Wayne: You have said that your father was a very good amateur photographer. What memories do you have of his photography?
John: Did I say very good amateur photographer or good amateur photographer? Anyhow he knew very well about all the technicalities, exposure, filters, depth of field, lenses… He had a Leica, I think a 3F or a 3G (I bought one later on and took pictures with it of the psychiatric ward I managed to get sent to to avoid doing military service). But the things my father photographed were the family, cherry blossoms, mountain ranges and the occasional chamois, small as a dot against a big mountain slope when we spent our summer and winter holidays in Switzerland.
Wayne: You have also attributed your photographic interests in part to the copies of Life magazine that were kept around the house. What was it about the magazines that captivated you? What other books and magazines did your parents keep around the house?
John: The Life issues were hidden in the cellar (there was no attic in our house). There was a small storage room opposite the garage with piles of magazines. I spent hours in there. The first pile of magazines to come across was National Geographic. Old issues from back in the thirties as well. Must have given me a hint about going to other places.
Behind that there was a pile of Life magazine. This was in the late fifties and early sixties, and my parents who had gone through WW2 did not want their children to be confronted with the war. DDDuncan’s pictures of the war in Korea (muddy soldiers sloshing through rice fields, shell shocked troopers in the cold…) probably motivated my parents to hide those issues. It was at the height of the Cold War, and I had bad dreams of Russian planes dropping their atomic bombs on my head, yet I took the Life issues with Duncan’s pictures up to my room and looked at them at night with a torchlight. I also had copies of Popular Science explaining how to build an atomic shelter…
Even better tucked away was a pile of photography magazines with articles about how to compose a picture, how to take pictures of fireworks and the like. All topics I wasn’t interested in at all. But surges of hormones kept me flipping through these photography magazines anyway, because there was also a chapter on lighting nude models. I learned a lot about how not to light a subject and about human (well mostly female) anatomy this way, although the absence of pubic hair, and in fact the absence of everything (the pictures were strategically retouched) kept certain questions alive…
Wayne: What kind of influence did David Douglas Duncan have on you? Which other photographers influenced you when you were a young, up and coming photographer?
John: I can’t say if DDDuncan or any other photographer had any direct influence on me. I think it is more a combination of feelings, encounters with certain images at a certain moment which molded me over time. I mean, growing up is a slow process and needs a lot of input from many different origins. It is never like a thunderbolt hitting me and making me change direction. The DDDuncan pictures and the atmosphere surrounding it at the time, the digestion of all this, maybe partly explain why years later I never really photographed the paroxysm of conflict. I am not a war photographer. I am a post-war photographer and sometimes a pre-war photographer.
I also think it is a bit reducing to mention only photographers as an influence just because you’re a photographer yourself. My artistic stimulations are varied and relate to music (Arno, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Swirling Dervishes, J.S. Bach…), painting (Permeke, Saverys, Alechinsky, Ensor…), and yes, photography (Larry Clark, [Diane] Arbus, [Robert] Frank, Sergio Larrain, [Cristina] Garcia Rodero…), literature (I was devouring Jack London as a kid) and certainly comic books with the one and only Hergé, creator of Tintin (maybe this will explain why I try to have everything in focus)…
There is one photographer though who at least triggered my desire to become a photographer. I was 15 or so and probably quite stupid and stubborn when the “Ye-Ye” period hit France and Belgium. There was a very popular radio program (no TV at home!) called “Salut Les Copains”, featuring a new trend of singers: Johnny Halliday, Sylvie Vartan, Françoise Hardy etc. It was in fact the first successful attempt to drag the baby-boomers into consumerism. The success was such that a magazine, appropriately called “Salut Les Copains”, came on the market, with pictures of all these stars and starlets of the new showbiz in France. Most of them were done by a Jean-Marie Perier. In each issue of the magazine there was an article about “The job you dream of.” The first issue told you exactly what you should do if you wanted to become an air hostess. The second issue explained what it takes to become a photographer. And there was Jean-Marie Perier sitting amidst all his cameras (viewfinder Canon’s) and his huge tele-lenses telling the world, and credulous me (happy possessor of a Voïgtlander Vito CD) in particular how much fun it was to be a photographer and to approach all those stars. My decision was taken: I wanted to quit college and become a photographer…
Wayne: How did you decide to study at La Cambre? What was you parents’ reaction to your interest in the visual arts?
John: My parents weren’t too happy with my decision to quit college and put heavy pressure (fair enough) on me to finish what I started. It took a while longer than expected of course because after my decision, motivation to do that was gone, my mind being focused on becoming a photographer. But I managed to get through the ordeal. I guess that by then my parents expected me to have dropped the foolish idea. It turns out I didn’t so they thought I might as well get the best weapons to achieve my goal and I went to the fine arts university of La Cambre. The concept of La Cambre was in fact copied from the Bauhaus: a collection of several interacting visual arts disciplines, ranging from graphic arts to etching and from sculpture to animated film. Now this was September 1968! Not the right time if you wanted to study at a high school or a university, but fantastic if you wanted to fool around and spend time finding out what you wanted the world to look like. The guru we had to deal with in the photography department obviously lacked substance and stature, and basically we were left on our own… I picked up a lot in other departments, so finally it was a good experience, even though in the field of photography as a profession I was left quite helpless… But we had been following a very good class on the history of photography, and that certainly was where I became aware of the different worlds photography can take you to and that finally telling people’s life like Dorothea Lange or Gene Smith did was something I could relate to.
Wayne: How did you end up initially photographing theater?
John: In fact, right after La cambre I started my “career” as a fine arts photographer with these pictures, got them published in the [Swiss] Camera, and they were exhibited left and right in an emerging fine art market, and namely at the Jürgen Wilde Galerie in Köln (Germany). They were the discoverers of Bernd and Hilla Becher a little later.
But after a couple of years I thought I would be running into a dead end soon, and the desire of being a photojournalist which popped up at La Cambre came back. In those years I also took these photographs, comforting me somehow in that direction:
But there were no decent magazines in Belgium at the time. Only dailies who would pay ridiculous copyrights (if they even knew what that was). And I really didn’t know how to move ahead. My former wife, who I met at La Cambre, was a stage designer and that is how I got in contact with the more progressive theaters in Brussels. I started taking pictures for them and soon ended up doing things a bit differently than what they expected. I was more taking pictures of the process of creation than of the play as such, and very often I was on stage with the actors during the repetitions, showing a totally different perspective than what the spectator would ever see. The great thing with theater photography is that you can anticipate the events: you know that when X says “blablabla”, that Y will be staying there, looking in that direction… It really has helped me tremendously in the all-important issue of finding the right position, the right distance.