Eric Kala catches the soul of buildings. The 44 year old photographer, son of a geometrist, roams his region of South-Eastern France looking for lines, shapes and colours (and, according to him, listening to them too.) He talks to us a month before his new exhibit "Kromatic Cité", sponsored by Nikon, opens in Paris.
You clearly have an eye for perspective. How do you construct your frame?
There is no clear reflection process; I just know, intuitively. Symmetry is self-evident to me. It's actually when I over-think it that it doesn't work - it's quite often the first photo that works best.
This said, it doesn't mean that it's not a lot of work. To get straight lines, you have to step as far back as possible. And sometimes, the environment won't let you, there's something blocking the view, and it's very complicated to get a clear shot. You have to gain access to the building across the street, or climb a scaffolding. Some photos can take two hours of preparation, but when you finally get that perfect angle, when you've finally found that spot between the trees, you're really happy.
Do you straighten up your lines in post-processing?
Very rarely. It happens, a half degree here or there, but I can't stand the look of photos that have been straightened - when you do it too much, it's obvious, something's not quite right. You can tell the difference between the photographer who's just used photoshop, and the one who spent an hour walking around to find the right perspective.
But, also, I'm a mad shutterbug; it's a huge pleasure for me to take a lot of shots, trying to get the perfect one. I'm not shooting willy-nilly, though, I keep my frame in mind. I also bracket, because I take pictures in weird lighting conditions, with windows, colours and shadows, and I want to make sure I catch the right exposure.
But you retouch your colours quite a lot - that's one of the reasons why your photos have such personality.
I see colours the way they come out in my photography, very vivid. I don't know how to explain this without sounding crazy, but colours call to me. It goes beyond synesthesia; it's like a vibration. If there's a colourful building in a new city I've never visited, I'll find it, in an instinctive way.
This is also why I like digital photography; I can do what I want to my picture, until it looks like the way I see it. As soon as I start my post-treatment, I know where I'm going. But because I'm self-taught, I don't really know what I'm doing, I probably use unusual techniques. Some people have told me "it takes three steps to get this result", when I've fiddled with the picture for hours and probably done 150 different manipulations. And weirdly enough, it's not saturation, like many people think. I actually desaturate more than anything; I rather play with the contrast.
You obviously have a passion for architecture.
I do. I love old stones, classical architecture. Take me to a roman Church, I'll be delighted. But I'm not interested in photographing them - this is for the tourist me. When I take out my camera, I look for modern constructions, industrial sites. I entertain a special relationship to them - I talk to them. In Marseille, there's this tower, I always say hi when I arrive. I also say something else, but don't print it or I'll sound like a crazy person or a pervert! That stays between me and her.
When I visit a place that's been photographed a lot, I first go to Flickr and study what's already been done. I don't want to repeat it. Like the Eiffel Tower - everyone takes it from the same angle. It's a lot of work to figure out how to do it differently, but I find that essential.
The other thing I find interesting is photographing the places people never see, or never look at twice. I tell myself that it's nice to give them attention, to somehow give them a new existence. People are going to look at them in a different light, and I'm proud of that. Like, I go to the projects. Seeing those giant, ugly buildings, I get shivers. I see all the energy, the piled up lives, and I realize I'm going to summarize 200, 300 lives with one photo. I'm going to include all of this in my lens, and it's breathtaking. If you had a camera on each window, you'd show real life; but I'm fascinated by this inhuman aspect, hiding humanity - I can't help but find it beautiful.
You go to the projects with your camera? Isn't it dangerous?
It got a bit hairy a couple of times, but mostly, these kids are really cool. "Hey! Take my picture!" they say. Then they want to check you really did. They help me find spots to get my clear shot, give me access to their buildings. They have a rough attitude, but they can be very welcoming.
It's paradoxically in posher neighbourhoods that I get into more trouble. For some reason, people hate having their buildings photographed. I've never had one problem when taking street portraits - I'm really bad at it, but it happens! - but I've gotten many suspicious looks and angry comments from people when I was photographing facades or shop fronts. They can become really aggressive. I have no idea why. It's different in larger cities, because they're used to tourists. But the smaller the town, the weirder the reaction. More when you try and capture their buildings than their faces.
So you do take portraits!
I don't know how. It's a disaster. I get in trouble at home - my kids look cock-eyed, disfigured... horrendous. It's just a different eye.
But you started incorporating people in your photography a couple of years ago. Most of them remain faceless, but they have an important place in some of your work.
I've been told that my pictures were cold. I don't agree with that, I find emotion in what I do, even without humans - but maybe it's just my own emotion when taking the photo, I don't know. At the Rencontres d'Arles, someone told me I was heading straight into the wall if I continued to do colours without humans. People can get really nasty. I was once called "a lethal virus for photography". Supposedly my pictures were too simple to even be comprehended. Looking back, I think that's why I started including people in some of my series: the critics must have planted a subconscious bug.
But to me, these photos are not about the person; they're about the presence of humanity. It doesn't need to be determined - like a symbol. I don't choose the person, I choose the place. It could be anyone, really, who crosses my frame. Sometimes I pick a location and I wait for a very long time for someone to walk by. The photo with the stripes, it took me a whole entire day: every time I gave up and packed up my camera, someone showed up. So I'd take my gear out again, and start waiting again. It went on like that for hours, until finally someone walked past my viewfinder.
I also often wait because I like to photograph people alone. Solitary, anonymous. Maybe it's because I like to be alone myself! ... Ha, I love those fake conceptual interpretations.
So you don't have a concept?
(He rolls his eyes) Sometimes people ask me what I'm trying to say. I don't know. This isn't who I am. I don't like labeling myself as "an artist". Of course there are many things in me, many painful things, but I don't like to expose them, I'm not interested in shedding light on them. I'm not saying I don't use photography as a way to channel my stuff, but I will not take the posture of the doomed poet, explain my pathos. I'm irritated by over-conceptualization, people who ramble on about "what I was trying to say…" If your picture is good, it will not need explanations. You also have to keep a measure of mystery, or you de-mystify everything. I take pictures because it makes me feel good. Here. That's what I do. I make myself happy.
What's next for you?
I'll see where my camera takes me. I'm working on many different series, so I keep an eye out for new shots to add to them.
I started giving workshops at Photostages (in Lyon) a few months ago, and I really enjoy it. I'm also preparing my new exhibit, next month in Paris, which is sponsored by Nikon. I am so proud of that. It's so cool - the director of Nikon France likes my photos!
When I started photography, back when I was 12, I didn't think it would become such a passion. My Dad gave me a reflex for my birthday, and I was pissed off. All my friends had little Kodak compacts, and I was walking around with this big clunky thing. It wasn't until high school that my best friend, Sabine, opened my eyes with her constructive criticism.
If I was 20 years old today, I wouldn't ask myself any questions. I would drop everything, go spend a week in New York, sleep in the park and knock on every gallery door. But I have a family, a mortgage. I already quit my previous career so I'd have more time and flexibility, and this new job puts me on the road all week long; it's perfect for me to explore new towns, find new constructions to photograph. At the end of the day, it's camera in hand that I'm happiest, so whatever comes, as long as I get to do that…
Eric's exhibit "Kromatik Cité" opens at La Mairie du 6ème Arrondissement (Paris) on February 2, 2012.
Visit http://www.kalaphoto.fr for more information.