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Collector's Corner

Holywood, Dominique Vautrin

Dominique Vautrin lives and works in Paris. Born in 1971, he first came to photography as a freelance photojournalist, after teaching himself the ropes. His haunting black-and-white series Holywood was his first project as an artist. He is currently working on 75, a project about Paris, and Yonder in Eastern Europe, both in colour.
In early 2000, he was sent on an assignment to Belfast to cover the Orange Order marches. On the train approaching Northern Ireland’s bitterly polarised capital, he had what he describes as an epiphany. “I instantly knew that I had something essential to do here,” he told EYEMAZING. But it had nothing to do with journalism.
Drawn to the grey city, he quit photojournalism in France, packed his cameras, and rented a tiny, seedy room in Belfast to start his first photo project. “I got stuck in this room for a couple of months and didn’t manage to get started on anything. I knew I had to be here, that it was the first step to something, but I felt the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block,” he remembers.

His notes, which appear on his own website, set the tone: “Belfast. A seven square meters room. I walked aimlessly for miles through the city. Lost in solitude. Coils on ground. Weeks pass…” Until the moment when, sick with his own company, he decided to hit the road and cross out as many towns as he could on a cheap roadmap of the United Kingdom. “Sheffield. Fuel oil fish and chips. Garbage. Limerick. Moy Ross district. Several hours under a bridge to flee from the rain. But I can’t shelter from myself. Edinburgh, sex and alcohol, I vomit in the sheets. Blast of silence. London. No more syringes between Stockwell and Clapham North. Wooden barricades have sent the junkies away.”
Five years of lonely and cathartic street-wandering later, Vautrin picked the forty-eight black-and-white photographs that compose his series, Holywood (note the single “l”). The dark-tones and dirty contrasts of his often-blurry black-and-white shots are the visual opposite of the famed Hollywood series by Phillip-Lorca diCorcia from the 1990s, shooting subjects in Santa Monica’s warm, cinematic California light.
Vautrin’s work is equally cinematic, but with a taste for darker, bleak black-and-white 1960s thrillers, as he explained to EYEMAZING from Paris.

Hilaire Avril: Which shot was the first one you knew would be part of Holywood?
Dominique Vautrin: It was a picture shot in Dublin in 2002. A child sleeps in his mother’s arms, as she begs for money. When I first saw it on the contact sheet, it awakened all the afflictions my childhood memories bring back. I remembered neglect, and that fed my approach for this quest.
Holywood is a labour of pain. It was a difficult time, I had just left photojournalism and had lost most of my bearings. I was experiencing extreme solitude, and had no constraints, no more rules. It was a harsh coming to terms with my own freedom, like in a Jack Kerouac novel. I had a false start, the photographer’s version of writer’s block, and almost gave up after a couple of months. And then I understood I had to keep moving. I couldn’t stay in one place, I had to wander. That was the trigger.
HA: Where is Holywood?
DV: Holywood is a tiny town close to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where the journey started. Over five years, from 2002 to 2006, I worked on the series like on a novel, or a film. I had a script in mind, and I followed it. It was really a photographic road movie. But every time I got to another city, I immediately felt like leaving it. That feeling pushed forward, and I ended up seeing many places. Everywhere I went, I was entirely free. I didn’t have any money, no funding, and sometimes had to sleep on benches. But it gave me the absolute freedom I needed for the project. Holywood, the project, is very important to me, as it was my first artistic undertaking, and I still have a hard time discussing it with some distance. It’s helped me drag out of myself a number of things I needed to do away with, and it worked.
HA: How did you pick your destinations?

: I tried going to as many places as I could, not knowing much or anything about them, without returning to the same place twice. London was the only exception as it is so vast. But I would hop on trains with no idea where they were headed, or where I was going to sleep.
Holywood was an initiation. It created the photographer I am today. It was as if I had previously conceptualised the shots, and then went out looking for them until I “found” them.
HA: What took you to the United Kingdom?

DV: Belfast was the first step. But then, I have always been equally fascinated and repulsed by England. It was the first place I ever went abroad as a teenager. I had to get it out of my system.

HA: The spaces you shoot are very varied—some are interiors, some are street scenes, others are in the countryside—but the visual horizon is often limited, barely lit by the sky, almost introspective?
DV: When I was thirteen, at my grandmother’s place, I would hide in the barn and inhale gas from the car tanks. Then I would stagger to the back of the garden, and lie down to watch the clouds for hours. Holywood is indeed an introspective journey, which was led by the fate of loneliness rather than by my own will. I think I hit the bottom of depression in that first room, in Belfast, but it was the price to pay.  Holywood is in a way my coming to terms with my true nature.
HA: Several shots have a sense of movement, as if we were on the road with you.
DV: Yes, it does feel like you’re travelling with me, with all the dark sides of an interior journey. But despite some shots appearing to be carefully thought out and planned, nothing is staged, they are all snapshots.
HA: Your subjects, when they are people, are generally blurry. You also play with window reflections, shooting through windows, which give an additional feeling of distance, despite physical proximity. And some subjects come out as downright hostile or alienated. What kind of interaction did you have with these people?
DV: It’s essential to keep a distance from things. I never talk to anyone. I don’t create any type of relationship, or bond, and I certainly do not try to belong. But yes, I have had some frankly hostile reactions. Some were plainly insane. But that goes with shooting in the street, which is sometimes dangerous.
HA: Several of your frames and contrasts are very cinematic, some almost Lynchian. Is that an influence?
: I think I carry a number of films with me, which feed my photographs. Most importantly, Robert Bresson’s pure and sober style in films like A Man Escaped (1956), Fritz Lang’s geometry in Metropolis (1927), or Jean Renoir’s runaway steam engine in The Human Beast (1938). But I’ve always felt a special affinity for Allen Barron’s gaze on man alone in the city, like Frankie Bono in Blast of Silence (a 1961 American film noir, parts of which were filmed during Hurricane Donna on Long Island). They act like visual flashes guiding my hand, building my shots.

HA: What notable reactions have you had to Holywood?
DV: Well, I was myself very surprised with some of the pictures, as if they were instant shots of my subconscious. There definitely was something I did not control, but it’s when impressions guide my hand that I’m most satisfied with the image. I did drive a few printers insane, though…
Some people have asked me to explain some of the shots to them. But I always refused. I think the pictures speak for themselves. I’m finalising a book for Holywood, and I’m not sure I want any text with the series.
HA: How did you select the forty-eight shots for the series out of five years’ work?
: It was self-evident, because each shot was a milestone in the journey. I knew I didn’t want more than fifty for the series. But as in a script, I built it scene by scene, and kept the most momentous ones.
HA: You say Holywood got black-and-white photography out of your system. How did that work?
: I wouldn’t say I’m though with black-and-white, but in my mind, it’s now forever tied to timelessness and the autobiographical narrative of Holywood. Now that I’ve moved on, colour is a new artistic dimension. It gives me the latitude to pursue new projects without repeating, or evoking my past.

HA: Have you returned to the United Kingdom since Holywood?
: No.


for EYEMAZING Magazine Winter 2011-2012

©All pictures: Dominique Vautrin