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Age Before Beauty 

Bernard Faucon: The Most Beautiful Day of My Youth

Through March 13

New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org

click to enlarge Young people in Thailand took pictures of each other as part of Bernard Faucon's project The Most Beautiful Day of My Youth. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NOMA
  • photo courtesy of NOMA
  • Young people in Thailand took pictures of each other as part of Bernard Faucon's project The Most Beautiful Day of My Youth.

When Bernard Faucon first appeared on the art photography scene in the late 1970s, he was considered a paradoxical figure. Working in a medium that had long been associated with "truth," he was a master of stagecraft and a certain flamboyant artifice. In a medium known for humanism, his subjects were mostly mannequins arranged in landscapes or interiors in the "tableau vivant," or "living picture" tradition. The popularity of his work quickly soared in Europe and Asia — especially in Japan, where his photographs inspired a TV series featuring a family of mannequins, "the Faucons." After creating many photographs that were published in now rare and collectible books, Faucon quit photography in 1995. But during his travels, he noticed parallels between modern youth culture and some of his earlier work, and he wondered if he might be able to devise a new approach to photography in which the photographer and the subject were all part of the same milieu. The outcome, The Most Beautiful Day of My Youth, was a collaborative effort. The 60 photographs on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art were all taken between 1997 and 2003, and are all part of a larger collection Faucon donated to the museum's permanent collection. In town for the opening, he talked with Gambit how this unusual collection came about.

Gambit: What motivated your return to photography?

Bernard Faucon: It began in Morocco in 1997. I was traveling on a road along the seacoast that I thought must be the most beautiful road in the world. A lady friend suggested that we get some young people from Marrakech and have them take pictures of each other in that setting, so we got some disposable cameras and we soon had a whole lot of photographs. I made a selection and exhibited them at a cultural center, and everybody was so happy that I felt this was something important. After that I went to Japan at the invitation of the Canon camera company, and they invited me to do a workshop, so the experiment was recreated in Japan, and it worked beautifully there, too. Eventually there were 25 locations around the world. At each, I requested that the 80 to 100 participants, ranging from 15 to 20 years old, not be of the same social and cultural background, and I wrote them a letter of invitation, which was translated into their own language.

That's a lot of venues. What kept you so motivated?

There were certain countries that I was interested in so it quickly became a kind of global vision. I wanted to create a collective portrait of youth around the world as the millennium approached. Then I realized after the fact that it was also the last years of film photography. At the time, most kids did not have access to photography the way they do now. But I really saw it not so much as a project but as a gift, so that was a big part of the motivation as well. Because it was organized as a party or celebration, with a boat or bus ride, it was intended to be a happy and memorable event for them. Although they were the ones who took the photographs, we all collaborated in the sense that the final selection reflected my own artistic vision. From Morocco to Japan, from Burma to Cuba, from Cambodia to Sweden, this approach reminded me of the playful atmosphere of Happiness Regained, my first series of staged photographs taken years earlier, based on my own youthful experiences.

How many photographs were usually taken at these events?

During every event there would be between two and three thousand photographs, from which I would select around 70. About three days after each shoot there would be an exhibition so they could see their photographs displayed in a public setting. That was a big part of it. Then the images were culled down for more formal exhibitions like this.

How did you decide which ones to exhibit?

The best reflect a special moment. Sometimes the day was great yet the pictures were not, and sometimes the day was not so good yet the pictures were great, but either way there is a kind of intensity that sets the best ones apart from the rest.

How does this relate to your philosophy of photography?

It is really all about capturing the moment, using the camera to tell the story of the moment, and then eternalizing that story. My approach is also all about happiness, and photography is one of the few means by which you can gather and capture happiness. And, beyond that, I also wanted to use photography as a way of creating happiness.

So how do you create happiness? How did that work?

What made the happiness was this creation of images — not just having a great moment but preserving the happiness of that special moment. Take, for instance, one's wedding day. Many things can go wrong in our lives, but when we see photographs like that, where everything is so beautiful, that is how happiness is created and kept alive in memory. It is a very Japanese approach. Life in Japan is often difficult, but they have a way of using photography to suggest the possibility of happiness, and that is my philosophy as well. Happiness can slip through your fingers, but photographs can create a physical body of happiness, so it becomes tangible.

You also seem to be concerned with beauty. What is your idea of beauty? What makes something beautiful?

For me, art has to do with beauty, and in these pictures I try to create the conditions that lead to that dynamic instant in which beauty and happiness come together in a balanced way. Because this series is collaborative and democratic, we can see these young people looking at their world in a way that reflects the unique beauty of their innocence. And then, during the exhibitions that followed the photo shoots, some would tell me, "This is the most beautiful day of my youth." And that was how, using the thousands of pictures taken on these occasions, I invented Le Plus Beau Jour de ma Jeunesse (The Most Beautiful Day of My Youth).

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