Written by Zack Seckler
In the world of conceptual advertising photography Jean-Yves Lemoigne is on his way to becoming European royalty. Clients around the globe seek him out for his ability to generate clever ideas with high visual impact. Clients probably like something else about Lemoigne…he used to be one of them.
That’s right. Lemoigne worked for six years as an art director before making the seamless transition to top-notch ad photographer. The experience helped him shortcut what is typically a long road to recognition. His intimate knowledge of how advertising agencies work and the fact that he oozes talent almost guarantee his is a name that will be with us for a long time to come.
My interview with Jean-Yves Lemoigne begins by deconstructing a complicated image he created for Amusement magazine. He later discusses how his work as an art director helped him find success as a photographer and gives gems of advice for others looking to do the same.
PLEASE NOTE: Although completely artful in concept and execution this article does contain some nude photography that has been mildly censored.
Seckler: Let’s start off talking about the image we’re featuring here from your series PIXXXEL. First off, where did the idea come from?
Lemoigne: The idea came from me. I was contacted by Amusement magazine and they asked me to do a series of four or five photos linked to internet culture. I thought ‘what is the biggest thing on the internet’ and porn came to my mind first. The idea came to do pornographic style photos with pixelated girls. I did some rough sketches to show to the magazine what I had in mind, and they said it was great.
Seckler: It’s a fantastic series…you’ve turned a taboo subject into an artistic expression. Technically speaking are the pixilated images props or is that done digitally?
Lemoigne: I wish I could have done it with props, but it was too complicated and too expensive. I worked with some retouching and CGI people in Paris and I asked a guy to see if he was interested in this project and he said, ‘yes.’ To create the pixilated images I first shot a real girl in underwear in different poses and positions. When I selected the best position with the magazine I then started to pixelize it in Photoshop to show how it would work in the shape of a silhouette. Once we picked the best amount of pixelization we forwarded that info onto the CGI artist to create the look we wanted. The CGI artist first did the CGI of the girl in a grayscale, and afterwards put in some color. It’s a lot of work. We did it in three days. One day grayscale, one day putting in the color and one day touching it up in Photoshop to mix the CGI and the photographic plate.
Seckler: And when you say three days is that for each image or for the whole series?
Lemoigne: Yes, three days for each image.
Seckler: Wow. So there’s no automatic pixel feature in CGI eh?
Lemoigne: I asked so many guys if there was a way to do it automatically, but there was no way. Also it’s nice to have control because on the face of a girl for example you can remove one pixel and it changes the definition of her whole face. Every pixel is so important and every color is so important.
Seckler: How did you light the location? What did you shoot with?
Lemoigne: I usually use Profoto 7B battery packs to light so I can shoot on location without plugging in electricity. For this shot I used four lights. The main light is from a white beauty dish coming from outside the window. Then there is a Profoto Pro Globe near the lamps, a soft box to the right of the camera and a light bouncing off the ceiling to add fill. I used a Hasselblad H2 camera with a 35mm lens and a Phase One P30 digital back. Exposures were made at f/13.
Seckler: So how has this series been received?
Lemoigne: It was amazing. I was so surprised, because I put it on my website just two days after the release of the magazine, and after about ten minutes on my website I got emails from people asking to publish it on their blogs. And for like two months I was getting emails everyday from people who wanted to publish it.
Seckler: And we’re featuring it here now so…yet again! Switching gears now…tell me how you first got into photography.
Lemoigne: In fact I never planned to become a photographer, I wanted to become a graphic artist. I did training in advertising, and I eventually started work as an art director. At the time my senior art director was doing some photographs for clients who didn’t have big budgets. So I started doing the same thing, doing shoots for advertising clients that didn’t have money. I did some shoots for the advertising agency I was working with, and at one point I thought that I spent so much time at the agency, so much time in meetings, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I met with an agent at Bransch reps. They said they liked my work and would represent me. So, I quit my job at the advertising agency, and went to work as a full-time photographer.
Seckler: How old where you when you started out as an art director and how long did you stay.
Lemoigne: I was about 23. I worked as an art director for six years and at 29 I met with Bransch…now I’m 35.
Seckler: How do you think your experiences as an art director in the advertising world has helped you as a photographer?
Lemoigne: I think sometimes photographers don’t understand the work the advertising agency puts into a project before they get the photographer involved. When a photographer gets a project, he has to think that sometimes the art director has worked on the project for sometimes six months and there have been five, ten, fifteen meetings where the client puts every idea in the trash. So, as a photographer you have to have a lot of respect for the work that the art director presents to you. I think I learned to respect the work the advertising agency does.
When I was an art director sometimes I worked with photographers who seemed to take the job just to say yes to the agency and but they didn’t really invest themselves in the job. I was a bit disappointed because when you meet a photographer that you like, you just expect him to give ideas and to make the best picture possible. And that’s why when I get a job I always try to make the picture mine. Because I think every job is an opportunity to create a new picture for my portfolio.
I also learned when you are at a meeting for a big campaign, there are a lot of people. There are like five account guys, a marketing guy, there is the client, the art director…there’s so many people and it can get hard to make very simple decisions. I think we just need to keep in mind that creating the ad is basically so simple…it’s only photography. Make a nice picture, make people understand it. That’s the most important thing.
Seckler: Having been an art director I’m sure you met with a lot of photographers, had lots of people trying to get in touch with you and work with you. Is there anything that you learned or know as being a former art director that you now implement as a photographer in building relationships and getting interesting jobs?
Lemoigne: The main thing is be yourself. Don’t try to do the same thing as the other photographers. When I was an art director I was going to the office everyday to look at every portfolio I could find. I saw a lot of portfolios, and in fact, I saw many portfolios that looked the same. You know when you go to the movies lots of them start to look the same; have the same story? A year later you ask yourself which movies you remember…it’s the same with portfolios. People see like fifteen portfolios a day, they just need to remember one. Which one it will be? If a photographer wants to be recognized among all these other photographers they need to have something more. We want to see someone who has a vision. David LaChapelle, for example. His career was so fast because he had a very, very strong vision, and his vision is colorful and in a pop style and the advertising agencies liked it straight away. He didn’t try to do it to please advertising agencies. He did it because it was his vision. So, each photographer has to find their own style and to do strong photography, and the most difficult thing is to do strong photography, but in a simple way. I think that’s the best direction I can give.
Seckler: When you were starting out did you ever take jobs that weren’t very creative?
Lemoigne: Yes. Sometimes an idea doesn’t look so cool in the sketch but you know the agency, you know that they are creative. Maybe the sketch is very simple, it’s only a guy alone in a room. But maybe we could try an interesting style, maybe we can try to do something with the casting.
Seckler: Your ideas are part of what define you as a photographer, do clients ever come to you at the conceptualization phase as opposed to just giving you a layout?
Lemoigne: Sometimes I think the agencies are looking for my ideas but sometimes they are already have a very good idea and they just want my input. And sometimes they say, ‘we like this series of personal work you’ve done, can we use it? Can you do it for us?’ For example, when I did the series with the guy in the black suit a client came to me and asked if they could use the same idea for a campaign. It wasn’t exactly the same idea but I thought it was interesting and I agreed to work on the project.
Seckler: Starting out at an ad agency you must have seen a lot of changes in the industry over the past decade…how is it different to be a photographer now then it was when you were just starting out?
Lemoigne: Now, even more with digital, clients don’t expect the photographer to be only a photographer. They are expecting nice lighting and nice technical talents, but they also expect the photographer to be a director, to have ideas. I think they expect more from the photographer now than ten years ago because technically it’s less difficult to make pictures. I think it’s really important to make things that you believe in. Once you have contacts with ad agencies good personal work makes it easier to get commissions more quickly.
Seckler: Your work has been shown in the Louvre. Do you see yourself doing more fine artwork in the future?
Lemoigne: Yes. I’m working on a big personal fine art project and I think it could be the next thing for me. Because in fine arts if you find your place you have the freedom to do what you want. It’s just that you have to find your place and the right people to work with. What’s interesting with fine art is that you work at your own rhythm. You can do a long term project like six months, and you can do advertising projects in the middle. It’s a direction I want to keep going in.
Seckler: Do you see any conflict between doing commercial work and fine art?
Lemoigne: It’s a matter of point of view. I think maybe in Europe people see a conflict more than in the U.S. In Europe they have a romantic point of view for what an artist should live like…the mad man living alone in a castle. I think the most important thing is what you do. If you are doing interesting work, you can be an artist or a commercial artist.
Seckler: I’ve noticed a theme in your work of people silhouetted or not completely identifiable in the picture. Is that theme conscious? Where does it come from?
Lemoigne: I don’t know. When I’m looking at classic photography books I see photographs of people looking straight at the camera and I think it’s strange because I it would be very difficult for me to travel around the world and to ask people to take a photographs. Maybe because I’m shy. I don’t ask people to take photographs on the street. Maybe this could be the reason.
Seckler: You’ve directed a few commercials…tell me about that experience.
Lemoigne: I’m interested in doing direction, but more for music videos. I have a lot of ideas and when I became a photographer a production company contacted me to see if I was interested in directing music videos. I said, ‘yes, why not?’ So, sometimes it’s like a side job for me. I’m very interested in story telling and it’s another way to tell stories. I told the production company that I have a certain kind of style in photography, and if they have some project with the same style and some freedom from the directors, I’m okay to get involved in some project. But not too much, because directors have to do a lot of pitches, and I don’t want to do too much pitching, I just want to do create new projects.
With digital there’s clearly not the same barrier to entry like there was before. You are a photographer, you are a director, you are an art director. We’re just people that want to do things. And we do them. And that’s all.