Fred Goyeau, black and white photo printer

Interview extracted from Les Others Magazine Volume II : The Hidden Issue.

T
he art world would be nothing without its backstage, where professionals tirelessly work to render each project technically perfect. Just like lighting or sound design in cinema, analog photo processing and printing are amongst those hidden trades we very nearly forget exist, convinced that an automaton is in charge of revealing, in a fraction of a second, our so very precious shots. And yet, locked away for hours on end in their darkrooms, the ‘printers’ unroll, soak, pinch, apply and time, so that, finally, what was imagined on film becomes reality on paper.

We met with Fred Goyeau, a black and white printer, in his laboratory in the south of Paris. He told us all about his experience amongst the greatest, described his profound love for a struggling trade and exposed his well-informed outlook on photography today.

What was your first contact with photography?

It all began with my father. He always did photography and I never saw him without his camera, which I still keep preciously today. I was probably twelve years old when we began organizing developing and printing sessions in our family bathroom. My approach to photography began directly through the laboratory. Of course, I would do photography on the side and I would always have a camera on me, but it was not really my thing.

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When did you know you wanted to become a photo printer?

During my photography course, I had the opportunity, two years running, to work at Picto, one of the oldest photo labs in Paris. As an apprentice, you were not allowed near the developing department, deemed private and restricted to experienced employees. I therefore did one year of black and white printing, and one year of color printing. Something clicked at that moment.

After a few months abroad and a stint in the army, I was finally hired in the developing department. At that time, Picto was the hub for great photographers. We were in contact with the greatest: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Jacques Olivar, and the Turnley brothers. Sometimes, it’s up to you to judge if you have to lighten by a quarter, a third or half a diaphragm for example. It really sharpens your eye, reading the positives as well as the negatives. It’s in the darkroom that you learn how to expose a film correctly, and what its purpose is.

After two and a half years of relentless developing, I needed a change of scenery. I launched a project with a friend to go and do some photography in Australia. We were supposed to stay there for one year, go around the country, and come back with a photo report: ‘Australians and their environment’. One portrait, one landscape. Unfortunately, after four months of travelling, we had a car accident. I wasn’t feeling so great. Mrs Gassmann, CHRO at Picto, heard of the story, and called me saying, ‘Fred, you have to come back to work, ok?’ So, in order to stop ruminating, I went back at the lab. After a while, I took advantage of someone leaving to finally take up black and white printing.

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Why do you think you’re so attracted to black and white?

As well as a true sensitivity, there is a technical reason. Color printing entails having to work with a machine. Personally, I prefer to do everything myself, my hands stuck in the chemicals from beginning to end. When you think about it, everyone can develop in black and white and that’s what makes it so appealing. As long as you master the lighting well and you respect the baths’ temperatures, you can do it in your own kitchen sink.

Your encounter with Sebastião Salgado, famous black and white photographer, was inevitable then.

I spent two and a half years with Salgado. He’s really very nice. Well, when he comes in the dark with you and watches you develop prints, he’s not really that nice (laughs), but he is a very good person. At Amazonas, the agency dedicated to Sebastião Salgado’s work, there are negatives everywhere. You just have to snoop around a bit to find incredible things. I was there at the beginning of the Genesis project, and I had access to everything he had done previously: Workers, Sahel, true masterpieces.

Generally, for his photo coverages, he would leave for a month with 300 rolls of film. 30 exposures per film so, on average, 3,500 to 4,000 work prints. There were two of us looking after them. With such vast quantities, there really is no better printing school.

And it is very stimulating, because he doesn’t have any specific demands. The mood in which he is in at this or that moment dictates what you need to do. Even if the sky is overexposed by two diaphragms in a shot, he has to have all the information at the time you’re presenting his work print in order for him to possibly say at a later time, ‘It’s not bad like that, but you’re going to have to darken the sky a lot more.

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What are your feelings when developing possible future photography masterpieces?

What is interesting is to discover the path taken by the photographer to get to something good. Salgado wouldn’t go inside a hut in the very heart of south Sudan to take a few photos and then just leave. He would hang around, observe, go inside, the light would change. It’s that journey which I find interesting. Sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, ‘I think he’s going to take a photo of that’, because you can feel something happening, but you keep it to yourself. You don’t feel privileged for having seen his work before everybody else. You simply learn.

You set up your workshop in 2008, two years after Nikon, Canon and Konica Minolta announced they were stopping the production of analog cameras in favor of digital. What did that mean for you?

After I left Salgado, I wanted to see something else. I had not taken one single photo in two and a half years. There was a real dip in my photography during that time. An acquaintance offered me a space in a squat in Vitry. That’s where I began printing for the general public.

I wasn’t that worried about the incoming crisis. Because I’m stubborn, I like what I do and nothing could have stopped me from doing it. Of course, demand dipped. But I developed this laboratory knowing that it would not be easy, that breaking even would depend on keeping or losing three clients, and that in no way could I lose them. That’s also the reason why I broadened my product offerings to amateurs, without confining myself to Picto’s historical customers. Today, to be honest, I’m still not making a living with the lab. Let’s say the heart’s choice was not a simple one.

In any case, you really try to meet every single one of your clients, in order to create a relationship with them.

Meeting people is the basis of my job. If people come to drop off rolls of film, then leave without bothering to talk to me, I’m not interested. In this case, my trade would not be recognized anymore. I am proud of what I learned in my course and later on through my different experiences. Even though, as time goes by, it tends to look like a hobby, when I started, photo printer was a real job (laughs). It’s important people are aware of that.

You were never really that studious, and yet there’s a true mathematical aspect to developing and printing.

I don’t think it’s that mathematical. It’s just photography, and the light variations that go with it. You simply have to know how to quantify the dosage of light that needs to be added to a print to make it more or less dark. It becomes instinctive. Everything I learned developing with quarter or half diaphragms enabled me to know precisely what to do when faced with a print.

Every day, you develop the most intimate images of people you didn’t even know a few hours beforehand. Do you see a voyeuristic dimension in the process?

No. I see peculiar shots go by from time to time, of course, but I see them without seeing them. When a client asks me to develop a series on his girlfriend, I look at the film – ‘Is it correctly exposed? Perfect.’ I show him the contact sheet and that’s it. Of course, if you tell me you traveled halfway around the world to photograph something that I find particularly appealing, a skateboard or surf competition for example, I’ll take a quick cheeky look. 

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Do you feel close to surf culture?

Yes. I’d love to photograph it with my photographic chamber for example. Not athletes doing incredible tricks on two-meter waves, but rather the backstage action. Chris Burkard does that really well, with a chamber or other cameras. I like that mindset. I’m interested in what happens backstage, the people who gravitate around those sports. With the preparation, the trips and the competition, there’s more than enough. Every summer, I promise myself that I’ll take time off to go and see it all again.

Generally speaking, are there shots that you prefer to print?

I love reports, landscapes. That’s what I prefer to print because it speaks to me. Fashion photos, with their tricks and ultra precise compositions, are less my thing. By definition, there is a ‘true’ meaning to report shots that you’ll never find anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I love graphic research in composition, but without exaggerating the process.

We imagine a printer as being very solitary, shut away in his workshop. Do you need that solitude in order to work?

Yes. It’s an activity where you feel good alone. Alone, with the ambiance of the photographer for which you’re working. It enables you to confront yourself to the task at hand. Some printers cannot work without music. I personally prefer complete silence, where you can hear a pin drop. I work slowly, precisely, I’m in my zone and everything just flows. It’s the same with photography. I really need that solitude to be able to concentrate on my subject. I think solitude is an essential ingredient to photography generally speaking.

Especially when you realize the importance of developing and the symbolic dimension hidden behind it.

Totally. It’s the successful realization of what the photographer wanted. If he went to a particular place, spent an hour, fifteen days or years there and took that photo, it’s incredibly important, from the negative to its printing, to think about the moment he triggered his camera. By taking that photo, he knew what he would want you to express by calling on your services. If you succeed in materializing that idea, bingo. That’s why relationships between photographers and printers who understand each other last a long time.

The fact that the developing process isn’t instantaneous is very important as well. When I get back from a trip and develop my films, I select, print in a small format, and only when I’m convinced, I’ll print a large copy. So there’s a whole analyzing phase that makes you stand back and leads to a good result.

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What does that mean to you in regards to photography?

The problem is that people don’t pay attention. It’s as simple as that. These days, the camera has become a big Polaroid body. You don’t even have to measure light anymore. Is it overexposed? Is it underexposed? That’s what I want. Never did you bother to take light into consideration. We are in an excessive photographic consumption dynamic. People take photos but don’t bother looking at them. With film, when you’re faced with a subject or you simply identify something worthwhile in the street, you have to go around it, take five, ten photos to be sure to obtain the wanted result. With digital, photographers snap away and check their framing afterwards.

I’ve noticed something with my students (Atelier photo, Paris III), if I give them a smartphone or a digital camera, they are able to take 500 photos in one evening. With a classic Lomography camera, they have trouble finishing one roll of film in one week. It’s very contradictory. In order to learn photography, you have to photograph. Even though the price of films has a lot to do with it, of course. By reducing the costs, digital has democratized a practice that it has also transformed, and not always in a good way.

And you, what cameras are you fond of?

I don’t like asking myself too many questions when I take a photo. Leica, chamber, Mamiya, they’re only tools. But if I absolutely had to choose one, it would be the Leica M6. It’s a model that suits me well: body, aperture, speed, film sensibility. The winding is manual, there’s nothing simpler. It’s like my enlarger, when it breaks, I know how to fix it. Rather than being a photographic apparatus, it’s a mechanical tool that I can repair. It’s the same thing with the M6: sturdy, not flashy, and practical because there’s a cell inside. And it works really well. I don’t only have outrageously expensive lenses to go with my cameras. I hunted down a few Russian models that suit me well, and taking photos with a scratched 24mm lens was never a problem for me. It’s not the equipment that makes the photographer.

As a printer, do you have a particular relationship with light?

Light fills my daily life. I’m always looking out the window to see how it inundates the street, to spot the ways in which the clouds play around with its brightness, in order to have that same rendering for a future print. There is a real difference between seeing and looking. I always look at the light. It’s the light that makes me work, so it is always omnipresent. Yesterday, I was heading home, it was raining, the light was radiant, it was absolutely crazy. I don’t really like ‘flat’ lighting. Today, what we have outside for example (grey day) hurts my eyes.

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