There is a phrase that Bernard Descamps is particularly fond of, something that Jacques Prévert once said to the humanist photographer Édouard Boubat: “You’re a peace correspondent.” As opposed to the much overused term “war correspondent”, the expression appealed to Descamps who, in an interview in 2015, said, “We could have formed a club. I would definitely have been a member.”
A trained biologist, Descamps embraced photography in the 1970s but maintained his passion for science which, like photography, is an attempt to decipher reality. “Reality is not just misery or violence,” he likes to say. During his travels in Mali, India, Venezuela and Madagascar, he strives not to photograph life too explicitly, in too much of a documentary style. “I press the shutter button when I find something beautiful,” he confides.
He was a founding member of the major French agency VU’ in 1986 and has been poetically exploring every part of the planet and every genre of his art in black and white for 50 years, making a name for himself as a tireless traveller who evades classification. In this exhibition, his landscape photographs or, more specifically, the nature they show, seem to elude time, as if in a dream. His aim is to let the beholder share in the emotion he felt as he chose his frame, composition and lighting. “Photography is a permanent self-portrait,” he says. “Because you don’t really photograph reality. You photograph yourself, projected onto reality.” So, in the surprising and bold choices of frame, composition and light, can we get a glimpse of Bernard Descamps’ personality? Maybe not. But each of his photographs reveals their author’s impressive creative power, and his work is a reminder of the etymology of the term “photography”, which simply means “writing with light”. It is knowing how to capture the decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson’s famous words go, but that is not all. Now, in our day and age, when everyone can “seize the moment” with their telephone, Bernard Descamps’ photographs show us that to photograph also means imposing one’s own visual syntax in order to capture something singular. Something unique. Something that marks the difference between trivial image and a true and beautiful photograph.