Charles Petit vit à Paris.

Initié dès l’âge de dix ans à la photo par son père et sa grand-mère, il commence à photographier au début des années 70.
Puis, il affine sa pratique au fil des années en photographiant incognito des inconnus croisés dans les rues de Paris, Londres, Milan ou Vienne.
Au milieu des années 80 il abandonne progressivement le N&B pour se consacrer à la couleur en utilisant de la pellicule Kodachrome accompagné d’un flash en plein jour.
Au fil de ses nombreux voyages, il photographie telles des natures mortes, des lieux dont toute présence humaine est absente.
Aujourd’hui, Charles Petit alterne la ‘’Street Photography’’ en N&B et la photographie couleur.
Il travaille aussi épisodiquement pour le magazine Wallpaper pour lequel il a réalisé les portraits de Maja Hoffmann et Peter Marino.
En 2020 il a reçu le prix « Silver » du Club des Directeurs Artistiques pour une campagne mondiale pour l’Unesco basée sur ses photographies.

Au printemps 2021 il a exposé à la galerie Supereditions, ainsi qu’une série ‘’Cars’’ à la galerie Madé.

AN OBSESSION WITH THE CLOSE-UP: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES PETIT

by Michael Ernest Sweet, 9th May 2017 – Courtesy of streetphotography.com

(Interview originally conducted in French)

I love the work of Charles Petit and not only because it reminds me of my own work. Yes, we both have an obsession with the close-up. Yes, we both love to shoot stray hands and elbows and other bits of the human fragment. Yes, we’ve both worked with cheap plastic cameras. But Charles is not a copy of me, nor am I a copy of him. This difference, this unique “signature” which we each have is one of the enigmas of the art world. How do similar photographers chasing similar subjects emerge in their own right? It truly is fascinating. People often say that everything has been photographed. This claim is gaining ground in our contemporary image-chocked existence. Yet, what I would reply is this: Maybe so, but not everything has been photographed by Charles Petit. I sat down with Charles to uncover some of the mystery. Here’s that conversation:

Michael: Charles, tell us the story of how you came to get a camera in your hands for the very first time.

Charles: My first camera was a Diana 120 that was given to my father as a promo for a black plastic suitcase he bought. I was ten years old.

Michael: Interesting first camera. I love plastic fantastic! Now, you have produced both colour and monochrome photographs over the years and have done both exceptionally well. Which do you prefer and why?

Charles: I don’t prefer either; it is just a different way of working in the street and taking pictures. I go back and forth. There is no rhyme or reason, really.

Michael: I agree, Charles. I’m the same. Onto fragments, I thought I had an aversion to photographing the face, but you really take this idea to town. Dozens of your best-known works are faceless people. Why the focus on legs and handbags as opposed to the more commonly photographed face?

Charles: I never made a choice to deliberately avoid the face but it could be because I was obsessed by both hands, bags, and the “close up” in general.

So the face just disappeared, I also used to take a lot of pictures using a flash so maybe I was a little bit afraid of putting a flash in the face of a stranger, although I have done it.

Michael: What equipment have you used over the years and which camera was your all-time favourite and why?

Charles: For black and white I have used the same Nikon F for 30 years, I just moved to the F3 quite recently. It actually feels like I’m using a “modern” camera.

For colour I have been using a Nikon FM2, I have to buy a NikonD750, which I still don’t feel comfortable with, actually. I also use a Metz CT64 for my flash.

Michael: You’ve made photographs in more than a dozen major places in the world, what prompted this extensive travel and how do you think it impacted your artistic output?

Charles: As an executive producer, and before that an art director for the advertising industry, I have the chance to travel quite a lot. This is probably a big help to discover new urban landscapes; on the other hand, I have the feeling that I could easily stay in the same place and take the same pictures. I am now probably more obliged to move because my favourite subject, Paris, is not as much of a favourite with me anymore.

Michael: You definitely have an eye for detail when you’re shooting on the street. What is it, exactly, that draws your eye most often?

Charles: I am myopic. It discovered when I was seven years old. For that reason during my early childhood, objects far from a couple of meters didn’t really exist to me. I guess this is part of the reason I am attracted by the close up, the details. A reason is probably that I am afraid of the too large landscape, they are not to my scale, cities, small buildings, bungalows, are my favourite playground.

Michael: Charles, do you shoot film or digital these days and why?

Charles: Both in a way, I was so desperate because of the poor rate of success of the pictures I was taking in the street for a while that moving to the digital format was a relief. It was so easy – too easy sometimes, so I’m doing both depending on the light.  For colour it’s definitely digital because the blend of daylight and flash is so hazardous that I feel that I can experiment much more with digital. Now, I am in love with the Leica Q.

Michael: What is the point of the street photograph?

Charles: I have never considered myself as a street photographer. I am just taking the images I have always been taking. Because I love to walk in cities, I take most of my pictures in the street, so I became a “street photographer”. This is the only way I have found for expressing myself as a photographer, I didn’t make the decision, the photographs did, I guess.

Michael: Please tell us about Mark Cohen.

Charles: I discovered Mark’s work less than 10 years ago, actually. It was very strange for me to discover some of the similarities. All my pictures, the ones that “look” like Mark’s, were taken between the end of the 70s up to the middle of the 80s, at that time, Mark Cohen was essentially unknown in France. I appreciate that he has not moved too much from his birthplace, I understand that way of working.

Michael: I suspect a lot of photographers can relate to that sentiment. Susan Sontag once wrote that time eventually turns all photographs, even the most amateurish, into a form of art. This comment in her wonderful book, On Photography, has stuck with me profoundly. Whenever I look at older photography I now try to reconcile it with this claim. How do you think time has affected your work?

Charles: Yes, time has affected my pictures. When young people look at pictures I made in the seventies they look very old, at least to their eyes. For me, they do not look old. Some people think that I am trying to capture the “essence” of the past in my work today, to be honest, this is true! I am.

Charles Petit vit à Paris.

Initié dès l’âge de dix ans à la photo par son père et sa grand-mère, il commence à photographier au début des années 70.

Puis, il affine sa pratique au fil des années en photographiant incognito des inconnus croisés dans les rues de Paris, Londres, Milan ou Vienne.

Au milieu des années 80 il abandonne progressivement le N&B pour se consacrer à la couleur en utilisant de la pellicule Kodachrome accompagné d’un flash en plein jour.

Au fil de ses nombreux voyages, il photographie telles des natures mortes, des lieux dont toute présence humaine est absente.

Aujourd’hui, Charles Petit alterne la ‘’Street Photography’’ en N&B et la photographie couleur.

Il travaille aussi épisodiquement pour le magazine Wallpaper pour lequel il a réalisé les portraits de Maja Hoffmann et Peter Marino.

En 2020 il a reçu le prix « Silver » du Club des Directeurs Artistiques pour une campagne mondiale pour l’Unesco basée sur ses photographies.

Au printemps 2021 il a exposé à la galerie Supereditions, ainsi qu’une série ‘’Cars’’ à la galerie Madé.

Entretien avec Raphaëlle Stopin (2013)


Quel genre de photographe êtes-vous ?

Un photographe insatisfait, un photographe du samedi et du dimanche, obstinément accroché à l’argentique.

Quelles sont selon vous vos obsessions de photographe ?

La surprise de la perfection naturelle de la couleur arrangée par hasard par l’homme. L’ordre plus que le désordre, les moments d’harmonie attrapés au fil des promenades.

Des vieilles dames aux robes fleuries aux vieilles voitures californiennes aux carrosseries acidulées, vous pratiquez souvent le close up, comme si votre œil était avant tout attiré par des motifs ou des lignes ?

Je suis myope, diagnostiqué vers 7-8 ans, avant cela j’imaginais qu’au delà de quelques mètres le monde était flou. D’où peut être mon goût du rapproché et à l’inverse, ma peur des montagnes. Pour la même raison, Los Angeles est un rêve, et New York un cauchemar.
Quand aux motifs, il y a sûrement là une trace mon passé de directeur artistique.

Vos images sont classées par décennie et par ville, ces grands ensembles sont comme des journaux de bord de vos déambulations et voyages, mais par leur abondance ils dépassent largement la sphère intime pour révéler le portrait d’une époque.
Vos images des années 1970 et 1980 par exemple ont-elles un écho différent pour vous aujourd’hui ? Vous arrive-t-il encore aujourd’hui d’en découvrir de nouvelles ou d’y surprendre quelque détail insoupçonné ?

Il m’arrive, c’est vrai, de découvrir des images que j’avais oubliées, je constate aussi que certaines de mes obsessions sont plus difficilement en accord avec notre époque. Aujourd’hui, je trouve plus de sujets dans les quartiers dits chics de Paris.
Ou encore en retournant par exemple en Italie dans des villes balnéaires qui ont su résister à l’uniformisation. J’étais à Venise il y a trois ans, je m’y sentais mal, désorienté, par la taille des palais, leurs dimensions vertigineuses, puis j’ai pris une chambre d’hôtel au Lido, et soudain tout allait bien, les sujets photographiques étaient à leur place, m’attendant.

Charles Petit’s eagerly searching eye travels from Paris to Los Angeles. The taste for photography repeats itself across generations of the Petit family; from a grand-mother who was drawn into photography following a serious injury whilst she was a nurse during the war 14-18, to the father working in the « OPL », manufacturer of the Foca, to the son, Charles.

On demand and of his own volition, Charles lists the names of his cameras, as if he is talking about his travel companions: the Kodak box, the Foca, the Zénith, right up to the Nikon, bought in 1976 with the money received from selling a book by Man Ray, that he had randomly discovered whilst wandering around abandoned buildings. This latter could stand as the god father in the Petit family tree.

1976: Charles Petit reached the age of 18 and began to explore the streets of Paris. Through the course of his travels, he also discovered London and Vienna. He became the artistic director of the French Magazine “Metal Hurlant”, and at the same time, in 1984, began to use colour and Kodachrome, for which he would develop a particular passion that would thrive under the Los Angeles sun.

Charles Petit has in his head and in his drawers thousands of photographs. Fragments of life, tightly framed; excerpts of poetry, generously shared.

RAPHAËLLE STOPIN "Artligue" interview (2013)


What kind of a photographer are you?

A wandering, dissatisfied Saturday and Sunday photographer.

As a photographer, what would you say your obsessions are?

Order rather than disorder – a quest for mysterious harmony.

Old ladies in flowery dresses or old Californian automobiles with flashy-coloured bodywork… you often shoot close up, as if your eye was drawn mainly by patterns and lines?

I was diagnosed as near-sighted at the age of 8. Before then, I believed the world was a blur beyond two meters. So I probably developed a taste for close things, and a fear of the mountains. Which is also why to me, Los Angeles is a dream and New York a nightmare: I’m made for bungalows much more than for skyscrapers.
As for the patterns, it’s probably a leftover from my past as an art director.

Your pictures are categorized by decade and by city; these extensive series are like travelogues of your wanderings, but are so abundant that they far exceed the private sphere and reveal the portrait of an age.
Do your images from the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, now have a different meaning for you? Do you still sometimes discover new ones, or spot an unexpected detail in them?

I do sometimes actually rediscover images I had forgotten about. And subjects have become scarcer, except in the most chic areas of Paris, which have resisted standardization.
Or in a few Italian coastal towns.I went in Venice three years ago: I felt uncomfortable, confused by the sheer size of the Palazzos, their dizzying dimensions… I booked a room in the Lido, and all of a sudden everything was fine: my photographic subjects were all in the right place, just waiting for me.