Lucien Clergue was born on 14 August 1934 in the coastal town of Arles, Provence. In a career lasting over 50 years he became one of France's most respected photographers, and is regarded highly within the international art market. His life and work is intrinsically Arlesian. Much of what interested Clergue, and motivated him to take photographs, stems from his childhood experiences in that town. Moreover, the work resonates with the atmosphere of this very particular environment, and has to be understood within such a context, inspired as it is by the dry heat of the marshes, the darkness within the medieval walls, its wartime occupation, the drama of the bullfight, the culture of the gypsies, and the sparkle of the Mediterranean.
In 1944, the eight-year-old Lucien Clergue returned to Arles to find his apartment destroyed by an Allied bombardment. Eight months before, the Second World War was reaching its denouement, and the mayor had sent the town's children into the countryside for safety. Clergue found that a third of his town had been destroyed, as well as his mother's shop and apartment. This memory, and other wartime experiences, had a profound effect.
Arles was in ruins, and remained so for years to come. The post-war image of France, popularised by photographers such as Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Edouard Boubat is, and always was, a cliché a romanticised fantasy world of berets and baguettes created, in part, to convince the world that France was great once again. While their work was important, influential and culturally interesting, it was far from the truth. Instead, France was in a state of near collapse, both financially and physically crippled by the war and its aftermath. Clergue's early life, and early photography, was played out amongst the ruined buildings and poverty that were the realities for most French people at the time. As Doisneau's models embraced on Parisian balconies, so Clergue marshalled his into bombed-out houses teaching himself to photograph in low-light, without flash.
The desolation that Clergue found in this environment was further compounded by the slow death of his mother, over four years from 1948. His parents had divorced when he was seven, and he lived with his mother above her shop they were very close. Clergue left school in 1950 to nurse her full-time, finding a job in a factory to support them both. Her eventual death left him emotionally and physically exhausted.
Clergue's artistic interest in darkness, both literal and metaphorical, can be traced directly back to these childhood experiences. As the shadows of war and death lingered over him he initially sought refuge in playing the violin, but it was photography that finally gave him the freedom he was looking for.
The early years of Clergue's photography, the 1950s, are those in which he produced some of his most raw and potent work. In 1954-55 Clergue set about photographing local children as "Les Saltimbanques" travelling musicians, gypsies and acrobats, dressed in the style of the Commedia dell'Arte stereotypes such as Harlequin and Pierrot as immortalised by Picasso in his painting of 1905. He made the costumes himself, and arranged them in the ruins of Arles. Surreal, and overtly sad, the pictures were originally called "The Long Recess" and "The Ruins of War" a generation of children left joyless, and with few prospects, by the preceding 15 years.
In an interview with his friend, Basil Langton, in 1967, Clergue remembered the "mood of death" that engulfed him after his mother's death in 1952. If "Les Saltimbanques" were symbolic of a lost childhood, then his next series portraits of washed up carrion were the most explicit expression of his feelings about death. The mighty Rhône river meets the sea just beyond Arles, and Clergue recalled the town's poor visiting its beaches to gather the carcasses of dead animals for food. These trophies fascinated Clergue, and he set about recording their details in unblinking, stark detail.
While Clergue was troubled by his upbringing, he was also fiercely driven. During these years he worked in a local factory, and supplemented his income by selling pictures of bullfights to local newspapers. An encounter with the great photographer, Izis Bidermanas, during this time encouraged him to consider photography as a proper career. However, he was penniless, poorly educated and lacking in contacts. Clergue's images of bullfights kept him earning a modest income from local newspapers, but that was all he had. Undeterred, he used his position in Arles, and his keen interest in bullfighting, to meet the world's most famous aficionado, and artist Pablo Picasso. In 1953, Clergue simply accosted him outside the arena, and showed him some of his carrion photographs. Impressed, Picasso told him to come back and see him a year later.
Two years later Clergue returned with more photographs, and an unlikely friendship developed between the young photographer and Picasso, probably the most significant living artist at the time. They swapped prints and drawings, and Picasso began nearly 20 years of support they remained close friends until his death in 1973. Picasso also became a conduit to the sophisticated artistic community that Clergue sought, in particular to Jean Cocteau, the great French writer, artist and filmmaker. Together, the three of them collaborated on a volume of poems by Paul Eluard, "Corps Mémorable", which Cocteau published in 1957, with a cover design by Picasso, an introductory poem by Cocteau and photographs by Clergue. Cocteau also invited Clergue to photograph his 1959 film, 'Le Testament d'Orphée', giving him free reign over the imagery. This experience gave Clergue the final boost of confidence he needed to abandon his job at the factory and become a full-time freelance photographer.
Clergue and Cocteau worked together on several projects until the latter's death in 1963. The relationship was a balanced one, with Cocteau incorporating much of Clergue's imagery into his own projects, and writing two poems about the photographer's brilliance. Newly released from his job at the factory, Clergue set about his photographic work with great vigour. In addition to working with Cocteau and Picasso, Clergue developed new personal projects and also made significant progress at raising his own profile. In 1959, the great American photographer and curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen, bought ten of Clergue's prints for the museum's collection. He then asked Clergue to contribute work to a series of exhibitions there, two years later, entitled Diogenes with a Camera'. Presenting his photographs alongside those by Bill Brandt and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, it provided the twenty-six year old photographer with a launch into the international art world.
From 1956, Clergue also began to photograph female nudes, and it is these for which he has subsequently become best known. The photographs that he contributed to "Corps Mémorable" comprised the first significant group of nudes that he published, and represented the first of many explorations of the genre. His earliest successful experiments were attempts at celebrating "life", as opposed to the death represented in his pictures of carrion. In the interview with Basil Langton, Clergue remembers that in taking the nude photographs he was "choosing life instead of death", so marking a psychological turning point for him.
In the early years, his models were mostly friends, and Clergue recalls that women were more likely to agree to be photographed if their faces were not included. Thus he inadvertently developed a style that went on to become his signature by removing the model's identity, he was commenting on the female form in general, rather than any particular woman. They became universal. As an artist, he had already investigated symbolism through photography the washed up carrion being the most explicit so far. By placing the models in the sea close to Arles, and by rendering them anonymous, he turned his nudes into symbols of life, fertility and sexuality in a particularly Mediterranean way. That his second book of nudes was entitled "Aphrodite" (1963) explains much of the symbolism that Clergue intended. Later, in New York, he experimented with "zebra" nudes that have since become his most commercially successful pictures.
Clergue's visit to America in 1961 enabled him to expand his connections, introducing him to several influential figures in photography at the time, including Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and, of course, Edward Steichen. A second trip, in 1962, gave him the chance to meet others, including André Kertész and Alexei Brodovitch (the influential art director of Harper's Bazaar). He also turned down an invitation from Alexander Liberman, by then Editorial Director at Condé Nast, to photograph for Vogue, as he did not want to commercialise his artistic practice by working for magazines. However, it became increasingly clear to Clergue that it was vital for him to maintain a link with America.
His visits there began to increase, not least because of his success in an unlikely, parallel career that of tour manager to the Flamenco guitarist, Manitas de Plata. The two had met in 1955, when Clergue had set about photographing the famous St-Marie-de-la-Mer gypsy pilgrimage in the Camargue. As a sideline, Clergue began to promote him amongst his growing connections, including Cocteau and Picasso, with some success. Crucially, he then accompanied the musician on two tours of America from 1965 to 1966. These trips enabled Clergue to travel about America for the first time, meeting people, taking photographs, and enabling him to experience the landscapes found in the work of his heroes, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Ever since, he has remained attached to the USA, undertaking several photographic projects in various locations including New York, Death Valley and Point Lobos in California.
The relationships that Clergue made in America allowed him to fulfill another project an annual photography festival in Arles. He had been invited to develop the idea by the town's mayor in 1968, who wanted to start a more general arts festival to incorporate theatre, dance, music and art including photography. Together with his friends, the writer Michael Tournier, and the Director of the Musée Réattu in Arles, Jean-Maurice Rouquette, they founded the Rencontres Internationale de la Photographie' in 1969. The first exhibition was held in the following year, and in the first five years they exhibited work by photographers including Edward Weston, Eugène Atget, Bruce Davidson, Paul Strand, Hiro, Imogen Cunningham, Brassaï, Ansel Adams, and many more. The festival continues to be a major draw for the photography community each year, and has played a significant part in establishing France's importance within the global photography market.
While Clergue was expanding his reach and influence across the Atlantic, his photographic work remained centred on Arles and its surroundings. In 1965 he began photographing the landscape of the Camargue a place that continues to be a source of inspiration to him today. In 1976, he published Camargue Secrète, a photo essay that combined the best of these pictures into a poetic discourse about the landscape. Taking inspiration from the abstraction of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Minor White, he reduced the landscape to shapes and shadows. Arranged in a specific order, the pictures have a strong narrative intended as a meditation on life, death and the transformative qualities of the landscape. The dry, exhausting heat, and the wet, fertile marshes produce a tension employed in much of his photography. At the same time, the pictures proved something of an escape for Clergue, who found satisfaction in simply recording the beauty of nature. His feelings about the marshes and sands of the Camargue were recorded succinctly in an interview with 'Eyemazing' magazine in 2004:
"Arles is the city of the marshes. These marshes had, and they still have for me, a very important and complex meaning. They can be read as the symbol for death, but for life as well."
Later, as a mature student at the University of Provence (granted in 1979), Clergue took these themes further. In his photographic dissertation that he called "Langage des Sables", taken at Point Lobos in California, he produced a sequence of images that commented on man's detrimental encroachment on the planet. While this presents a gloomy outlook, often a factor in Clergue's work, positive qualities can be gleaned from this, and the wider series in particular, the poetry in sand's ability to tell a story. Clergue eventually published this sequence in 1980 and his advisor on the course, the great French philosopher and semiotician, Roland Barthes, picked up on this in the book's introduction:
'Usually, sand evokes the same theme of dryness, evanescence, the desert, the sterile. Clergue's sands, on the contrary are moist, obedient and faithful witnesses to the thrust of the wind, of the sea, of animals and of men.'
While Clergue has worked across many different genres of photography, the same basic dichotomies of life and death, fertility and decay pervade much of his photography. They are also deeply rooted, both literally and metaphorically, in the landscape and culture surrounding Arles, and Clergue's experience within it despite his increasing time spent in the United States. His images of bullfighting, a tradition that has fascinated him throughout his life, embody these themes most clearly. An experienced aficionado, Clergue's love of the bullfight is that of both an Arlesian enthusiast, and that of an artist. He is intimately connected with the matadors, breeders, and promoters, and has long found bullfighting a source of inspiration for his photography. In the sad death of the bull, the masculine triumph of the matador, the heat of the sun, the pageantry of the Picadors and the roar of the local crowd, Clergue finds his beloved Arles condensed down into one raw, brutal, beautiful event. As the writer Marianne Fulton puts it, "it is in his treatment of the bullfight that the mythic past, death, and sexuality all connect".
Inspired by the landscape of his childhood, and the traditions and atmosphere of his beloved Arles, Clergue produced a remarkable body of work over nearly 60 years. In 2003 Clergue was given the famous Legion D'Honneur, and then in 2006 he was elected as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France, the first photographer to be given the honour. His photographs are held in museums around the world, and he has published over 75 books. In addition to his photographic career, he has also made a number of successful films and documentaries including Delta del Sel (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. In his last years he continued to photograph nudes, bullfights and the marshes, and worked on a series of double exposures that combine nudes with images of paintings by the old masters. He died on November 15th 2014.