A French Street Photographer Visits the Southwest Washington, DC Waterfront
Text and color photos copyright Bill Bramble. Black and white photos copyright Stephane Lorcy.
In September / October 2012 street photographer Stephane Lorcy spent six weeks photographing Washington, DC as part of a two-year personal project he calls “Streets Around Ocean.” Stephane, who hails from Lorient, France, is attempting a project of unusual breadth, photographing communities across the Atlantic Ocean as he travels with his family in a 40-foot wooden-hulled sailboat, the “Penn-Gwen.” Stephane and his wife Christine agreed to sit down with me at the Capital Yacht Club one chilly afternoon in October to discuss the family’s voyage, Stephane’s project, and his love of photography. When I arrived, they were sipping coffee from paper cups as their two sons (Solal and Ulysses, age 11 and 7) played nearby. A row of windows behind them overlooked the Potomac River, where “Penn-Gwen” lay at anchor. They had traveled 15 months and 9,000 miles to get to Washington, stopping in Portugal, Morocco, Senegal, Antigua, and at many other points along the way.
Christine’s father introduced Stephane to photography in 1996. He purchased several small cameras, including a Leica M6 and a Canon FTB, and used them on backpacking trips to Madagascar and Cape Verde. A veteran traveler, Stephane initially thought of photography as a secondary pursuit, but he found himself more interested in documenting the people than the landscapes he encountered, and he discovered street photography. He familiarized himself with the works of notables, including Edouard Boubat, Willy Ronis, Robert Frank, Joseph Koudelka, Raymond Depardon, and Michael Ackerman. As his interest deepened, he stopped thinking of himself as a traveler who photographed and instead began to think of himself as a photographer who traveled.
In 2002, Stephane attended a workshop with William Klein at Gallery L’Imagerie in Lannion, France. Klein urged him to be consistent in his photographic style. This factored into his decision to stick with black and white photography and the development of his personal aesthetic. He explained, “I don’t try to shoot spectacular things. I just shoot normal life. Because my pictures do not have spectacular content, I have to be very vigilant about form, so composition and framing are fundamental. I want my pictures to be easy to read, for the eye to circulate without obstacles. I hate overlap between people.”
He added, “Some people think street photographers have the ability to see things that others do not. I think they see what everyone else sees, but they have learned how to make a choice.” This emphasis on choices is clear in Stephane’s work, which is carefully organized and devoid of extraneous elements. In this sense, his photos are reminiscent of the work of early 20th century street photographers, but with the occasional gritty overtones of more modern artists like Mr. Klein. The quality of his work is impressive for a photographer who, aside from a couple of small exhibitions in western France, is relatively unknown.
I asked how Stephane took up sailing. In 2003, he and Christine (who hold doctoral degrees in computer science) moved to New Caledonia for work. Upon their arrival, they found their mobility on the island to be highly limited. “It was occupied by tribes that were very territorial. You could not step off the main road without people yelling at you,” Christine recalled. The lagoon was the only place where outsiders could move freely, and a colleague suggested they buy a sailboat. Their first, a 28-foot Beneteau, was just what they needed to get around the island, and it led to a newfound love of the sea.
Returning home from New Caledonia in 2006, the Lorcys dreamt of taking a long ocean voyage. For five years, they saved money and waited for their children to become old enough for the trip. In the meantime, Stephane continued to work on his photography, taking short trips and publishing his work online. By 2010, the Lorcys were able to commission the construction of Penn Gwen, a French-built Fora Marine RM1200. A year later, the boat was ready.
Because of difficulties associated with developing film at sea, Mr. Lorcy brought on the journey a Fujifilm X-100 digital rangefinder camera, a laptop, several hard drives, a dry bag, and a USB thumb drive that he would wear around his neck at all times. Thus prepared, the family set sail on their two-year journey in July 2011 – first to Spain, then Portugal, the Canary Islands, Morocco, Senegal, and Cape Verde. From there, they completed a trans-Atlantic crossing, during which the couple took rotating four-hour shifts for 15 days straight, making sure the boat remained on course and clear of traffic.
The early part of their journey was completed with minimal adventure, despite some visits to relatively undeveloped parts of the world and the trans-Atlantic crossing. The Lorcys did experience one close call with a Russian trawler that refused to give way off the coast of Morocco. Penn Gwen was sailing in light winds with limited maneuverability, and the Lorcys were forced to quickly start the boat’s engine to avoid being rammed. The family also encountered moderate seas near the beginning of the Atlantic crossing and one or two windless days when the boat drifted aimlessly. Eventually, they completed the crossing and reached the French island of Martinique.
Stephane’s photos from the early part of the trip are languid images of people on sun-baked streets, in small towns, and on windswept shorelines. In some, his subjects seem oblivious to his presence. In other, they stare blithely at the camera. None of the photographs feels staged, and most are arranged precisely – with minimal overlap among subjects. In one, a row of men on a bench is viewed from above in the Canary Islands. In another, a girl is frozen mid-step as she crosses a pipe in Senegal.
After visiting more than a half-dozen Caribbean islands, the Lorcys sailed to New York City in the summer of 2012. They moored at the Boat Basin Marina on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from Central Park. Mr. Lorcy was keenly aware that he was walking in the footsteps of many great photographers there, and of the difficulty of being original. Although he snapped the obligatory pictures of Chinatown, he managed to find some unique shots, like the image of Batman in Times Square shown below, and an unusual juxtaposition of a cowboy and a convenience store in Chelsea.
By late August, summer was nearing its end, and the Lorcys worked their way down the coast. Along the way, Stephane captured the hypnotic gaze of a woman in a café in Annapolis, Maryland, and this view of an angry dog on an all-American front porch in Cape May, New Jersey.
In September, the Lorcys arrived in Washington, where they remained until mid-October. The southwest waterfront is not a particularly inspiring place. The architecture of the area, influenced by the “garden city” school of urban planning that flourished in the 1960s, is bland, to say the least. In the city’s monumental core, however, Stephane made good use of the capital’s clean lines, changing the bushes in a corner of the National Gallery of Art into Courbet’s “Origine du Monde” and a stairway inside the museum into a river of disconnected heads.
He also captured more intimate moments, like a tightly-wound couple on a bench, and man reading a very graphical newspaper in an outdoor sculpture garden on the edge of the National Mall.
It was in Washington that Stephane began using Leica’s new M Monochrome. Until that point, the Fujifilm X-100 had served him well. By processing his images digitally, he had been able to simulate the look and feel of his favorite film, Kodak Tri-X. The resulting shots had been reasonably well-defined, with an interesting range of greys, and substantial depth of field, owing to his preference for mid to small-size apertures, the X100′s medium-sized sensor, and the lens’s 35mm focal length. When the Monochrome was released, however, he wanted to try the camera’s larger sensor, manual focusing ring, and the crisp optics of some Leica lenses. Although the Monochrome had been in tight supply, he managed to obtain one from the new Leica store in downtown Washington. To maintain the continuity of his project, he purchased a 35-millimeter lens for the Monochrome as well. The new camera, which Stephane describes as a “remarkable tool,” lent his pictures impressive detail and contrast, evident in the last two photos above.
By the time of our interview, I had walked the city with Stephane on a couple of occasions and observed his style of shooting. His experience at street shooting was made evident by how easily he worked crowds on the National Mall and at the National Zoo, finding unusual perspectives without drawing too much attention to himself. His light-footed, warm-hearted approach to dealing with people reminded me of videos I have seen of Joel Meyerowitz. This, and perhaps his French accent and touristic attire, seemed to keep the strangers around him feeling relaxed as he peeked over walls, sighted down railings, and lay on benches. Watching him work was quite instructive and enjoyable.
Asked what will become of the 15,000-plus images he has shot so far on his journey, and those he would shoot in the remaining months of his journey, Stephane shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps an exhibition, perhaps a book, “I hope I will succeed in doing something with them.” Regarding what the family would do when the trip is over, Christine said they might sell the boat and resettle in Brittany so the children can finish their education. Beyond that, the details were out of focus. Their voyage had taught them to live in the moment, and eight months was as far ahead as they wished to plan.
Epilogue: The Lorcys rode out Superstorm Sandy in the lower Chesapeake Bay by pulling Penn Gwen out of the water for a few days. Shortly afterward, Stephane learned that his photograph of the girl stepping over the pipeline on Goree Island, Senegal, had been selected for an exhibition at Salon de la Photo, a festival held at the Parc des expositions de la porte de Versailles in Paris, November 8-12, 2012 (http://www.competencephoto.com/Stephane-Lorcy-laureat-de-l-Acte-V-de-L-Exposition-Originale_a2220.html). Penn-Gwen is currently moored in the Caribbean, where Stephane continues to make great pictures.