Alex Cretey Systermans’ photography takes us to peaceful and poetic landscapes. Portraying the reality in its complexity and attractiveness, Alex’s photography is a contemplation of the world that surrounds us. Strongly attracted by people and their environments, Alex shows us the exotic of foreign places, making us part of the amazement he felt while discovering them.
Hi Alex, can you tell me a bit about your background and how did you become a photographer?
Hi, I am a fine art and editorial photographer, I live in Paris and I work all around the world. I graduated from the Villa Arson, École Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Nice.
I think I’ve always been a contemplative person, fascinated by everything that surrounds me. Having started my career as a painter, I used to represent large-scale photo realistic landscapes, and nowadays, as a photographer ,I’m trying to portray reality. I chose to be a photographer because I needed to go out of my studio and interact with people. Photography can be realistic or abstract, it’s always about reality. But I firmly believe that it is photography ‘s cross-disciplinary aspect that attracted me. To me, taking pictures lets me go further into the world’s complexity than only doing art.
What are your main inspirations?
My main inspirations are in painting and photography. I’m particularly interested in painting from the 19th century, artists such as Courbet, Corot, Caillebotte, but I’m also interested in English and Flemish painters from the 18th and 17th, like Vermeer. However, photography is what feeds me the most. I’m constantly looking at photography in my book collection, discovering new images online. I’d say I’ve always been very much into Northern American photography from the late 20th century such as Joel Sternfeld’s, Mitch Epstein, Philip Lorca di Corcia, Larry Sultan... Today, I like many different types of photography really; it’s amazingly rich and exciting. I ‘m currently particularly interested in contemporary photography from Japan and Europe. Rinko Kawautchi, who’s from my generation, is absolutely amazing.
As a former painter, how much has painting influenced your photography? What originated the need to switch to this different media?
I would not say that my painting necessarily influenced my photography, even if the concerns I have in both the creative processes are similar. For instance, the landscapes I used to paint were fictional but realistic, with a documentary focus, just like I am now portraying the reality by taking pictures, with the atmosphere and colours that can make one think of paintings.
I changed from painting to photography mainly because I needed to be in contact with reality. It was nice to be alone and work in my atelier, but I missed the contact with people. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind going back to painting one day, maybe when I get old and tired from the active photographer’s life!
Your pictures are divided mainly into personal and commissioned projects. Do you find harder shooting moments of your private life or going on commission?
It is not really about one being harder than the other, I will always try and make it simple. When I am at home or in a place that is familiar, I feel less inspired. What surrounds me is so close to me that it doesn’t have the same power of attraction than something I’m not so familiar with, so I don’t necessarily feel the need of making images. I believe that personal work is much more difficult than commissioned work because it is not exotic. Indeed, while shooting a private subject I need to make the effort to find once again the fascination I have while discovering a new environment. It requires another kind of concentration and involvement.
And what is the most difficult to present? Private or commissioned work?
It took a long time to decide if I wanted to show both private and commissioned work. I finally decided to try and find a balance between them by showing a bit of everything, the essential of both, to give an idea of what is my vision and style. Nevertheless, I will try to replace little by little the commercial section with personal subjects. I think this is the most representative of a photographer’s work.
On the other side, your commissioned travel photography is really suggestive, when we look at your pictures we suddenly have the feeling of being in foreign but still familiar places. How do you achieve this sense of familiarity while shooting abroad?
It is a lot easier for me to shoot abroad. First of all, I feel more legitimate, therefore more free when I shoot for a magazine than when I shoot for myself. However, I’m always trying to stick to my principles, to not bother people while shooting and to melt with the environment without imposing myself. But what’s most important is that while shooting abroad I feel more inspired. The exotic element and the amazement I feel in a foreign place make me want to create images to share the attraction I felt in those moments.
We can notice a lot of landscapes in your work, but there’s also a particular attention given to people. In this way, a relation is always established between men and the environment. Would you say your narrative is more about men living in a specific environment or about the environment surrounding men?
This is a really good question. I generally don’t take landscape pictures where there is no human trace: if I am doing a landscape picture I will always include a way, a street or a human intervention. I definitely need to keep it an inhabited landscape... On the other hand, when I take a portrait I try to keep it contextualized, what in English is called an environmental portrait. I want the picture to show the dialogue between its protagonist and his space and environment. Let’s say that while doing a landscape, I try to make a portrait of a place and while doing a portrait I try to make a landscape of a person. I am interested in this complexity.
What is the most important element in photography to you?
The light is the most important element to me, it is the base of everything, that’s where the colour will come from. If the light is good, 70% of the picture is right. Nevertheless, during a reportage work it is quite complicated to have it under control, there are times when we can do nothing about it. Personally, I always try and wait until the good lighting arrives, although it is not always possible of course.
I heard film camera is your favorite tool, what do you think about the future of film in photography?
I shoot with film cameras because of the aesthetical outcome and quality. I love the colour and the grain I get with film nothing compares to the quality of the depth of a field rendered on a negative. Nowadays, it is mainly used for fine art photography, while in other fields it’s almost missed. I hope the market’s rules let me use film cameras in the future, and that my colleagues never abandon this either.
Photography is a narrative without words and a film without voice, which give more power of interpretation to the audience. Is there any feeling you would like to provoke in your public?
When I was still a teenager, I was taking pictures with the idea of bringing evidence of what I saw. It was a reportage. What I wanted to say was: “Look at what you’ve missed and how beautiful it was”. I think I’ve kept this state of mind through the time, but more specifically, what I want to share today is the emotion and the amazement.
Can you tell us something about your other projects?
I’m part of an international community photography called Strangers. We are coming from all over the world. Cult is another project I am currently taking care of with some great people, an adventure I would say. This is about discovering young artists’ works and spread the word about their talent. Cult is a magazine exclusively focused on contemporary photographers and videographers. With the new version recently updated, we want to promote young photographers’ work as well as having them sharing their involvement but also their concerns as photographers today.
Do you have any advice for all those young photographers out there?
Advices can change depending on the type of photography we are talking about. Nevertheless, I have a general advice: to be creative you must be positive. I find enthusiasm has an impact on creativity. My advice is to try a bit of everything and see what happens.
Nowadays, the photographer’s status has evolved and a photographer has to do a lot more than before: story-telling, editing, marketing, networking, publishing. I think this is amazing since it gives us a lot of possibilities to express ourselves. To do that you need to be interested in people and be open minded. A personal style will arise from this, one that is able to differentiate and express something about your vision.