Q&A: Photographer Duo Discuss their Series: "A Portrait of the Craftsman in the Marais"

The Marais Neighborhood of Paris has been in constant evolution for centuries. These last few years however have seen a particular rapid rise in gentrification, becoming the center for Parisian fashion and all things cool. But there are still craftsman that ply their traditional trades among the bearded hipsters and high-heeled fashionistas. Renko Recke and Neil Atherton turned their eye on these craftsmen, photographing them with a large format camera with a 8x10 Polaroid back and instant black and white film from the Impossible Project. Capturing the faces and workplaces of these inhabitants, the photographers offer us another representation of the Marais which we see to be one of the most vivid and diverse neighborhoods in the French capital. The series includes portraits of a shoemaker, a jewellery designer, a butcher, a printer, a barber and more. We sat down to learn more about their project.

Gentlemen, please introduce yourselves.

Neil Atherton: I’m an English guy living in Paris for the last decade and a half. I’ve always taken pictures in one form or another since I was a kid and I still “do photography” alongside my job as a communications consultant and various other projects such as my City Syndrome publishing house. I also organize the Paris Month of Photography fringe festival.

Renko Recke: I’m from Emden, Germany a small town on the coast of the North Sea. For the last two years I’ve been living and working in Paris where I landed after studying in Berlin. I started taking Polaroids in 2009 and since then they became the most important medium for my work as a photographer.

How long have you two known each other, how did you meet?

Neil: We met a couple of years ago at the agency I work at. We talked about photography all the time and discovered each other’s work. I liked what Renko was doing with his Polaroids, and I guess he liked my work too. Since about 2005 I’ve been using expired film for all my personal work and the fact that we both appreciate the analogue aesthetic meant that we had even more in common.

Renko: Yes, it’s always very inspiring to discuss new photos, exhibitions and books with Neil while drinking a good draft beer.

How did the concept for this series come into existence? A conversation, a mutual respect for traditional trades?

Renko: I wanted to work on a series that emphasizes the qualities of a big format camera. Working with a 8x10 camera and a Polaroid back is a craft in itself. So for me it was obvious to take portraits of other craftsmen. When we discovered the microcosm of these people in the Marais with their workshops that have been in use for 100 years or longer, we knew that this could become an interesting series.

Neil: At first we wanted to shoot the changing face of the Marais, as well as the traditional one, so the first portrait we did was actually of a gallery owner. It was a very contemporary image, but we soon realized that there were lots of opportunities to see these kinds of people in the media, etc. We wanted to scratch the shiny surface of the Marais and see what was underneath, who was behind these hidden doors and little-seen windows.

The gentrification of the neighborhood you shot in was a catalyst for this project, no? What are your feelings on the changing of a once more traditional marketplace to one of things hip and cool?

Renko: Gentrification primarily means for me change – with all its good and bad aspects. As a photographer it is always interesting to capture something in the process of change. Maybe in five to ten years these professions won’t exist anymore or at least not like we find them today in the Marais. That’s why we thought that it would be a good moment to do it now.

Neil: I’m all for change, especially in Paris which often feels too much like a museum city, which it is in a lot of respects. But the Marais neighborhood is an exceptionally interesting part of town. There is so much history there, even though it’s difficult to see. For example, the barbershop we shot is sandwiched in between art galleries on the rue St Claude and you’d be hard pressed to spot it if you weren’t looking for it. The contrast between the old-time barbershop and the galleries next door is amazing. So the diversity is still there, it’s just even more of an interesting neighborhood now.

How were your subjects approached? Did you have certain merchants in mind ahead of time?

Neil: We drew up a list of what we thought were traditional practitioners working in the Marais – a shoemaker, a tailor, a luthier, a butcher, etc. - and went from there. Some were discovered by looking online, others were recommended by friends, but most we stumbled upon by accident. These people are extremely busy and it was sometimes difficult to coordinate our schedules, but they were all friendly and cooperative.

Renko: Approaching the craftsmen was a very interesting and important part of the project – walking through the narrow streets of the Marais, discovering all these small workshops and talking with the people was important to understand what is so special about them and their professions. In most cases we had one appointment to get to know each other and a second one for the shooting itself. I think the fact that we were using a big format camera particularly aroused their interest.

At which point in your project planning did you decide to use 8x10 Impossible film? 

Neil: Pretty much from the start. I’d seen some test shots that Renko had done with Impossible’s colour 8x10 film and loved the results. He had a large format camera which I’d never used before, so we thought that these traditional, analogue photographic tools would be the perfect medium to represent the equally traditional subject matter. And that really shows in the images - there’s a kind of time-less look to them. Some of them could have been taken 60 or 70 years ago.

Renko: I have known the people at Impossible for many years and have tested film for them in the past. The Impossible Project Space Paris very generously hosted an exhibition of this series last November, which we were thrilled about.

How did you decide which person would take which photograph? Which are your personal favorites?

Neil: Each portrait was a team effort. Setting up the equipment, sitting the subject, composing the image, measuring the light, deciding on the lens settings - that was all done collaboratively. Renko then focused the image, loaded the film and released the shutter. It was a laborious process and each shoot took about an hour. It would of course have been easier and less time consuming if we had been studio-based, but it was important for us to capture each artisan in his or her environment. That was the crux of the whole project so we suffered for a good cause! What’s more, we shot this series over the summer and it was so hot cramped up in the workshops that we were often pouring with sweat and could barely work the equipment.

Renko: Making this series was indeed a team effort. From carrying the heavy equipment to choosing the right spot for the camera, we shared all the work. The big format camera forces you to work in a team. Not forgetting the organization of 10 shootings in a few months which consumes quite a lot of time. In the end, the question of who actually pressed the shutter wasn’t very important for this project.

Neil: My favorite portrait is of the shoemaker. I love all the equipment, pieces of leather, etc. that frames him so perfectly in what is a really small space. And because of the limited space it was the most challenging shot to set up so the end result was all the more rewarding. It’s really satisfying to see the Polaroid come out of the developing machine after all that effort.

Renko: I would have to say the barber, which for me is a timeless photograph. The interior of the shop is like going back in time and Monsieur Alain himself is a great character and typifies not only his metier but the side of the Marais that we were trying to capture for this series.