Born in 1988 in Lyon, France, photographic artist Hugo Deverchère is driven by an almost scientific approach. His work attempts to set up a body of experiences that questions and evaluates our relationship with the world. Whether based on stories, collected data, captured or simply found images, his research often involves processes such as modelization, conversion, and transposition. Xiaohui Tang caught up with the photographer to discover more about his practice.
You use many media to create, including installations, images, videos and interactive technologies. So, as an traditional printing technology, why does the cyanotype attract your attention? In your opinion, what is unique about this process?
Yes, usually every project is a new starting point, and most of the time a way for me to explore new media or new techniques. However, among all my different practices, cyanotype printing is indeed something more recurrent. I first discovered it a few years ago while working on my project Cosmorama, and researching astronomy. The process was developed at the beginning of the 20th century by John Herschel who was, among other things, an astronomer. The process was also soon adopted by other scientists like biologists and botanists to inventory the samples they were collecting and working on. So at first it was more for conceptual reasons, the history of the process and its developments, that I started to work with cyanotype. Also, as I was also starting to work with digital infrared photography, I was looking for a direct contact process that would allow me to create some sort of imprints of the invisible light that I captured. I was immediately fascinated by this particular blue that was for me directly connected to the idea of a celestial sky.
Cosmorama (recordings) and The Far Side combine infrared photography and cyanotype. How did this idea come about? What do you want to express through this combination?
Like cyanotype, I started to use infrared photography because it is a technique used by astronomers to observe the deep reaches of the universe. Both projects are about capturing reality in a way that is impossible through our own eyes. It is about representing things that appear familiar and yet through a whole new perspective that invites us to reconsider our perception and the way we think we know things. I think there is a unique tension and vibration that emerge from this combination.
By merging these two techniques of recording and representation - one sending us back to the beginnings of photography, to the origins of modern imagery - and the other, a cutting edge process used for spatial observation, both projects reflect the way in which science, technology and their new modes of representation shape our eyes, our knowledge, our consciousness and the perception of our close and distant environment.
Also, as cyanotype requires the use of ultraviolet light to reveal the image, they both involve the use and the capture of invisible light at the far ends of the visible spectrum. I think cyanotype helps me to emphasis the oddity and the surrealistic perspective that emerge from the photographs, it projects them into this blue and celestial dimension.
In The Far Side series, you combine the image of the Bay Area with the hidden surface of the moon to form a whole new world. How would you describe these new scenes?
This series was commissioned by the Hong Kong and Shenzhen biennale in 2019. When I started to work on the project, the Chinese space agency had just sent the Rover Chang’e 4 to the far side of the moon, revealing the very first photographs from the surface of this hidden and distant territory. These images where fascinating to me and I started to wonder what it would be like if Chang’e 4 was put to explore the surroundings of the biennale venues through its instruments, through a layer of reality that we can’t perceive since it’s made of invisible light. These two distant territories are brought into resonance and echo each other, like two visions of worlds that are both imperceptible, inaccessible and now related by the technique that enabled their representation. When put side to side, the images compose some sort of an impossible panorama that combines the near and the distant, the human and the natural, the visible and the invisible, the familiar and the unexplored.
In terms of expressing themes or perspectives, is there a progressive/transitional relationship between the two series? For example, I feel that you turn your eyes from the distant and unknown universe to the familiar real-world in The Far Side series. If so, what kind of thinking/feelings does this progression/conversion bring to you?
Yes it was indeed a first for me to confront these techniques to some motifs of the city that are more familiar to us in our everyday life. When I was proposed to work for the Hong Kong and Shenzhen biennale, I decided to work from its direct context but I had no idea whether it would work or not so it was quite unsettling. Infrared photography is always unpredictable, and even with some experience, you can never really anticipate the results that you will get. There was a direct confrontation of the images and the surroundings of the museum where they were first exhibited that I found interesting but also very challenging. I don’t think I would have worked in the urban landscape without such an invitation, so in the end, it helped me to think about new themes and settings that I could develop in the future.
Could you briefly describe the production process of these two sets of works? Among them, what do you find the most interesting part?
First I have to physically modify one of my cameras to be able to capture infrared light. It is about removing and adding filters directly onto the sensor which is very delicate work. By choosing the right filters, I am able to precisely chose the wavelengths with which I will work for a project. Then it is all about location scouting and shooting. Even if I always have a precise idea of the images I want to shoot in advance, as I said infrared photography is unpredictable because it completely transforms reality and the way that light reflects on materials and objects is very different from what we are used to while observing the world through our naked eye: sometimes things that would make a great photograph with traditional equipment will be totally uninteresting with IR and vice versa. So I have to explore a lot through the camera to find what I am looking for. When I compose an image, I’m always at the limit of overexposure, the source of light must remain some sort of a mystery as if it was emitted from the subject within the image itself. Then begins the postproduction process. When you shoot in infrared, at first you get a very un-contrasted red image. This red is a false color that the sensor is misinterpreting so I have to process the image to find back what I saw in the viewfinder while shooting. And at last begins the printing process, which is very long because it involves a lot of testing. The final aspect of cyanotype is influenced by many parameters such as the composition and proportions of the photosensitive chemistry, the paper, the acidity of the water, the humidity of the lab. For every project I slightly change these parameters to obtain the precise contrast, depth, and tone that I’m looking for. All these steps are equal for me in terms of the creative process, they all affect the final result. With all these parameters the creative possibilities are almost infinite, and I always discover new things. It pushes me to go further every time and this is also why I keep exploring these techniques.
In your cyanotype work, the picture is very delicate and the image is very precise, but cyanotype can also be more blurred and more subjective. So, how do you think about the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, documentary and creation in cyanotype?
My first attempts at cyanotype were very instinctive. I had no prior knowledge, so I was just doing some photograms. And it worked! Cyanotype is a very easy process that quickly gives you satisfying results. But as I said before there are many parameters that affect the way that a cyanotype print will look. Quickly after these firsts tests, I wanted to understand more about it and get more control over the images that I was producing. I guess these final images are a result of who I am as I can be quite obsessive about details and precision, I usually need to control and master what I do. But in the meantime, it remains a manual process and there will always be something that goes beyond that control. And it is for the best, otherwise I would simply print my images digitally. As for infrared photography, there is this unique vibration of light and color that is unpredictable. The challenge is to find the right balance that I want to control and unexpected things that can happen during the process. At some point, you need to let go and decide when the image is finished, and it’s not always easy.
I don’t really think in terms of objectivity or subjectivity, I’m rather interested in the question of the point of view. Both in Cosmorama and The Far Side series, the idea is to get to the point of view of a telescope or a lunar rover. It is about trying to capture the world as we don’t see it from our own perspective. So it is another form of subjectivity, even if it does not look like the expression of our own. For me, even the point of view of a machine is not objective. And as I described before while talking about my process, I intervene in the image at every step so the feeling of objectivity is very illusory. This illusion asks a question: which point of view is this image from?
Since your creation always wanders between science and art, it is bound to encounter translation problems from scientific language to artistic language. What are your thoughts on this issue? How can we create meaningful balance and tension between the two sides?
It is indeed an issue that I see both in the art and scientific world. I think the key concern is that art shall not serve a purpose of communication for the sciences, art shall not be a way to perform science, and science is not meant to produce artistic forms. While I see art and science as two complementary ways to observe and understand further the world and our reality, both disciplines involve methodologies and results that are quite different. When art tends to become science and when science tends to become art, I think it always leads to a deceptive result in both ways, for both disciplines. I think the interesting interconnections are at another level when one discipline influences the other when artists and scientists collaborate for example, but not when an artist tries to become a scientist or vice versa. Science and art need to interact but it would be delusional to think that they can merge.
As an artist and as a person obsessed with nature, the universe, science, and science fiction, how do you think about the nature of existence and life? Do you believe that there is an absolute truth that exists in the world?
If we look at the history of sciences, social sciences, and philosophy I think that the way we perceive and understand the world is very anthropocentric. I think that our reality, which is a construction, a combination of culture, knowledge, and sensitive presence to the world is far different from what the world and the universe may actually be. There are so many things that we still ignore, so many things that we can’t perceive. In my works, I try to represent the world as it could be from the point of view of a plant, of a stone, a of a bacteria or a machine. I try to manipulate and represent what can’t be represented, such as the scale of times and space that goes far beyond us. When I start to think that the world can actually be different from what I see, or that what I see is only a negligible fragment of what the world is, it opens a way of infinite new perspectives.
Will you continue to create cyanotypes? If so, what kind of explorations will you make about the theme of the series and the technique itself?
I just finished printing two new large scale images of three, 5x5m each. It is the first time that I do cyanotype on such a big scale which was challenging, and the process is quite different from my previous works. The two prints each represent a fragment of magnetite that I collected in a copper mine in Spain. The images are a combination of more than 800 images that I took from this mineral. This process acts as a microscope and allows me to get very high definition enlargements that reveals details that are impossible to see with our naked eye. Because it was impossible for me to print such a large image at one time, I divided it into 187 30x30cm individual prints. It took me more than four months to complete the two pieces, and they will be exhibited next October in Saint-Etienne Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Collection Lambert in Avignon (France).