Through the Lens: Emmanuel Monzon
There is beauty in emptiness, just take a look at the Instagram account of French born, Seattle-based photographer, Emmanuel Monzon (@emmanuelmonzonphotography). A self-proclaimed fan of “repetition, series and driving around” Monzon’s work evokes a nostalgia for reclaiming ‘lost’ space. That is, those transient places that are either overlooked, neglected or both.
From gas stations and motorways to motels and parking lots, it’s a credit to Monzon artistry that these places seem wholly inviting and, quite frankly, magical. His photography certainly evokes a Wes Anderson/Disney-esque sensibility (Monzon, like Anderson, attests to having a rigorous, highly thought-out process when it comes to his photography). The muted palette of his Urban Sprawl series, for instance, saturates what we might consider to be otherwise banal, visually, with an inviting hazy glow. Likening his method to that of a painter (“I think first about the sketch, the draft. Then, I work my picture like a painting on a canvas, I select the colors.”) it’s not surprising, then, that you start start to question if what you’re looking at is reality or fantasy.
In fact, the hyperrealism that underscores Monzon’s work is so powerful that it asks you to reconsider what lies in your own backyard. To rehash that old cliche that it takes an ‘outsider’ to teach us something new, Monzon’s photography shows us the beauty of the American landscape– an America past and present hiding in plain sight.
Find about more about Monzon, his photography, and mantra below.
When did you begin to take an interest in photography?
A trained plastic artist (graduate of the Beaux-Arts of Paris), I have always worked with the image and the stakes of its representation. About ten years ago, I felt the need to use the medium of photography. In practice, I always see myself as a painter who uses the tool of photography as a transitional passage. I'm in the in-between, I'm a photographer who paints or a painter who uses photography.
As soon as I arrived in Seattle, I had the intuition that my work had to continue through the medium of photography, it was obvious to me. I had the feeling that my work could only be photographic for this space, which creates its own mythology. One understands very quickly that one is going to be on perpetual move on this territory; Somehow I became nomadic and the only tool I need is a camera. I also quickly realized that I was going to live in my own subject and that it was a privilege.
How would you describe your work/aesthetic?
There is no judgement in my work, no denunciation, I am in the statement (if critic there is, whether it is political or social, it does not belong to me and I leave it to the audience). This visual environment is my raw material and it is my graphic material.
My field work is a country where the landscape is shaped by and for mobility, it forms a sort of generic visual disorder throughout the territory, built around a repetitive principle: the separate house, the strip mall, the giant billboard, the industrial park, and the highway. Without moods, this world is in perpetual mutation that makes one city raises and another one does, and that let them coexist indifferently side by side. This visual chaos becomes unrecognizable to become an abstraction. This is where my favorite workplace is...my playground.
Regarding the treatment of my photos, I do not refute a form of aesthetics or even poetry while leaving a narrative part, free for the spectator to interpret the photo. My Mantra is simple: I like repetitions, I like series, and I like driving around.
Who/what inspires you?
What inspires me is the emptiness in the urban landscape or in the great American spaces. I like to play/'mix' two approaches: The codes of the new topographics and the concept of "in between-two states" inspired by the anthropologist Marc Auge under the name of non-places. I like transitional places, like intersections or passages from one world to another, such as from a residential area to an industrial area. I also like the tourist places altered by the human trace. We often find this feeling of emptiness, of visual paradox by travelling throughout the United States. The transition from one site to the next: You have arrived and at the same time you have never left. I believe that the expansion of the urban or industrial landscape in the American natural landscape has redefined this space and has become itself a "non-place."
What’s your go-to camera?
My go to camera is simply a PANASONIC LUMIX DMC GX8, I just changed the lens to a LEICA DG SUMMILUX 25MM and the LEICA 35-100. I need to have it handy, ready to shoot. I don’t have sentimental attachment to my camera, I only hope for efficiency. I belong to the digital generation. Without this numeric revolution, I would not have had the chance to be in this discipline.
How much planning goes into your work?
I plan my road-trips, checking google and building my itineraries. I usually travel either with my family or with friends, knowing I need someone to drive so I can spot the places I want to shoot. Below is the process I usually go through:
I drive around a lot.
I like to circle around the subject, map it.
I can stay a long time in a specific place and shoot it thoroughly multiple times.
Sometimes the frame is obvious, but not always. I know that the subject is there but I cannot really see it so I shoot obsessively hoping to find a result when back at my studio.
I can also come back to the same place many times.
Then, back to the studio.
a. I sort out
b. I extract my storyline
c. I do the first step of framing (always using square frames)
d. I choose the color that will stand out for the series
e. I let the series rest for several days
f. I go back to it, repeating the same process from a to e
Lately, I don’t discard the leftovers, I re-work them several months later and sometimes I can find new directions. As I said before, I am using the same process as a painter. I think first about the sketch, the draft. Then, I work my picture like a painting on a canvas, I select the colors. Throughout this process, a series emerge, articulated around its own story, its place, its mood.
What inspired your move to the US?
After leaving Paris in 2006, I lived in Asia for seven years before moving to the US. I moved to Seattle almost six years go. We moved here with our two boys because my wife had a job opportunity.
As a photographer, what do you find so appealing about the American landscape?
I will particularly mention the landscapes of the American West, which has a special vibe. I find a lot of pleasure working in this infinite space, even if I often travel through a chaotic society built on social pain, forgetfulness, even survival mode. This feeling is accentuated by the mixture of two strong realities living side by side: a landscape (a horizon, a sky that crushes you with its presence) and an anarchic, oppressive urban extension. The challenge of my work is to create an harmony between these two worlds (a romantic aesthetic). It is in this iconic landscape of the American West, subject to a permanent reinterpretation that I try to find my way, my truth, while asking myself how to manage in this world.
When were you first introduced to the concept of “Urban Sprawl?”
Urban sprawl emptiness was evident from my favorite subjects in this endeavor. At the beginning of this project, the title also included the location where the photo was taken. However, over time it did not seem necessary to indicate it anymore. It did not matter, and seemed anecdotal. This generic title was imposed by the seriality and the repetition of my subjects of predilections: the deserts of the American West and their poetic and chaotic processions of motorway interchanges, the cities without centers, the residential zones without inhabitants. I have the feeling that the extension, the identical and omnipresent reproduction of the trace of the humans on this territory, ultimately shrinks the world.
Favorite place to shoot?
Most of them were created in the Western US, around Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and more broadly in the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California as well as in my area: the state of Washington.
Favorite American photographers?
As a young adult, I always admired painters such as Giorgio De Chirico (geometrical figures, little to no human presence, something appeasing but also oppressing), Edward Hopper for his static compositions and his true American landscapes, as well as Mike Bayne. With regards to photographers, my favorites include: Robert Adams, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Bill Owens, Robert Frank, Gregory Crewdson, Gordon Parks, Joel Meyerowitz, Todd Hido, Robert Frank, Patrick Joust.
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
A question that I do not ask myself anymore!
Song of choice for your American road trip?
A playlist for American road-trips as seen by a French guy who lives in the US:
Run The Jewels, Lilly Wood and The Prick, Kendra Morris, A$AP Rocky, Brother Ali, The Black Keys, Ratatat, The Raconteurs, The Heavy, Dan Auerbach, Fox, The Doors, Rumsprings, The Dead Weather, Creedence Clearwater Revival, PJ Harvey, Jain, Blues Pills, The Flying Eyes, Bill Withers, Findlay, Black Sabbath, Goldfrapp, Beck, Ceelo Green, Deluxe, Mos Def, and many more...