifices are marked by a particular poetry, manifesting itself in light, colour, lineature – a poetry, Laurent tries to capture in his photographs.

In an extensive interview with deconarch.com Simon P. Laurent describes his experiences while photographing the Nancy architecture school and explains his particular take on photographing today – in a world where smartphone cameras and instagram apps turn everyone into a photographer.

all illus. (c) Simon P. Laurent,


How did the series of the Nancy Architecture School come about?

In 2012 Lorenzo Diez, director of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture of Nancy, personally contacted me and commissioned me to shoot some special interior and exterior photos of this particular school. The school is a special place, architecturally, and beyond its facade it has great poetic strength.

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 11, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 11, 2012

The aim of this project was to present the building in its entirety. My personal research and investigations on this topic led me to discover the beauty of its poetry. One that does not exist at first glance, but dwells somewhere between suggestion, perception, construction and reconstruction – somewhere between the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragan and the School’s architect Livio Vacchini. The poetry and beauty of this building came to life not only in color but also in black and white, as seen though my lens.

“The most surprising part of the project for Nancy was the poetic design in the use of concert blades. They are space markers, light finders, wind stoppers, but above all, they create a faceless facade. One might think of Barragan, but Barragan only pursues poetry, he does not build it” (Roberto Masiero). What makes this building so poetic?

There’s Luis Barragan – a poetry which is pursued. And Livio Vacchini – a poetry which is built, like in the Nancy Architecture School. For Barragan, poetry is based on abstraction, perception and sensuality. Nothing is built. This spirit of sensuality is strongly echoed by Livio Vacchini. Here we go along colored walls, we have to deal with shapes and sequences, repetitions, light vibrations. We can make a building in the same way that we write a poem, using rhymes, alexandrines …

The school is full of poetry … but this poetry does not exist at first glance. This is why we really need continuous attention. Do not be fooled by appearances! Appearance is only about the exterior aspect of things. Poetry can be made through real construction, shapes and sequential repetitions within a picture.

Moreover, some of my works are often based on nothingness and can illustrate this word as void, as an absence. This aspect of reality lead me to transform the place. In that sense, this school is really magical, it has magical power.

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 34, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 34, 2012

This also applies to the Jean Prouvé Room, a particular hall at the Nancy Architecture School …

Indeed. I was blown away by this specific room inside this school, a unique room with some Jean Prouvé designed furniture. It’s a conference hall where the students receive their diploma. A very particular atmosphere which has to be discovered bit by bit. We have to live in that room to immerse ourselves in this atmosphere; then we really see things being transformed, in every way … The light is very important here. The feeling of moving somewhere else, to another space is rather fascinating. However, it’s all based on experience, namely this “something else” we go trough and which transforms us.

Let’s talk about you photographic practice. How is your working process? How do you explore your motives, like the Nancy Architecture School?

First I’d like to stress how the message determines a lot of things in what I do. To a certain extent, it could be the most important part.

Digital technology, internet broadcasting … with these new technologies everyone is equal with the camera. Today everyone can make a nice photo. A real technical democratization – just think of how many photos are done everyday, it’s amazing! And it’s a really good thing to see that. With time and practice, amateurs can take excellent photos which can keep up with the professionals!

But that’s why the message, the engagement is now more decisive than ever. Being an artist and thinking about that is quite weird because the message has always been important, but nowadays it’s more important than ever …

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 5, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 5, 2012

How do you find the message of your works? Does it develop while working or is it the first idea you have and then you try to communicate it?

The message comes from a personal reflection about a subject or a topic. It’s a personal effort, I even document my thoughts in writing. This is what I did with my architecture works … I tried to communicate the idea first. With the second topic I’m interested in – ecology – it has developed a little bit while working, even if the key ideas were present from the beginning.

Could you spell it out for us – what was the message you jotted down for the works on the Nancy Architecture School?

From the beginning I wanted to work on poetry  and lights and made research on that … only then came the meaning of all: beyond the formal looks and the architectural meaning of poetry in that building,  there’s a lot of lights and reflections in the series.

In fact, the reflections are a metaphor for many things: they are reflections of my choices, my hopes, but not my fears. Thus they are more than art – as art itself is the reflection of something based on knowledge, but it is even brighter than knowledge alone. But the most important thing is what the reflections are hiding in the series: human presence. Indeed, we need men and women to put our theories into practice, which is as true in art as it is in other areas of society.

What does photography mean to you? Is it even possible to photograph anymore – since everyone can take pictures nowadays, wherever they want, whenever they want, as you said?

There’s some kind of insignificance in taking pictures today. But being a photographer, an artist, is much more than having a camera and getting to know how to use it. Being an artist, for instance, means having deep thoughts on our environment, the world we live in.

To be clear, I don’t see technical democratization as a bad thing, it would silly to say otherwise. Creativity is essential. As Kurt Vonnegut said, you must go for it. But that means that as artists, the message we put in our works is dominating. The technical developments and this democratization pushes us, as artists, to some kind of extreme limits. This is a very good thing!

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 18, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 18, 2012

At the same, I really think we need photography more than ever. Here I mean photo journalism. It has never been more important!

Having deep thoughts on our environment, the world we live in, that’s the starting point for your work …

Yes, this is where I start working on a project. I try to make use of all possibilities given by reality. Observation and imagination are essential. Without imagination it won’t work.

Also – and I know this could be considered pedantic or pretentious – you have to take your time to make things. Nothing is done in a snap! In the past we took more time to create things. Just remember early silver photography. Also, it was more expensive. Today you have to be careful not to take the easy route – there’s nothing easy in creation. The opposite’s true: digital makes things more difficult! Being an artist requires time. It’s real work.

All my projects are based on research and investigations, a full immersion in a location. You have to live and experience the place you photograph.

Like in Nancy – the series can be divided in sub-series, since we have four colors, blue, red, yellow and black-and-white. The first picture sets the tone, the global idea of the series. Mainly, it’s a long shot. Then I come up with abstracts, variations, close ups, extensions of the same ideas to some limits. Constructions and deconstructions. So you might say, it’s kind of an augmented and made-up reality. Maybe I was more captivated by the pictures than by reality itself.

What are you interested in, then? What captivates you?

I oscillate between abstractions and representations – but I try to go beyond, to create my own world with my own codes. I try to question the world we live in, how I see our environment around me, where it leads …

My strong desire to leave the beaten tracks leads me towards having a very experimental vision of photography with a clear focus on poetry with meanings. Flaws are part of the process and part of my own aesthetic! Several of my pictures can be seen as either paintings – light and long exposure times are always important to me – or photographs.

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 12, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 12, 2012

What really matters is what I feel, what I think, my perceptions of things and reality – not necessarily the way things happened.  There is a real mise-en-scène – en oeuvre – of the nature, of the environment, and barely nothing can come between evocation and suggestion, devoid of characters. I enjoy the challenge of creating emotions in this form!

Where do you find your motives, your topics ? 

A good topic, a good idea is above all a good research project – it should be interesting for everyone, from lecturers to art critics to artists, from workers to journalists to students. It should try and ” speak ” to everyone. If a topic is to be a matter of debate between active players of society, it should be great.

But my inspiration comes from what I observe, what I experience, what I feel. And it’s also about my daily life, books (fictions or not), big current questions, big problems, that are inspiring. I really like philosophy, not only linked to art. Most of the time, ideas struck me.

Furthermore an idea works toward another idea. Like Robert Musil said: ”I show my work as I know it’s only part of the truth, and I would show it as I know it’s wrong, because my mistakes are stages toward the truth.“

Talking about inspirations, are there particular influences or role models, which inspire your work?

All and nothing. I really like the idea of being attracted by the unknown, exploring new tracks, new areas. So it’s not really easy to name influences … maybe Gregory Crewdson, because of his cinematographic moods, Stieglitz, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Wall even though I don’t consider them as real influences. The works inspire me, though. Then there’s painters, of course, since I work a lot with light (long time exposure) – capturing a certain light and creating moods with light, painting with the camera … to a certain extent light can be the subject itself, like in Turner paintings.

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 4, 2012

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nancy: Architecture Livio Vacchini | Untitled 4, 2012

Writers, of course, music and filmmakers like David Lynch. My own environment – I owe a lot to my teachers. And as The Wire Magazine reader, I appreciate the journalists’ and editors’ choices. After all, everything hits the blender. When listing and reading, what are we doing if not seeing pictures which transform us?

We talked about the possibilities of photography, today with all the technological developments. Why did you choose photography?

Photography has always been something very evident. I never asked myself why … I always saw some people around me taking some photos, so it has been an all consuming passion soon, like cinema. Now, this is what I do in my everyday life.

Photography is a good way to really exist in our world. To find your place. It helps us to understand the world we live in. It’s a good, if not the best, way to question reality and to have a take on that reality. It’s also a way to take over the object photographed.

Photography is a response to a space where we don’t feel at ease, a way to explore that space. For artists, photography is about representing, about interpreting events. Whereas journalism is more about reporting about them, and that’s completely different.

I really like the potential, the possibilities given by photography: the link, the relationship with the reality. Reality, to me, is only perception, and I always question it. I really like the idea of being an artist with a big commitment, the idea of a message in my works. We can not be still on a moving train – I like to take positions.

It’s up to you to read a photograph, to interpret, to use your thoughts and reflections. And that’s a real challenge. Benjamin said that those who can not “read” a photograph are kind of illiterate!

Simon, merci beaucoup d’avoir partagé tes idées avec nous! 


3 Responses to “„Digital makes things more difficult.“ INTERVIEW with Simon P. Laurent”

  1. elena privitera

    Apr 23. 2014

    thank you Simon, very interesting interview, I like all, best regards elena

  2. Louis Comeau

    Mai 07. 2014

    Simon P Laurent,
    I find the images and their context very interesting. As a realistic painter that is use to observing and working with spaces I find the exercises inspiring. Even thought my results are “true to life” I am also looking for that hidden “je ne sais quoi”.
    I agree with you; a true work of art come out of hard work and serious consideration. We are leaving traces and in a way creating alternate realities.
    Thank you for sharing this with me.
    Louis Comeau

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