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18 August 2009

Léon Herschtritt – Discovery Award, Rencontres d’Arles 2009

Presented by Bernard Perrine.


Léon Herschtritt? Since you can’t pin him down to any school, movement or trend, the best thing is to imitate the young couple he photographed at night, pointing at a Paris metro map, wondering where they were, comforted by the fact of being together and in love. Herschtritt, too, is in love: with Paris, life, Africa, women and freedom, all encountered in the few short years between 1956 and 1970 when he first set out with his Leica or Nikon. This vagabond life is the source of the body of work now being brought to a new audience. This strictly film-based black and white photography lives up to a creative talent unhampered by stylistic constraints. Herschtritt creates a new style for each new territory he explores—bright and vivid for children playing in the street, when they were still allowed to; chiaroscuro for discreet tours of the red light district; a soft half-light for lovers who do not even notice his presence. Others steal or fabricate their images, but not Léon Herschtritt. He won the Niépce prize before he had even turned 25, after deciding to visit Berlin for its first Christmas in the shadow of the Wall. The sheer absurdity and trauma of the situation challenged the young photographer, who was quick to capture the pain reverberating through the lit-up Christmas trees and the crosses where the first fugitives had been shot. Then he left the Cold War behind to enter the world of artists, intellectuals and politicians: De Gaulle’s haughtiness, Sartre’s squinting acuity, Deneuve’s ingenuousness. Once again Herschtritt explored genres like a musician changing keys according to the subject—sizzling Algeria, Paris’s prostitutes near Les Halles, a Rom kid with a cigarette butt, a ballerina. Herschtritt’s style is not the product of an artistic stance: he simply immerses himself in atmosphere and mood, striking just the right note with unadorned images that speak for themselves.

Hervé Le Goff

Léon Herschtrit is represented by La Collection agency, Paris.

Exhibition venue: Grande Halle, Parc des Ateliers, Rencontres d’Arles 2009.