19.01.2019

Polar Opposite

For quite a while, photographer Jérémy Bernard had been keen to scramble around Mont Blanc with his favorite guide, François-Régis Thévenet, in snapshot mode and square format.
When you can only press the shutter button once, the way you relate to the mountains, photography and action changes entirely. The photographer, feet planted in snow above 3,000 meters altitude, must wait for the photo to emerge, slightly squeakily, from the camera, and for the colors to rise to the surface of the film, in order to witness the timeless miracle of the chemical reaction that gives birth to the photo. Everything, in fact, that the disembodied speed of digital no longer provides: time, waiting, and sheer uncertainty. Because this high up, at these temperatures, Jérémy Bernard does not control all the parameters of what he’s doing. The same applies to alpinists: “The mountains are hazardous – you take a risk, like you do with a Polaroid. There’s an element of the unknown involved – and that’s what I was looking for with this job.”

As soon as a shot was taken, the Polaroid starting playing up. “The weather was fine and very cold – not far off -20°C, which alters the chemistry and sometimes stops the paper from coming out. Development times vary too, which adds to the randomness; the Polaroid continues to develop in daylight. The framing offers no guarantees either, as there’s a difference between what the viewfinder shows and what the optics actually capture.” Jeremy is therefore willing to put himself in a position to bungle his photo – albeit hoping it will be a magnificent bungle – “which is the opposite of my usual work as a mountain photographer! Usually, when taking digital shots, I need to get results, so I leave as little as possible to chance. I can’t rely on chance to serve up good pictures.” Jérémy acknowledges that the risk-taking involved here forced him out of his habits. “With digital, I know I can always do better, but every Polaroid shot is a one-off! And that applies to the processing stage too – I destroy the photo by manipulating it, so there’s no way back!”

In his studio in Versoix, its windows offering views of Lake Geneva – which that day was ocean-rough – Jérémy spread out on the table 50 or so Polaroids that he had brought back from his two-day trip to the tooth-like Dent du Géant. That’s not many: a similar session typically yields several hundred digital files. He applied drops of Indian ink to a photo, burned the edges, dipped the film into boiling water to detach the thin printed layer (scorching his hands in the process) and then placed it delicately on a sheet of white paper. Jeremy plays with his material, which digital doesn’t allow; plays at being the sorcerer’s apprentice – capturing the photos, then disjointing them and testing their plasticity, in order to seek out new and unsuspected pictures. “I don’t have very deft hands, so it’s a good exercise for me. I just let myself get carried away manipulating them.” For example, he uses a stanley knife to cut even strips in two photos, then mixes them up to produce a third and arresting photo – a singular variation…

Through these small square windows onto reality, with its unpredictable content, Jérémy simply wanted to recount some quality time spent with his favorite guide, a member of the Chamonix Guides Company. “François-Régis is a great buddy of mine. He often escorts me on photo shoots. I like to be well supervised so that I can focus on my photography – which means I need a guide I trust to manage my security. A session often moves very fast, and I need someone to look after me. François does that job.” Just this once, Jérémy wanted to feature his guide in the pictures, whereas he usually operates behind the scenes. Put him center stage? It made sense, because “he has taught me to move around the mountains and on slopes, to deal with the void… I feel safe with him, and that helps me improve. He makes it possible for me to take photos that I couldn’t imagine or produce without him.”

The photographer fades away, leaving randomness to run the show.

A particular kind of relationship formed between the photographer and camera, as the tool modified the finished product. The Polaroid let him turn the act of clicking the shutter button into something more natural, more instinctive, and faster. Jérémy gave the mountains a chance to play hard to get, to not reveal themselves. He gave the photo a chance to fail. Or to be an accidental success. Or nearly successful. The photographer fades away, leaving randomness to run the show. Of course, the image-maker’s experience is essential, but it runs as a background task, leaving the scenic ingredients to meld naturally: the right light, the fleeting action, the natural element, the wild animal. And he waits…

Texte Guillaume desmurs
Photo Jeremy Bernard