Hello Olivier, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I would like to start off the interview by looking back. It seems you were introduced to photography at a young age by your father, also a photographer. Did this early familiarity to this medium have any influence on your choice to pursue the arts?
Years ago my grandfather did research about our family history and there was one constant that emerged from it: all of our family members on his side of the family (and in particular most of the males in our family), always had something to do with art. Art in the broadest sense of the word.
My grandfather was a designer for a tapestry business back home and his dad was too. Actually as far as he was able to go back in time during that research he always ended up in the tapestry business.
My grandfather was also a very good painter. My grandparents’ house was literally covered from wall to wall in paintings. There was not a free spot on the wall to hang something else. I remember every time we visited he was in the middle of doing ‘another’ painting.
My dad was a wedding photographer when he was young, working for a photography business in Ghent. I remember him saying that there was not a church left in Belgium that he had not seen from the inside.
Looking in retrospect I somehow knew or felt that I would end up doing something in the arts and look, here I am, working as a graphic designer. It was not until I followed a photography course that I found my true passion, photography. It’s just weird. I guess some things are meant to be.
You came to Canada with your wife in 2004, what was it about Canada that drew you here from Belgium, and your choice to become a permanent resident?
Back home, I always had the feeling that I lived on the wrong side of the planet. I was very curious about the American way of life. And I have a very keen interest in the American muscle cars from the 60’s and early 70’s.
When I met my wife she told me that she already had been to Canada a few times. When she showed me her pictures, I was blown away by the beauty of the land. I thought ‘hey, close enough to America’. I could not wait to see all those sights for myself.
So we travelled to Canada numerous times and we loved it. The experiences we had here were awesome. After returning from another trip to Canada, we made the big decision of actually immigrating. We knew that it was going to be tough to accomplish. Five years after we started the process, we finally received our permanent residency.
The things that attracted me to Canada were the friendliness of the people, the open landscapes, the mountains and the quietness of the outdoors. Let me tell you, the first time I experienced total silence, it was scary!
And I simply love the fact that towns and cities actually stop. Now, for a lot of people, that would seem weird. But back home, cities flow into towns that flow back into cities. There is not a lot of pure, untouched nature. And if you find some, I guarantee you, you always hear a highway or some industrial noise in the background. Just for a sense of scale, Belgium can fit in between Calgary and Edmonton with room to spare. Crazy if you think about it.
Your landscape work is impressive to say the least. It is minimalist in nature but, unlike other minimalist landscapes, which strip away distraction to achieve pure simplification; your images capture a high degree of emotion. How do you bridge the gap between these two contrasting styles of photography?
Thank you for your kind words about my work. I’ve always been attracted to simple subjects When I first came to Canada I wanted to show the grandness of the mountain scenery here. The only problem with that, is a lot of other photographers are doing the same thing over here. They all photograph the same subjects, from the same spots, over and over again. That is not me. I like to be different. After living here for about 3 years, I knew that it was not the path I wanted to follow anymore.
The work I do now comes from the heart. Maybe it is not the most spectacular stuff around and that’s ok. I’m happy that I can say that I finally found my photographic voice and that my ‘style’ is getting noticed. Which is far more important for me then doing stuff that conforms to the rules.
Your latest works, some of which are shown with this article, are vast in scale. Some objects even appearing to be exist on a barren plane. Do such open expanses mirror what surrounds you in your home town of Cochrane, Calgary? Or, are your works more representational of the impression you wish to convey about Canada?
I always search for things that are out of the ordinary. Like I said before, I love simple subjects. The simplest of photos can often convey a simple yet strong message. I love those types of photos.
My work often shows scenery in a way that people can easily relate to because they pass or see it every day. I guess I’m trying to give the viewer an impression of the land or even better of the emotions I had when I took the photo.
Photography for me is about telling stories. Often I’m shooting next to a highway. My photographs don’t show that. A lot of my photograph’s themes often revolve around (showing) silence or loneliness.
You’ve mentioned silence as a theme in your work and something that you enjoy in your personal life. What is it about silence that appeals to you enough to want to project it into your art?
Silence is something strange. And like I said, the first time I experienced it, something fundamentally changed inside of me. It’s difficult to describe but I’ll try.
I was out near Vulcan on a random winter morning. It had snowed the night before and the morning was overcast with these typical wispy thin prairie clouds in the sky. I stepped out of the car and I found myself in the middle of nowhere. That is when it hit me. Everything was quiet.
The only thing that I could hear was my own heartbeat and breathing. Something I had never before experienced back home. It scared me. I thought I was deaf. It had a profound effect on me and I tried to express that emotion with the photos I took that day. I felt I failed miserably but I knew I had to tap into that, for me, very strong emotion some more and dig deeper.
Regarding your tools, with your Father’s use of film to convey his impressions, does this medium interest you, or does digital photography offer you more flexibility to achieve the image you are looking for?
I just purchased a film camera again. I bought a medium format Mamiya RB67 Pro SD and hopefully when this interview is published I can say that I started to develop film again. It’s been 10 years or so since I’ve shot film so I guess I’ll be a bit rusty.
The thing is, being a graphic designer, I know my way around Photoshop. I know with what I can get away with and I know how to get there. However somehow, I don’t know what it is, I don’t like the way digital black and white prints look. That is part of the reason why I switched back to film for some of my black and white work. I want to print my images large in my darkroom and experience the joy and the magic that film photography has to offer again.
There has been a recent resurgence in film photography as many professionals are looking for the high quality of prints one can achieve. Plus, I personally believe that film provides a layer of emotion that digital cannot replicate. Do you feel that film requires more skill and a better understanding of the craft to achieve great results?
I agree with you 100%. I see film as almost a living and breathing medium. It has a lot of layers and has grain structure. In its own way, it is not 100% perfect. Digital pictures are almost sterile. In this world today, everything needs to be perfect, clean, instant etc. A lot of photographers are going to lengths to get their images as clean as possible. Working days in a row on their images magnified in Photoshop at 1000% and clone away minute details. Now, since when is life or nature ‘perfect’?
Personally I am making the switch because I want to see my photography big. With the digital files I’m creating today, I am always bound to let’s say a maximum size of 20×30 inch (and that’s already borderline). But with film, there is a bit more leeway. Sure you will blow up your grain structure but it still looks great. Far better than the pixelation of a digital file. The two mediums have their own set of challenges. Each requires its own skill set.
I purchased an all manual camera with no light metering, and it is eye-opening. We’re so used to getting everything automatically handed to us with focus confirmation, live preview and things like that. With this camera I’m the decision maker. I am the one that has to measure the light and make the decision. If I over or under expose for example. It is a bit more complicated and requires you to think. It feels mentally completely different to trip the shutter button on the film camera. I feel I actually made a photo and not just another file.
Last question. As you evolve as an artist, where will you look to draw inspiration from?
I love the work of Cole Thompson, Michael Kenna, Uwe Langmann, Mitch Dobrowner, David Fokkos,Josef Shulz and Michael Levin just to name a few (and in no particular order). Of which only Levin is Canadian.
On the Canadian side though, I still have enormous respect for Darwin Wiggett. I can’t help but love the work he does around our town and the Canadian Rockies (oh yeah, he lives in Cochrane as well).
It was Cole Thompson’s work that made me make the switch to black and white again. I emailed him to thank him for that. His images moved me a great deal. When I saw the Hokkaido video on Michael Kenna’s website I made the decision to move back to film. The way Michael works is so similar to what Ido. I have a massive amount of respect for what he does. What drives me to go out and photograph is very simple. It is the beauty of the land that surrounds me. That surrounds us.
Now I hear you thinking, what is so beautiful about an empty pasture? That is where I come in. I try to show the hidden beauty in those simple scenes. A friend of mine told me he loved my work because that was exactly what I did. He said this: “Tell me the number of people that drive past this place and never notice anything. And here you are transforming it into a piece of art. That’s what I love about all your work”. That’s enough for me to go out almost every day
CPO appreciates Olivier’s time. Please visit his site http://www.olivierdutre.com/