Luc Delahaye rose to the heights of photojournalism as a conflict photographer, a rarified club few ever reach but to which many aspire. So it came as quite a shock in 2004 when the Frenchman declared the end to his photojournalistic career and the start of his artistic one.

The decision caused quite a stir at the time, especially when paired with his departure from the prestigious Magnum Photos, but Delahaye’s artistic journey is now bearing considerable fruits. His latest work, “History,” might be considered the culmination of his artistic development. The series of panoramic photos shot with a large-format view camera often show vast scales, such as the whole UN assembly hall while President Bush was giving a speech. Shot in typical photojournalistic situations in a non-typical way, the large-format images (often printed 4 x 8 feet) take on a broader historical perspective.

American Photo recently spoke with Delahaye about his work and vision.

Q: I think the first images that I saw from you were those published in “History,” and I was instantly somewhat confused. Even though these photos are/were clearly photojournalism, in my head I also placed them into the context of contemporary photography. For example, “President Bush Addressing the U.N.” reminded me of some of Andreas Gursky’s work, like his photos of stock traders or of a rave. What was your motivation to move away from your run-of-the-mill photojournalistic practice – where one would have taken a photo of just President Bush and the podium at the UN – and to get vast panoramas instead?

A: The picture you mention was made at a time – 2002 – when I was more interested in including the broad context of a given situation than I am now. It was probably in reaction to photojournalism, where I was coming from. I think that photojournalism is at its best when conceived as a series – the picture story. But I was never really interested in telling stories, I’m more into the production of individual images with strong narrative structures, and at that time there was a necessity to formalize clearly what I was standing for: simplicity, some clarity, the refusal of a “photographic style” and the mystification of reality that comes with it. Working with the complexity of the real was one thing. The other one, probably more difficult, was to work towards the restoration of the autonomy of the image.

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Q: Can you be a little bit more specific by what you mean when you say “the autonomy of the image”? Also, I find it interesting that you’re speaking of the complexity of the real. We’ve come to get used to the idea that reality is just so simple, that simple stories and simple images show us what is real and what isn’t. But it seems to me that’s just really not true, and you can look anywhere in the world where reality is just so much more complex than the black-and-white pictures people are presented. Is this something that you are interested in?

A: If an image has a sort of organic unity – the internal coherence of a mesh of elements that work together, respond to each other and therefore produce “intelligence” – then you can say that it has a level of autonomy. It’s self-sufficient in the sense that it doesn’t rely on the outside to exist; and this is precisely a condition that makes possible an interesting relation with the outside, the viewer. I think that these qualities are sometimes emphasized by the size of the work – when some elements and information begin to exist, and when the image is independent from the context in which it is shown: the picture as a physical object. But I can’t say that I am consciously trying to achieve this, it doesn’t work that way. It’s enough if I just recognize it when it’s there or seems to be there.

Q: We’ve lately seen the development of photography that lives at the intersection of photojournalism and art. For example, recently, photography from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has reached art galleries, and books have been published. In a sense, there never was such a clear distinction between photojournalism and fine art in the first place, with many photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, working right in that gray zone. But, I think, in the eye of the public, photography still is either art or photojournalism, or something that is not necessarily real or outright fabricated and something that is a depiction of reality. There are all kinds of problems I see with this. For example, shouldn’t we be a bit concerned if the aftermath of a natural (and, to a large extent, man-made) disaster can only be found in museums or art galleries – the places where many people expect to find, well, art – something that doesn’t necessarily reflect “reality”? Don’t we move things that need to be discussed in quite a bit of seriousness into a space which might suppress this discussion?

A: A work of art is always a document: a document about the artist, about its time and the context in which it has been made; and sometimes a photograph contains enough information about a given situation that you can say it has some journalistic value. But it’s different – in nature – from photojournalism, and I think ignoring the difference between the two generally produces something which is neither good journalism nor it is convincing art. That said, I don’t really feel concerned by this issue – the issue of the classification of my pictures by their viewers.

Q: It’s quite interesting that your work was discussed in three of my other interviews. In each case, your photo of the dead Taliban soldier from your “History” project was brought up, and I’m quite grateful that I now can talk with you about this particular photo. Can you maybe give us a bit of a background first? Under which conditions did you take the photo?

A: I was staying since two weeks with a small group of Northern Alliance fighters in a farm on the frontline, waiting for the offensive. It eventually happened and in great confusion, on foot, we crossed the no man’s land and reached the Taliban lines. That’s where I made this image. The morning after, we reached Kabul.

Q: I think the photo has generated quite a bit of a controversy not because of its content, but because of how and where it was displayed (and sold). These days, people are quite used to seeing dead foreign (but certainly not their own) soldiers on a regular basis in their newspapers, but seeing a huge print of one in an art gallery is quite different. And I sense a certain uneasiness about seeing it sold for a lot of money. I am sure you have encountered this problem before. What do you say to people who confront you about this?

A: I’m avoiding these discussions.

Q: OK, let’s not talk about it then. But then I’d be curious to find out why you’re avoiding these discussions now? Do you think that the photo and its presentation have been a bit misunderstood?

A: There can’t be a misunderstanding, because I’m not “saying”
anything through my pictures. They are just there. If they are good enough, they will not need me to justify them afterwards. In any case, photography is essentially a phenomenological practice: no matter how complex or obscure a picture can be, it will always show the nature of the photographer’s relation to the real with a degree of clarity.

Q: The photo of the dead Taliban reminded me of paintings of old masters – who regularly showed historical or religious settings or events. The advent of photography made painters move their subject matter away from the realistic to something else, but it was never quite that obvious that photography was moving in. Maybe we’re now at a point where photography creates our contemporary version of paintings of old masters? Is this something you had in mind?

A: No, I don’t feel the need to do what has already been done. I’m trying to work with what only belongs to photography, and I think there’s more to be done.
–Jörg Colberg is founder and editor of the fine-art photography blog Conscientious. He works as a research scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University.