|Meeting Renée Falcke
Interview by Mia
First, some minor clarification between a press photographer and a photojournalist: A press photographer works for a newspaper; whereas, a photojournalist presents a news story primarily through photography with a supplementary written copy. I've noticed in the few weeks I've been corresponding with Renée Falcke that I've used both terms interchangeably and wondered which title adequately fit Renée. After interviewing Renée, whom I've come to know on a more personal level I realized neither description really suited her whole being. For one, journalism often demands sensationalism and capitalizes on "newsworthy" events. But what is considered newsworthy to some becomes questionable to others when ratings are the primary force behind a media's intent to sell. For true syndication, newsworthy is the headline grabber, an immediate response to a situation without much regard for the human-interest story. The story comes later in the form of flash bulbs, microphones shoved in people's faces, and answers jotted down hastily to inane questions such as, "how did you feel about losing your entire family?"--Well, just how would anyone feel under such tragic circumstances?! As a viewer I am appalled by this degrading approach to stripping the person of his/her dignity. Not far behind are tabloids with their gossip columns and tell-all approach. So I felt reluctant to classify Renée as a photojournalist. Renée, however, has no reservation about how she perceives herself:
"You have to understand that I am not an artist. I am a photographer
and a journalist, working on a very high level."
I, on the other hand, disagree. Because Renée is a photographer with a keen insight and interest in the individual person, she is a storyteller always writing stories in her head. She and I are in the same business of interviewing people. She interviews people with a camera, and I with a pen. In many ways, we act as mirrors letting the subjects choose us rather than us choosing them. It is the artist in us wanting to capture a mood, spell of a moment, the photos that could inspire or tell a story that stay with our readers. When Renée relates a story, it adds another dimension to her photos.
Renée: For ten years I had a farmhouse in Normandy, in the famous part CALVADOS near OHAMA BEACH. Three days a week I lived with the farmers and cows, and of course, with Calvados in a very small village Saint Georges en Auge. Being alone there most of the time and working in my big garden I told myself "meet the people even if they are very 'réservés', it's interesting'. I went to see Monsieur le maire (mayor), told him that I would like to photograph most of the 100 inhabitants. Seeing my portrait of de Gaulle he presented me to everybody. It took a year to photograph them. I did not show one photo before my collection was finished. Finally I exposed them in a big tent in the middle of a field and we had a fabulous 'fête'. These photos are very human and I had a big success with many other expositions in Germany and France.
Saint Georges en Auge
Another photo that I knew would inspire a story was the cyclist
who lost the Tour de France. I believed this photo was an example
of the artist in Renée. "Most" journalists would have wanted to capture the face of the winner. But the photo reveals the pain of defeat and all the disappointment that goes along with it. It translates so well to the viewer just how important this event was for the competitor. I asked Renée
what pulled her to take this photo.
Tour de France
Renée: The Tour de France number 100 just finished and the American Lance
Armstrong won for the 5th time. He is an international hero. This sport is very masculine and pursued by more than a hundred photographers and cameramen. I wanted to see that and to photograph it differently. Meeting the press-officer I wanted a press-card for the arrival of the most difficult and extremely tiring stage (étape). This was in a big stage in Roubaix (North of France). I did not want the winner I waited for the losers. There were more than 100 suffering cyclists and I was hunting for the best faces. The face here shows everything I wanted. I have another one which looks like an engraving, similar to the style of Albrecht Dürer.
I have loved his art since childhood.
Mia: Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, lived in Nuremberg. He was an
innovative artist first known to have painted a self-portrait and
to have done a landscape painting of a specific scene. Then it
becomes apparent to me that I am quibbling over semantics and there
is no need to define Renée at all.
It is important for me
to let her just tell her story:
Renée: I was born in Berlin and grew up in a totally destroyed country. I married a famous French TV journalist, and have a daughter. All my German family is dead, killed by the war. I grew up in different towns in Germany and was educated in twelve schools. My mother's language was German and as a journalist I write in German. Traveling around the world my second language is English. Having lived a long time in France, my third language is French.
About the wall in Berlin. I was really born behind there. I took this photo recently. I have not been back in years and I just wanted to see how it is today. This photo is a symbol of Berlin, capital of Germany still in ruins from the last war. But some young artist painted modern art just on this wall. Life goes on.
I studied photography with
a master. My first boss was a young American chief of United Press
International (Germany) who challenged
me with the words "You have four weeks. Beat the competition or you're out." I
took photos of sinking ships, even murderers in prison (with the
authorization of the Secretary of Interior), boxers, stars, accidents,
football and human-interest stories. I was the first feminine staff-photographer
of UPI. My photos were published worldwide and I became a well-known
Growing up in a destroyed country and having this American boss was the best education in life that I have learned. Looking back I know now that as a child I lived like in a soap bubble. I had my own imaginary life and dreams. My family was a good middle-class family and lost everything. I loved my mother, we were very close. She died of cancer right after the war in our 'home' still in ruins without any other help but my father's and mine.
Before she died she told me and insisted "I am not afraid to die because I know that you will have always luck. You were born on a Sunday! I was so happy that I made it just before midnight". This was very important to her. But there were no more bubbles for me. A bit later I lost my father.
After having worked for UPI for three years, I freelanced and traveled around the world for international magazines, as a solo journalist and photographer interviewing women for a very important German magazine. I could not keep all the photos, just some. For example, I took the photo of 'Saturnina and her daughter' high up in the Andes of Peru.
Finally I went to Paris and worked twenty years from 1973 to 1993 for the German media group Gruner + Jahr (Bertelsmann).
Since childhood I have always loved fashion. Being in Paris I realized my second dream: to meet high fashion, haute couture and, of course, Pierre Cardin.
In my photo he is creating his Haute Couture, a moment he never allowed to be watched. Creating is very personal.
He liked me and I watched and waited for the right moment.
I made fabulous contacts with
the help of my husband. I worked for the best German women's magazine
is BRIGITTE (belonging
Gruner+ Jahr) as a photographer and correspondent in France. In
1971 I opened the office of five important G+J magazines in Paris
and became at the same time, a fashion editor.
Millions of readers saw my photos. I photographed only the newest
and met all the famous people. I've always liked photographing
young people at the beginning of a
career. A good photo helps very much to start their careers.
Some of my young people are in Hollywood or are Top-models and world-renowned
known now. Patrice the young actor was so pleased when you wrote
that he was "eye candy."
I had to be able to meet the famous in person--not on the street.
They had to be willing to do the shoot and have the time free.
For example, Jacques Brel hated to be photographed. I waited a
year. One evening he called me at home in Paris and just said "Tomorrow at 2p.m. in the Bretagne." I
took my cameras, a plane, taxi and had to walk for an hour. Finally
I found him and his friends. They were preparing a film. I have
of course many photos of this day.
Yves Montand was not easy to meet. I had to wait for weeks. Finally
he invited me. Seeing that I was a professional, I stayed for hours
observing and sometimes shooting. We were alone backstage of the
famous music hall, Olympia in Paris.
traveled three days with Charles de Gaulle, the president as his
personal photographer. This portrait is hanging in offices,
was on covers and books. It is the best portrait of him in black
and white. You will smile. The first day I was wearing a new prêt-à-porter.
His bodyguards made me wear a long black raincoat; otherwise Madame
de Gaulle would not have admitted me.
Pierre Cardin put me into the group of his friends. Christian Lacroix prepared parcels for my fashion productions. I met them all. But not visible in the photos are the art-directors' and editors' words in my head, 'Why didn't you do this, or do that.' Before going to the appointment I had to prepare and think about what to wear, did I know everything about the person and their story? Each person has to like the photographer who makes him/herself invisible in the background. The photographer has to find the right light, the right colors and know when the moment is right with a little luck.
The Right Moment
Mia: Choosing the photos to go with Renée's feature was not an easy feat. There were many photos that I didn't pick that interested me, because I had to keep the interview brief. The celebrity photos aroused my curiosity, of course. One of my favorites is of Marguerite Yourcenar. There is so much depth and character captured in this photo that I am positively awed by her presence. She seems to be very oblivious to the camera, external events around her.
Renée: There are not many photos of Maguerite Yourcenar. Pierre Cardin called me and told me that he was creating her official 'robe' for the Académie Française (one of the highest honors for a French novelist). She was the first feminine author accepted. I met her chez Cardin. I was introduced to her sitting alone and waiting for Cardin. I waited too, we talked and I photographed her
"There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer, and at the same time more compliant, than they dare to be. Nearly all of them fail to recognise their due liberty, and likewise their true servitude. They curse their fetters, but seem to find them matter for pride. Yet they pass their days in vain license, and do not know how to fashion for themselves the lightest yoke. For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom."
Mia: I asked Renée if the shoots were planned or accidental. For example, in the photo of Romy Schneider and Melina Mercury, I was wondering if Renée
had chanced upon them and snapped the photo without their knowing. The photo
for me intimated a chance encounter in which both stars appear to be sharing
a very personal, private moment.
Renée replied: Not one of my photos you have seen was taken by chance or accident. Working for the best with this high circulation everything is prepared. In the beginning of my career I also freelanced for LIFE. I traveled three weeks with Romy Schneider and we became friends. This one I kept for myself for fun.
Mia: To which I answered, I'm not for sure if we should reveal this. I think it would be kind of a letdown to think that not one of the photos was taken by chance or accident. Though, that's the beauty and the artistry of it--making something look effortless, or by happenstance, as in pure "luck". Pollock stumbled upon his latter painting style, the one that made him famous, through chance. To the inexperienced eye, his paintings look "raw" and unrehearsed. But careful scrutiny will show that every line, dot, curve was deliberated to create the illusion of randomness. Aside from his style, what one picks up on is his energy, tremendous energy and mood."
Renée's rebuttal was: I understand what you mean with the drippings of
Jackson Pollock. My way of working is very different. My work had to be published immediately for millions of readers once approved by my bosses. There were moments when one of the editors said, "my readers would not like that". But I was free to create. What I really love is to meet interesting and famous people knowing their story but revealing everything in ONE look, which is extremely difficult. This takes time, talking and watching. I became invisible, listening, thinking and watching. Technical accidents are rare; my bosses would never accept them. Compare my photos with others in magazines, which are often without the human contact, distant, cool.
I wonder why you think that this is effortless. First you have to have the right contacts to meet the people. Secondly you have to study the story of the person. Third you know what you want to show. Fourth you decide how to be. No more explanations. Even Pollock did not explain everything.
Mia: I smile when I read Renée's answer. Of course, no one needs to explain: the picture, photo, or painting should do all the explaining. I did not make myself clear to Renée. I was not implying that her work was easy. What I was proposing to her was that her photos had the illusion of being at the right place at the right time and wasn't that art? Then I begin to understand that in some ways I know nothing about the fashion or movie industry because so much of it IS based upon a certain type of reality--one that has been staged and yet it is as real to the actors, models playing their roles as it is to the audience experiencing the story/play. The photo of Charles Aznavour immediately captures my heart. It reveals such an affectionate gesture between a man and his best friend that it cannot possibly have been staged. I am convinced that Aznavour hugs and kisses his dog in real life only this time it happened to be captured on Renée's film.
Renée: I love my photo of Charles Aznavour with his dog (this was for him for a cover) and I wanted it like an engraving. The lab told me to overexpose it and we developed the film with a heater. Usually I forget everything about me, where I am and the techniques. Photographing I just look, wait and try to understand the other person. For portraits I never have an assistant.
My famous persons are really famous even after their death. I am not interested in instant celebrities. Having worked for 20 years exclusively for a big media-group and meeting their style and demands, I decided to work now for different clients. Under my PEOPLE I am showing well-known people who we call the "branchés". For example, Colette's water-bar is known to fashion victims like the Tour Eiffel for tourists. The fashion-editors of ELLE, VOGUE, NEW YORK TIMES just love to go there and know the manager, Marc like a friend. This photo is not art, but there are no others. He hates to be photographed.
Mia: I take days and more days to go over Renée's answers in order to get a fuller picture of the person behind these photos. I begin to realize how intensely private and modest Renée is about her personal life, her achievements and success in the world of Photojournalism and what courage it took for her to open up to me. I admit to her that it would take me years to do justice to her story; and one interview is not enough and it isn't. To get to truly know Renée
is to feel her through her photographs, to view them as the inner
workings of the heart and not as commercial commodities to be easily
disposed of as in Trash Art. Here one sees a model (symbolizing
beauty, fragility) pitted against crushed cars.
I know that this interview is limited and cannot possibly encompass
the scope of Renée Falcke's story. Her poignant story about her childhood spent in Germany is intriguing enough to fill an entire book. Most likely however, she is not ready to tell that story. The fact remains though one must learn to settle for what is given them, the rare gift of friendship. But the rarest gift of all that one can give to another is understanding and if understanding implies acceptance, I will accept that story graciously in the same manner that Renée has treated her employers, her friends, her clients with as much loyalty and warmth. It's obvious to me that she could not have attained her haute couture status, trust, or top assignments without having those skills. My inclination is to meet Renée
in person in Paris and write her book someday (with her permission),
but for now, the interview will have to do.
Renée: I tell you a lot, because I want you to understand Paris is very
special. I have lived here next to Napoleon's grave twenty-three years now. Living next to the grave of Napoleon means the dôme
des Invalides is beautiful, l'avenue de Breteuil has many trees and is residential.
I am in the center of this town where the trade unions very often have their
strikes. Without Metro or buses I can always walk to my rendez-vous. In Paris
you need a lot of feeling. Otherwise the doors are closed. No photos
Copyright © Renée Falcke No Reproduction of any images without permission of Renée Falcke