by Klaus Fruchtnis

© Pierre Folk from the series 'By the silent line'

Tell us about your approach to photography. How did it all start? What are your memories of your first shots?

Pierre Folk (PF): Before I was born, my father was kind of an adventurer ornithologist. He would go for weeks to Spitsbergen in Svalbard, far beyond the Arctic Circle. When my brother and I were old enough to understand the images, he started to show us the amazing collection of reversal film he brought back from there. Birds, landscapes, bears, glaciers, human installations looking so insignificant compared to the gigantic surrounding raw nature... As kids, we spent hours at night in front of the projection screen, amazed by what we were seeing. I never took pictures back in the days but I am sure my passion for images is somehow related to this. Oddly, when I was about 22 and went for a trip of several months to North and South America, I felt that same need to bring back images and bought my first camera. Back then my shots were taken out of a simple desire to remember what I was experiencing, in a sort of naive way. They were not driven by research.

© Pierre Folk from the series 'By the silent line'

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

PF: Over the years I became familiar with the work of more and more art photographers that I came to admire. During this process I felt that photography is more powerful to me when presented as a series rather than as a single image, to convey a meaning. So I’d say that along the way what really evolved is the way I envisage the medium and the corresponding preparation of my subjects. In the end, actually taking the pictures definitely represented less than 10% of the time dedicated to 'By the silent line'. Gathering documentation, keeping an eye on weather forecast, making contacts, finding entrances, getting access to locked places, etc. took up most of my time. In the end, the few seconds dedicated to pressing the cable release were only the conclusion of a long preparation process. This is definitely what has changed with respect to the early days. I don’t take tons of pictures like I used to. Some days I don’t even take a single shot. And when I do, somehow the picture is actually taken before the button is pressed.

Let’s talk about your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general?

PF: My personal research explores human society, with a particular emphasis on man’s relationships with his territory. In modern societies space is often adapted to suit our needs, as we transform our surroundings in a very functional way. As by-products of these transformations, residual spaces can be found in the interstices of our habitat. These are generally qualified by society as wastelands. Indeed, to rational, functional minds, residual spaces appear as inevitable residual spaces inevitably appear as parasites dependent on useful and organised ones. There is, however, in their ephemeral state and in the uncertainty of its outcome, an unusual poetry that I like to investigate. Space appropriation says a great deal about how we relate to our surroundings.

© Pierre Folk from the series 'By the silent line'

What also interests me in photography is that there can be surprises. Photography is always exploratory in a way, but this is particularly true when seeking places that have fallen into disuse. When you dig into the subject, on location, what you were planning to build constantly evolves in response to what you see, and especially to what you didn’t expect to see. The fact that the process outcome is never exactly as planned is very important to me. I believe such intuitive dynamics go a long way explaining the satisfaction I take from a research session on location.

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras, techniques and format?

PF: I work exclusively in film and more precisely using color negatives on a 4x5 view camera. Seeing the world through ground glass is an introspective experience. It is a slow process, you know. Some people might consider that an issue – and for commercial assignments I would most certainly agree – but for my artistic researches it gives me a certain distance from the subject that I find very pleasing. The medium as a whole has very interesting descriptive capabilities, i.e. its dynamic range, its definition and the way it renders space.”

Tell us about your latest project 'By the silent line'...

PF: Well, I’ve long been interested in how we transform our surroundings, how ephemeral places can emerge out of these transformations, and how we appropriate them. To me there is poetry in this randomness. To investigate that, 'By the silent line' focuses on a metropolitan scar with its own distinct history, known as la Petite Ceinture. It is one of Europe’s biggest vestiges from the Industrial Revolution: a 32km long dormant railroad track circling within Paris. Napoleon III decided its construction in 1852 but its operation didn’t survive the automobile revolution, or the advent of the underground system. Different sections were exploited for freight carrying until the early 90’s, but on some of its course nothing but silence has been produced since the 30’s.

© Pierre Folk from the series 'By the silent line'

I came across the railway line quite randomly in 2010 when walking with a friend in southern Paris, where the line is elevated. At that time I had just moved to the French capital and was always looking for places to explore. I guess I had a need to escape. When I started to inform myself about the line I realised that there was definitely a story to tell and decided to build the series. I started the project in 2011 and it has been ongoing since then. Over the past few years I witnessed the blossoming of various projects. Such evolutions were very interesting to observe. For example, you can pass different community gardens or even stations converted into “bar/restaurants/DIY shops”. The reappropriation process was very slow, as there are many stakeholders sitting at the table: the national railroad company, associations of neighbours, associations of train enthusiasts, real estate promoters, and politicians… However, things have changed over the past few years and the overall transformation pace has rapidly increased, as the line was a strong topic during the Paris municipal elections in early 2014.

© Pierre Folk from the series 'By the silent line'

At last, la Petite Ceinture is likely to be reclaimed by modern society. A handful of projects envisage partial conversion into dancing clubs, restaurants, public transportation or linear parks, just like la Promenade Plantée de Bastille in 1988, which partly inspired New York’s High Line redesign. This long-term project is a way of maintaining the memory of a landmark and and to provide a critical perspective on our ability to constantly question, reconsider and transform our territory.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, who influenced you in some way?

PF: There are so many. Not all of them had a direct influence on the aesthetics of my images, but in a way all of them influenced me in getting more serious about photography. I guess the first time I was truly blown away was when discovering Chen Jiagang’s 'Great Third Front'. His atmosphere is pretty unique. Of course he’s not the only one. Just to name a few: Alec Soth, Bryan Schutmaat, Cyrille Weiner, Nadav Kander, Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, Alexander Gronsky, Pieter Hugo, Peter Bialobrzeski, Floriane de Lassée, François Deladerrière, Richard Petit, etc...

Could you recommend us three photography books?

PF: As a photography book enthusiast, breaking down what’s on my shelves to only three titles is heartbreaking but I’d say: 'Sleeping by the Mississippi' by Alec Soth, 'Yangtze the Long River' by Nadav Kander, 'DIY' by Richard Gilligan.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

PF: Sure. Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre at Polka gallery and Paris Photo for their unique ability to emphasise the history of a given place. Alice Wielinga’s installation in Saint-Blaise church during Arles 2015 was a clever, subtle and powerful way to connect image and sound. To add one more, even if it is not photography-related, I’ve been deeply impressed by Cyprien Gaillard’s 'Desniansky Raion'. This video installation dealing with communism/post-war reconstruction was on show at Fondation Louis-Vuitton and I really connected with the way it expressed the relationship we developed with our territory.

Any projects that you are working on now and plans for the future? Coming exhibitions?

PF: A solo exhibition started on February 22nd at the Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris and will last until March 18th. I am particularly happy about this installation as it shows a large selection of images from 'By the silent line' and also involves a sound installation, recreating the atmosphere one can experience on the line, in between nature and urban feelings. The opening took place on Thursday February 25th. I also would like to publish a book out of this series, which is now more than 120 images long. To that end, I am currently looking for an institutional partnership. Speaking less short-term, I will book a one-way flight to Hong Kong in a few weeks and leave Paris behind me. I have lots of ideas about a new project over there and in Mainland China. It will deal with space appropriation as well but from a different perspective.

© Installation views Galerie Düo, Paris

How do you see the future of photography in general evolve?

PF: Speculating on such a broad topic is difficult. Many have written about how the advents of social media, of Smartphones or even of cheap digital cameras alter photography as a profession. However, as an enthusiast I like to believe that in an era of images one can expect that photography as an art could only benefit from such societal evolution and attention. Only time will tell. As the discipline is evolving rapidly, what we know of it is only the beginning. Maybe the photography of tomorrow will not look much like ours. But there will be photographers out there as long as they’ll have something to say.


Pierre Folk