With projects like this,” says fine-art photographer, Julien Mauve, “you need to know where you want to go,” before adding with a grin, “but not too much!
Julien is describing the creative process in making the photo projects that have defined his career with works like Greeting from Mars, After Lights Out and his latest, L’île Aux Libellules (Island of Dragonflies) drawing international acclaim. He now concentrates almost exclusively on them; shooting and editing, then bringing them to his audience, first online, then as exhibitions and books.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. “I started off like most people,” he elaborates, “capturing memories, friends and family. But soon I wanted to express something more; to tell a story, not just make a record.”
He began his project work in 2011, using a Sony α99, and hasn’t looked back.
Julien’s most recent project, Island of Dragonflies, was shot in Japan, taking two years and encompassing four trips in all. As he travelled the country, the concept formed by chance as he “noticed that construction is really mostly at the fringes of the islands. When you cross through the middle it’s like a dead zone. There aren’t many people living there, and you see a lot of buildings that are lost to nature. It makes you examine man’s relationship with nature, and how it’s changing.”
Island of Dragonflies’ abandoned industrial traces, and other signs of civilisation being slowly enveloped by nature, have the impact of a dark, dystopian science fiction narrative. But like all good storytellers he is often drawing disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
For instance, though they have a consistent feel, the images aren’t all shot in the same place, or even in the same season.
Some are taken in Okinawa, some in the north, in different time periods.” He explains “the key is to generate that consistency, so that the overall atmosphere is right. To do it, I shot mostly in the mornings, and with no direct sunlight. As well as the consistent subject matter, a lot is down to colour work, toning and grading of the final images. Finding that consistent aesthetic is all part of the project.
So how does Julien’s Sony Alpha gear aid this? Moving on from the α99, he found the α7R series. But where you would expect a photographer to list the technologies that stand out for them, as a fine-artist, Julien’s take is different. It’s often what the camera isn’t doing that makes the difference for him.
“As an artist,” he explains, “I think you need to forget the camera… to work through it and not think about it. But here’s the thing: only certain cameras let you do that”. He continues, “the α7R series reacts so quickly and works so intuitively it makes it easy to concentrate on what I’m trying to achieve, not the tool I’m using. It’s really light, so you don’t notice it, and it’s so responsive, always ready to shoot in a fraction of a second.”
When it comes to Julien’s work, he never knows where he’s going to find inspiration for his pictures. He’s constantly wandering, trying to find the perfect scene to capture.
“I keep the camera close to me, so that I can react to moments which might only last a few seconds, so response time is vital.” For the same reason, he shoots with fast zooms, often fitting the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master to one body and the 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master to another, “ready for pretty much anything.”
Julien is also reliant on the massive resolution and superb image quality the α7R series provides him – a supremely important factor when his images are displayed as exhibition prints.
Look,” he explains, “as well as magazines and books, I’m showing my work in galleries and studios, and making really big prints, so I have to know that the quality is there. In the last series I exhibited, the prints I made were 1 metre wide, and now that’s no problem.
Back to that creative process; the planned and unplanned journey. For Julien, it can take months or even years to go from concept to a finished project with surprises and changes of direction along the way, but most of all hard work and dedication.
“The process of taking pictures is about searching for scenes that tell the story,” he explains “then the editing process can be painful because you have 50 or 60 pictures, which you have to get down to 20; you leave just the strong ones and those which move the story onwards. But at some point, you have to take a step back. To see what’s working and not working.”
He continues, “If the story needs it, you might have to change something, or start over. It’s like going into the sea; when you’re under, in the middle of the process, you can’t see the whole, so at some point you have to come up for air, take a look, and then go back again.”