Isabel Chapuis searches for that which is hidden deep below the surface.
Isabel Chapuis searches for that which is hidden deep below the surface. As a photographer, she loves to create a universe, and then fill it with characters and tell their story.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The name rolls off the tongue like a Boris Vian song. They’ve all been here, in the small hidden bistros, the narrow alleys of the Rive Gauche, far from the hubbub of the Champs-Elysées and upper class Paris. This is where the fictional heroes of Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Sartre and Camus lived their adventurous everyday lives, and their creators spent years in cafés named Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore or Lipp, or sauntering with their thoughts and chasing women in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Paris, a fastival of life.
Then came the tourists and the expats, like Henry Miller, William Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway, who explored the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Bohemians and artists followed, sharpening their senses – between imagination and reality – documenting the nuances of the light hitting the Seine and Notre-Dame, writing poems, playing music or simply getting preposterously drunk.
But on this rainy October day, the neighbourhood belongs to the Parisians. Heavy lorries thunder through the narrow alleys because the Place de l’Odéon, with its student demonstrations, is once again completely congested. That’s another part of this neighbourhood – the Quartier Latin, as the university neighbourhood below Montparnasse is often called.
In the midst of it all, the small photography gallery Bettina gives off a warm light. Only 300 ft. from the Seine and the illustrious, centuries-old Pont Neuf, over which a relentless stream of tourists from around the world pours day after day.
Photography is a way of coming into contact with people.
Despite being barely 30 years old, Isabelle Chapius is an old soul. She has a cold – no surprise, given the weather. We attach the microphone to the giant red scarf that is wrapped around her neck.
Which of the photos on display are yours?
I’ve rarely seen an exhibition with such a markedly singular style as this one, of Isabelle Chapuis’ large-format photographs. At first glace, they look like court paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. They are portraits, somewhat stiff, uneasy. Noble characters, outfitted with great care. “Larger than life”. The faces seem supernatural, with a plastic liveliness, frozen in the moment.
It's the moment of awakening that interest me.
Many contemporary artists take photos and manipulate them to express their artistic vision. Others use paint and canvas to replicate the realism of photography. Isabelle, on the other hand, sees herself as an arrangeur – an art director. She decides everything: the model, the light, the detail, the camera setup, the format, the optics. She creates her own universe – an alternative world. And then, when she finally takes the photograph, having created the perfect arrangement, she’s finished. On principle, she doesn’t manipulate her photos digitally aside from a few colours here and there. “It is what it is”.
“I love it, to create a universe, fill it with characters and then tell their stories”. And that’s what she does. Her portraits are landscapes of the soul, full of magic. They engender equal amounts of discomfort and pleasure. They can show, in one instance, a garishly made-up, doll-like children’s face, whose gaze seems to be penetrating the viewer’s. In another instance, they can show a growth-like mound of hair enveloping the head of a beautiful, stoic woman in its powerful web – a web with more dynamism and life than the woman herself.
I explore the masculine in the woman and the feminine in the man. With kids, it´s the transformation of puberty that interests me. I look.
Her motifs are reminiscent of the magical circuses of the past: the Cirque Magique in which the strange and the monstrous are equally powerful, beauty and ugliness confront each other, before a precipice that draws in the viewer.
When did the hobby become a career?
“I studied graphic design. Then I worked as an art director, but I wasn’t happy. And then I started taking photographs”. Isabel travels. To India, around Asia. For months on end, she opens herself to foreign sensations, allows herself to drift, directionless, documenting everything with her camera. When she comes back, she begins working in her “chambre de bonne”, a tiny studio apartment beneath a roof in Saint-Germain. She looks for a female model – finds one in a Metro station on the way to a wedding. Isabel takes whatever she can find – fabrics, costumes – and starts working in her tiny atelier. “Et voilà”.
I'm always looking for people who have another side.
“I always walk around Paris with my eyes open, looking at the people. If I find someone interesting, I speak to them. That’s how I found all of my models”. As she steps back from her photographs on display, she explains to everyone how they came about. “I’m very inspired by the aesthetic movement in painting, Tim Walker or Fernet Clayton. C’est l’art pour l’art. Art for its own sake. It’s only about emotion. I don’t want to accomplish anything beyond appealing to peoples’ senses”.
What role does fashion play for you, here in Paris, the heart of the fashion industry?
“Fashion doesn’t really play a very important role for me. Especially prêt-à-porter, the clothes people eventually wear on the street. Of course there are others, like Alexander McQueen for example, who managed to do really inspiring things with women’s bodies. But that’s the kind of thing you never seen in the streets of Paris”.
Isabel loves travelling, but also she needs to return home.
Is there a place in Paris you especially like?
“I like to roam around and get lost. I love that the most. Not to arrive somewhere, but to enjoy the journey. That way I’m always surprised by something new”. She gets her ideas and inspiration from elsewhere – in Paris, things are too dense, she needs to concentrate, constantly redefine her style, otherwise she drowns in this city with its constant newness flooding the galleries and art markets.
What are you working on right now?
“There’s a tribe in Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They use wood and pearls to create masks. I started last July. Now I’m also looking for an Asian face for it. I’ve been roaming through the streets this whole time, looking at people. Time is pressing a little”. I accompany her to the taxi stand, take a few photos.
Where are they all? The bohemains, the artists, the young students of the Sorbonne?
We walk past Sartre’s old favourite café, Les Deux Magots, and end up in front of the Café de Flore. The walls are decorated by works left by famous painters in lieu of payment. Only a handful of tourists have made it here. The waiters stand around bored. Where are they all? The bohemians, the artists, the young students of the Sorbonne? Isabel shrugs her shoulders. “À bientôt!” She climbs into the waiting taxi and drives off on the Boul Michel. I glimpse the driver’s face for a moment, see his Asian features, and wonder if she noticed them too.
Text by Jo Weissgerber Photos by Martin N. Kunz, Jo Weissgerber