Olivier Culmann: Finding the Others

 
Executed in four phases, Phase I of the Others featured traditional portraits that were made in studios around India. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Executed in four phases, Phase I of the Others featured traditional portraits that were made in studios around India.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Natasha Desai takes you into the almost bizarre world of Olivier Culmann, as he interprets the social codes of how Indian men represent themselves.

Being in school had always bored Olivier Culmann, he saw no point in it. And yet, he spent 1993 to 1999, documenting the different kinds of institutions in urban, and rural areas across the globe. In A Chicken’s Life, Olivier visually juxtaposes life of chickens in a poultry farm and people in military training.

Culmann enlisted the help of local hairdressers and assistants and transformed himself into various archetypes of Indian men, based on the way they dress, their stances and his other observations. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Culmann enlisted the help of local hairdressers and assistants and transformed himself into various archetypes of Indian men, based on the way they dress, their stances and his other observations.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

When tragedy struck the World Trade Centre in 2001, photos of devastation poured out. Olivier photographed the people looking at the scene, instead. In his World Press Photo award-winning work Watching Tv, he photographed people in their homes, watching television. “We are all such passive spectators when in front of the TV. I’m interested by things we see but don’t photograph. The reactions I received ranged from laughter to pity to horrified recognition.” Whatever may bore, fascinate or scare Olivier, he explores. All his projects usually come from a simple thought and a deep curiosity of the world around us.

“People don’t consider this photography as art. But for me, it is very creative and very rich, visually.”

For the next phase, Culmann digitally combined the faces from Phase I with various backgrounds, props, hairdos and headless bodies made available on CDs by local labs. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

For the next phase, Culmann digitally combined the faces from Phase I with various backgrounds, props, hairdos and headless bodies made available on CDs by local labs.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Art Through Different Eyes
As a frequent visitor to India, Culmann found himself fascinated by studio portraiture in the country. In 2009, he came to New Delhi and lived there for two years incubating The Others, a series featuring the various kinds of Indian men he observed. Except, he did not shoot a single Indian male. Instead, he replicated these carefully observed looks on himself.

In an age of harsh debate over the use of image manipulation, for Culmann, Phase II questions where photography ends and where reality begins. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

In an age of harsh debate over the use of image manipulation, for Culmann, Phase II questions where photography ends and where reality begins.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

One wonders, that with this humourous take on Indians, is he perpetuating a stereotypical view of India? Or is it a question of self identity? Neither, as it turns out. “I have always been interested by the local photography practices of a place. Future generations will understand our time and era far better with images showing aspects of our societies, rather than just images of conflict that come of out photojournalistic and documentray work.” The idea was to explore how we represent ourselves. Much like crafting a certain kind of opinion about yourself online, a photo from a studio is how you want people to see you. “I used myself as the base material because it was most practical, as I am always with me,” he jokes. “By recreating a regular and known aesthetic, The Others becomes accessible to everyone. I photographed ‘people’ you see every day.”

“The Others is no way an exhaustive representation or a social comment, it is not meant to judge or affirm anything. While it might provoke questioning, it isn’t critical. I only want people to react to my work.”

For Phase III, Culmann approached photo labs with a torn image of his portraits and asked them to reconstruct them. The colouring was left up to them. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

For Phase III, Culmann approached photo labs with a torn image of his portraits and asked them to reconstruct them. The colouring was left up to them.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Exploring the Ignored
All of Culmann’s projects use different approaches, but the ideas usually stem from a simple thought. “I like that people can connect with photos. It makes them ask questions. I like the idea of making people wonder what is going on. Photography takes itself very seriously sometimes,” he says. “I think you can use humour effectively too. If people laugh, it does not mean that you aren’t talking about something serious. People only show tragedy, but I think we should also look at the boring subject, and the ignored too.”

“I was very interested to find that the the labs use symmetry for their recreations, even though faces aren’t so.” Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

“I was very interested to find that the the labs use symmetry for their recreations, even though faces aren’t so.”
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Gadgets and Gear

  • For the first phase of The Others, Culmann photographed himself and the studios with a Mamiya 6 Rangefinder, a Fuji 6 x 9 and a Canon full frame camera.
  • The second and third phases of the series use a photoprocessing software to mix the portraits, backgrounds and props and for recreation as well.
For the final phase, Culmann asked a painter to recreate the portraits from Phase I, using Bollywood as an influence. “I am very interested by the relation between pictures and reality, as well as the idea of representation. These pictures question the way in which social status could be elaborated through the construction of self image. In a way, it is exploring the limits of the photographic medium.” Culmann found the effect of the paintings even more real than the photographs themselves. Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

For the final phase, Culmann asked a painter to recreate the portraits from Phase I, using Bollywood as an influence. “I am very interested by the relation between pictures and reality, as well as the idea of representation. These pictures question the way in which social status could be elaborated through the construction of self image. In a way, it is exploring the limits of the photographic medium.” Culmann found the effect of the paintings even more real than the photographs themselves.
Photograph by Olivier Culmann/Tendance Floue

Olivier Culmann Photograph by Lucile Casanova

Olivier Culmann
Photograph by Lucile Casanova

About Olivier Culmann
A photographer based in France, he is one of the 13 members of the collective Tendance Floue. His work revolves around social conditioning and free will in our society, presented in almost an absurd manner. You can find more of his work here.

Olivier Culmann’s work is being displayed at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai, as part of the Delh Photography Festival 2015 exhibit brought to the city by the Chennai Photo Biennale, in association with Goethe Institut and Travelling Lens. On till 13 March, you can find the Biennale’s schedule here.

Tags: france, india, natasha desai, Olivier Culmann, Self Portraits, Tendance Floue, The Others