When’s the last time you’ve visited an art exhibition? Do you remember the wispy brush strokes in the paint, the fine grain on the marble, the gentle rumble of the nearby guided tour drifting across the room? The joy of discovering and seeing others discover great art? Paris-based photographer Nicolas Krief captures just that in his two-part series Accrochages. Today, he shares with us where he finds inspiration, how various artworks get to their usual spots, and what else goes on at galleries and museums when the visitors aren’t there.
Many artists ‘graduate’ to photography after pursuing painting or drawing. Was photography your first ‘artistic love’?
Yes, photography was my very first artistic love. I discovered it quite early, around the age of 12 or 13. When I was 15, it became a regular practice – I took my first images with my father’s old Asahi Pentax. Later, at 17, I bought my first camera with my first paycheck.
But I only made photography my profession, my sole and main occupation, many years later. Prior to that, I’d studied history, taught, worked in the publishing industry and been a digital editor for more than ten years. All while practicing photography of course – for myself. Until one day, 15 years ago, I chose to focus solely on my photography.
Could you recount the story of your first professional photo?
My very first professional photo? Difficult question. My first professional success? That I remember (laughs), I’d been a photographer for two years, and the newspaper Le Monde had just given me my first assignment – to take a portrait of a female patient at a Parisian psychiatric hospital. It was published in large format in the newspaper that my father read, and that I’d read ever since I was a teenager.
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Outside of photography, where do you find your inspiration?
Painting, of course. The Flemish school, 19th-century painting. In art that is academic, but also – and above all else – produced by great artists such as Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and especially Gustave Caillebotte and James Tissot. As far as the 20th century, more so in American works, like Hopper or Hockney.
And literature, which takes the reader far into the realm of imagination and allows them to experience the process of constructing images, and the unique intelligence of the world that I try to capture with my photography.
Why do you think it’s important to capture the work that goes into museum exhibits? Doesn’t showing the ‘other side’ diminish the glamour and grandeur of it a bit?
I don't think that showing what’s behind the scenes takes away from the visitors’ pleasure of discovering the works that are presented to them at exhibitions. It’s possible that my work actually offers them a chance to experience the works that they come to see ‘en majesté’ differently, from closer up.
But I think these moments, are exceptional in the way they express the relationship we’ve developed with museums as a concept, with artworks, with art. These are the moments when the different relationships with the artworks are expressed.
How did you negotiate the permission to go behind the scenes of such prestigious museums, were there any specific conditions? Doors you couldn’t open, things you couldn’t touch, times you couldn’t photograph, etc.?
I started the work in August 2010, the newspaper Le Monde commissioned me to take the portrait of one of the people behind the Monet retrospective held at the Grand Palais, of one of the curators. And so, as a result, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux gave me the green light in exchange for the ability to follow along as the work progressed. I accepted the proposal. It piqued my curiosity. I was then accepted to work for the Grand Palais, then the Musée du Luxembourg, and I then started a long and fruitful collaboration with the Musée d'Orsay. This personal project is, nonetheless, known to various editors in the industry, which means I’ve been pursued with commission requests for publications like Le Monde, M, Télérama, Figaro Magazine and so on ever since.
Of course, there are limits. For example, I can’t show certain meticulously-arranged storage places or special techniques for preserving artworks. These are all acceptable and understandable limits. And of course, I never touch the actual works (laughs).
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 15.jpg
How did your previous experience inform this project? How does it differ from your earlier work?
I studied to be a historian. This immediately affected the way I looked at the subject at hand – to me, it seemed to have a liturgical, at times almost a religious tone to it. But overall, photography has this way of leading me happily from one universe to another, from one exploration to another, so almost every project differs from the previous one. However, photography, as I conceive it, is a sort of writing, and my writing evolves over time while also preserving – I believe – my personal ‘grammar’, my ‘syntax’. Specifically, I follow my personal ‘principles’ of photography: I define myself as a street photographer. My photographs are candid snapshots, which means no staging, no additional lighting, no cropping. Photography, as I try to practice it, only makes sense when it contributes to a better understanding of reality.
Does the work you’ve captured in this series have any sort of particular structure, rhythm, mood, etc.?
Formally, in this project as well as my earlier work, I try to let the literary, epic dimension of the most trivial situations reveal itself. My photos often offer a ‘pictorial’ construction. My greatest difficulty has been and still is to keep a fresh, neutral eye on the subject, to continue developing my approach to avoid self-imitation, and to constantly enhance my way of dealing with these Accrochages.
You've described the behind-the-scenes motions you’ve captured as a sort of ‘ballet.' Why was that your chosen analogy?
Because the first thing that stood out to me was the extreme thoughtfulness with which the works were handled, the technicality and the precision behind every gesture. This lent an unmistakable theatricality to the scenes which I observed.
Moreover, this theatricality – perhaps because it was very codified and repetitive – assumed the features of a true liturgy, a religious ballet of sorts: A collection of precious and admirable objects, handled according to strict rules and procedures, practised by specialists. I soon felt that these moments were animated by a very real religiosity of their own. The nature of our relationship to the concept of museums, here both a subject of devotion as an artwork, as a precious commodity, and, perhaps more mundanely, a mere piece to manipulate, a delicate physical object with a particular volume and weight, the performative dimension of the exhibition, seemed central to me. And so, my gaze shifted accordingly.
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Excluding Manet’s Olympia, which other works would you consider ‘trademarks’ of French museum art? And why?
What a question! (Laughs). Off the top of my head, I think of Delacroix, Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, the works of Monet and the French impressionists who changed our approach to painting, of cubism and Picasso. Of all the works that have left such a bold mark on the history of painting and the imagination of the general public that they are less so a part of French heritage, but rather of the greater historical landscape of Western art.
The interaction between museum exhibits and their various visitors has been explored in a few other photo series. What’s so interesting about people, standing around, looking at paintings and sculptures?
I’ve also photographed a lot of moments in which visitors discover various artworks. This moment of discovery is the culmination of any exhibition. I love this sort of work. For me, it’s an opportunity to take part – in a humorous, lighthearted way, I hope – in the dialogue, the interactions which take place between the spectator and the work itself. I treat it like a game. I can’t help but be reminded of Matt Stuart, whose photography also captures the humorous side of museums.
What’s one interesting occurrence that didn’t make it into the final series and why?
I had to censor myself sometimes, like when some element of the safety measures was too visible, or when a supervisor (often an American one) was instructed not to allow the work that wasn’t hung on the wall to show. Like a relic on his own little altar (laughs).
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 23.jpg
How did you approach calibrating the technical touches of the photos (colour grading, framing, sharpness, etc.)?
As I’ve mentioned, there’s no staging. Which means no additional lighting, no cropping, just some straightening. But when I do retouch my photos, I always magnify them (it’s a lot more precise). I don’t add any special effects, just work on the colours, the light and so on, to make the image match the vision I had in mind when I took it.
What’s your opinion on the Carters-inspired Louvre tour, and guided tours in general?
The museum has become a form of mass entertainment, and world-famous works have become bona fide pop icons. The upside is that this opens up the opportunity of discovering a common heritage to numerous people, massive new audiences. The downside – we’re seeing the celebrities, not the art.
The museum world has caught on to the hype and the benefits they could derive from it, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé's beautiful music video is a good way to attract a new audience, one that may also discover the beauty of the works featured in the video as they watch (laughs).
Would you agree that the COVID-19 epidemic has increased our appreciation of such establishments as museums? If so, how do we maintain it after we go back to normal?
That’s a question for the exhibition and art enthusiast in me, not the photographer (laughs). Yes, museums, and culture in general, are something we lack terribly in our confined societies. I don't really believe that any virtual experience can replace the face-to-face, carnal encounter with art. But museums are in the process of learning how to reach the public – be it by relocating exhibitions or giving them a stronger presence in the media or on social media platforms. I hope and eagerly await the day that exhibition spaces and museum halls reopen, even cautiously.
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 11.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 17.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 20.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 21.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 24.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 25.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 26.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 27.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 28.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 30.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 32.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 31.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 34.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 35.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 36.jpg
Nicolas Krief Metalmagazine 37.jpg