GL: Any image is a record of two roads crossing: the person behind camera walks onto the path of the person in front of it. How did this meeting happen?
BB: This picture was born like many others of mine, like almost all of them. First, I check out if something is happening today in the town (or in the world) I am living in. For the past almost 20 years this city has been Budapest. That day in 2004, Hungary was celebrating joining the European Union. Having lived here – at that time – for more than 10 years, I knew that e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e was waiting for this moment. A huge, festive weekend took place and I was out with friends and kids, strolling on the waterfront, on the Buda side. When I had the feeling that something was about to happen I stopped and waited and told my friends that we’d meet somewhere later. Ninety-eight percent of the time I am alone when I work, but I remember that this day, there were many of us around.
GL: The metaphor we use when talking about ‘capturing a moment’ is misleading in some ways. A moment like this is about the years, months or minutes leading up to it that get you ready, as a photographer, as an observer to capture it.
BB: This is very difficult to explain. This is maybe the essence of the medium. To reach that rare moment of grace where everything is (?!) or seems to be perfect, seems to fall into place for the structure of the image: light, composition, emotions and above all – for me – the strength of a picture to go beyond time, the particular date or year that it was taken. No relation to time, just an instant extended to a whole lifetime. I think an image could guide or live with you until you die!!!
One has to disappear in front of the model, being at the right time at the right place and being willing to share a human emotion. I think I am walking on a very thin line: many subjects and topics all guided by the light that surrounds me and the goal is to go beyond the surroundings and to show the inner light!!!
And yes this requires concentration, paying attention almost every minute while at work. After all, everything is in front of you, but you do have to pick it up!!!
GL: Technically: what camera did you use?
BB: Technically: I keep it simple, simple, simple. Photography to me is related to what the eye sees and has nothing to do with any technical matter. Your eyes, your emotions. The question is if one has something to say with this medium. Does the photographer really have a ‘world’ to show with this medium?
This takes a life. Who’ s willing to sacrifice one’s life to that? I don’ t have an answer to that.
GL: Film? Digital?
BB: Film. Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5. In 1987 I spent a few weeks in Tokyo discovering Fuji black-and-white film. It was very good, still is. My camera is a 20-year-old Leica M6, sometimes an even older Leica R6 or it could be a Mamiya 4.5×6 I bought in Budapest for next to nothing… but it still works perfectly well.
Digital or analog? Nonsense. A good picture is not a question of the technology that it comes from. As Lajos Parti Nagy, the Hungarian novelist with whom I have published a book about Budapest (Fényrajzok – Lightscapes) wrote: “Taking pictures is a must. If with the worst rubbish of a camera, then with that.”
This, by now, is and will forever be an aesthetic choice. The richness of silver grains on an acetate base has nothing to do with the world of pixels. But this is very difficult to judge.
GL: What was the original picture format? Did you crop it?
BB: I never crop my pictures, but if I felt that I wanted to crop it I would do it. If it needs to be cropped for one reason or another, it’s okay. I very rarely do any cropping because I started photography in ‘77 with the Polaroid SX70. A whole world in itself with no cropping or retouching whatsoever.
GL: What lens did you use?
BB: The lens I have used every day for almost 20 years is a 35mm. When I moved from Polaroid to black-and-white photography I used every day a Leica R4 with a 50mm lens. I still have it but I don’t really use it. But the 50mm was always great for me, half of my Budapest book was shot with it. The ideal would be a 45mm lens – almost the field-of-view of the eyes- but that’s a lens you’ll rarely find.
GL: What were your settings?
BB: I do not remember precisely – it’s been almost 10 years now. But it was in May. A bright, slightly cloudy day – probably 1/250 and f/8.
GL: How do you measure light when taking pictures like this? Manually?
BB: The Leica R and M cameras have a light meter that works more or less fine and I often go for aperture priority.
It’s very difficult to say how the camera is set up when I leave home. But the one thing that’s certain is that it’s always around my neck or on my shoulder. Light conditions are always changing, e.g. Budapest gets lots of sun and even in the winter you can have very strong light. I just cope with it and setting the camera can be done very quickly.
GL: How do you focus?
BB: My focusing has always been and hopefully will always stay manual!!! The least of an issue for a photographer.
GL: How much do you usually work with your stills in post?
BB: There is never any ‘post’ whatsoever. I have scanned the piece of contact sheet for you to see what was ‘before’ and ‘after’, that should say it all.
There is, of course, plenty to do in the darkroom if some part of the image needs to be worked on. I did lots of practice in the lab and when I started with black-and-white I got used to developing and printing every film and picture. I have to admit that nowadays I give the film to a lab, scan the negative and I see what comes out. But everything is on film.
GL: Most of your images are black-and-white. Do you also shoot some of them on a digital camera?
BB: I have no digital camera, except my telephone which I use more and more. If I could get a digital Leica I would work with it with the same intensity. I think Europe is maybe not really the best place to do colour photography.
What we see today is either a reproduction of the colours around us or a manipulation of them. Very few people have a world of colour to show.
It’s obviously utter nonsense to turn a colour picture into black-and-white with just the push of a button. Digital technology will never help anyone to become a better photographer.
GL: Being from Budapest and looking at your photos, I am amazed how your images often transform the city into Paris. After 20 years, are you still able to see Budapest in this different light?
BB: It is difficult to say if I ‘do’ Paris in Budapest. I often meet people who say: “Your work is very Hungarian!” The only fact is that my visual culture was made in Paris.
GL: As I am getting older, I somehow find that photography for me is becoming more and more a question of subject distance, how far away from me that other human being is.
BB: Yes, I try to get closer and closer to my subjects in order to get their emotions. This image is a good example of approaching it successfully.
A photographer must have, more than anything else, a point-of-view and has to show his position regarding the world that surrounds him. Mine was never related to strength, violence, poverty, misery. I do see that every day, but do not feel that I have the right to add my tribute to the flood of images on that subject. And they are easy to do.
I think I have never disturbed anyone and I never will, that is who I am. I am a rather silent man. I have been trying to practice on my piano for 15 years every day now and music is my second passion but someone once said that my photography is silent.
(To see more of Bruno Bourel’s pictures visit his website at www.brunobourel.com. All images © Bruno Bourel and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on l1ghtb1tes.com on September 2, 2013.)