The Parisian photographer Isa Gelb collects visual impressions of seemingly unremarkable things. The resulting photos are strangely arresting.
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m a French art director, graphic designer, and a self-taught photographer, based in Paris. I drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes. I’m probably the laziest person on earth, and the queen of procrastination. I would have loved raising tigers or being a horse whisperer. I’m learning to be at peace with myself and how to feel more love for the world I live in.
Film or Digital?
On your website you write: “I have a camera and I take pictures. That’s it”. Is it?
My motto sums up very well how I approach photography. I find myself at a loss to talk more specifically about my pictures. They are just unspectacular moments taken while wandering here and there. I don’t try or want to document anything. I take photos because it makes me feel alive and attentive to my surroundings.
In what way? I feel like I don’t fit into this world, and taking pictures is a way for me to escape. I lose myself when shooting, and all my worries melt away. Saul Leiter once said “I go out to take a walk, I see something, I take a picture. I take photographs. I have avoided profound explanations of what I do.” I couldn’t agree more.
Is is a form of record-keeping? Or even building memories? Not really memories because they are not connected to important things or people – but rather mental souvenirs. They are like a diary to me, I snap them and move on. Now that you ask, I realize that I seldom look at old pictures. But in some way, I feel happy they do exist because it means I exist too.
The reason why I’ve been so fascinated with your photography is how you can turn the mundane into something surprisingly poetic. Unwashed cars become a rich tapestry. Two barricades, barely touching, become humanized.
It’s funny because I’m often told that my pictures are “poetic” but that is never my intention. I don’t see them that way, but I guess viewers have a different interpretation because they are not familiar with what is behind the images that I take.
What is the process like?
I walk a lot, and look carefully. I pay attention to details, to things I find beautiful in their ugliness – if that makes sense – or to things that are naturally beautiful and attractive. I don’t think much while I wander, I just let things come to me and shoot as soon as something catches my eyes. That’s why I always carry a camera: At every corner there can be something interesting that I wouldn’t want to miss.
You seem to have a particular fascination with light: The way it falls through a window, draws figures on the carpet, or illuminates a scene. Is light another one of those seemingly mundane things we too often overlook?
Light makes photography. Light creates interesting ephemeral patterns that not much people, except photographers, pay attention to. I like the idea that when you capture a picture, you capture a piece of space but also a piece of time because these patterns created by light don’t last long. So you have a particular piece of time in your frame. Photography has to do with light, but also with time.
Your description of your walks reminds me of the flâneur, that iconic figure of the early 20th century, who walks around the city, quietly observing. Is this a role you recognize yourself in?
Yes and no. Yes, because I see myself as an observer and a solitary walker. But no, because the flâneur feels comfortable, “at home”, everywhere he or she goes. I don’t. Also, because I don’t think I belong to the street photographer community, in the noble sense of the term.
Why is that? Street photography is a broad subject with many different opinions. In my eyes, it’s about taking photos of life, most of the time including people. To be interesting, these photos must leave a strong impression on the viewers because of the power, the energy and even the drama they produce. My work is far from that. Anyway, I don’t want to be defined by a style or a genre. Being labelled is be the worst thing that could happen to me.
You also run the photography magazine Underdogs – a showcase of new photography talent.
I’ve been looking at tons of online magazines over the last few years. And, it seemed to me that in each one there is a frustrating dissonance between what I like and dislike. This frustration spurred me on to produce my own creation among the countless photo zines mushrooming online – a place where I could feature, to the fullest extent, photographers and their work which I personally appreciate and admire.
The most difficult issue that I was confronted with was deciding on a concept for Underdogs. I have often discovered, with my many encounters with artists over the years, the reluctance or even dread that the interview or self analysis of work can produce in the mind of an individual. Sometimes, this comes from a photographer’s belief that the work speaks for itself, or that explanations can limit the imagination of the viewer’s own interpretation of the work, or they are bewildered with what to say about themselves. So I thought why not let them decide whether they like to write about themselves or their work? Contributors are given the option to explain their motivations, or to just leave their images as is.
The eleventh issue has been released in January 2017, and I’m very happy to receive positive feedback, and more subscribers. This gives me the energy to keep going on.
To see more of Isa Gelb’s pictures, visit her website. And while you’re at it, download a free issue of Underdogs.