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Remembering French Photographer Lucien Clergue, a Giant of the Field

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Lucien Clergue, “On forme le cercle” (1955) (all images courtesy Anne Clergue)

PARIS — As the Paris Photo fair drew to a close, the French art scene was distressed by the news that pioneering art photographer Lucien Clergue died on Saturday at the age of 80.

Clergue, a co-creator of the Rencontres d’Arles, the largest event dedicated to photography in Europe, had been elected member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 2006 and was responsible for the creation of the National School of Photography in Arles. He was an immensely productive photographer and photography activist — a creator of some 800,000 photographs and 75 photography books. He was justly celebrated for series of rather austere works depicting the terrible beauty of the bullfight, the enchanting and poignant life of the Roma, the magnificence of the stark female nude, and terrific portraits of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. He was married to the art curator Yolande Clergue, founder of the Foundation Vincent van Gogh Arles.

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Lucien Clergue, “Picasso préside la corrida Fréjus” (1962)

I met him through his two daughters, Anne Clergue, gallerist and curator of contemporary art, and Olivia Clergue, handbag designer and goddaughter of Picasso, who the young Lucien approached at a corrida in Arles, befriended, and extensively photo documented. In so doing Clergue revealed the great painter in his studio cuddling his dog, smoking, sunbathing, watching bullfights, enjoying Roma culture, enthralled.

It is agonizing that Lucien’s dear Rom friend, Manitas de Plata, the legendary gypsy guitarist, also died very recently — on November 6. I will never forget the evening Lucien took me to a little pizza place during the Feria d’Arles run by Roma where they played and sang pulsing flamenco music — wildly, almost fiercely, dancing for each other. We two were the only non-Roma there, but I could feel the same blood circulating through my veins.

  “Double exposure bullfighting Madrid” (1992)
“Double exposure bullfighting Madrid” (1992)

Born of modest background in the southern French city of Arles in 1934, Clergue discovered photography age 15. His first book of photos, Corps mémorable, was published by Éditions Pierre Seghers in 1957 and is accompanied by poems of the Surrealist Paul Éluard, an introduction by Cocteau, and a cover by Picasso. I deem Lucien’s best work as always retaining something of that Surrealist spirit. Indeed I dreamed of Lucien last night as a great flock of white Camargue flamingos, flying backwards.

The light in his work is usually hot, smooth and trembling; as we can see in his vellum-like photos of dying bulls, Gypsies dancing in the heat, and beautiful women rolling nude on the beach. Through his choice of subject, and his compositional astuteness, I greatly admired his ability to wrench out of the cold capture of technology — with its mechanical apparatus of metallic parts, polished glass, and chemicals — something of the southern Mediterranean sun, something of the rapture of the warm life of daydreams, despair, lull, love, and yearning.

My feeling is that he defeated the coldness of capture technology through his humility, perplexing the camera’s all-devouring, all-devastating omni-voraciousness. Within the game of mechanical technology, he managed to insert something of the elusive prehistoric world and its healing mythologies, and reinstate a resistance of contemplative quietude.

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Lucien Clergue, “Manitas et J.Reyes” (1955)
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Lucien Clergue, “Portrait de Picasso dans son atelier Notre Dame de Vie Mougins” (1969)
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Lucien Clergue, “Le dernier portrait Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins, Mars” (1971)
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Lucien Clergue, “Nu de la mer Camargue, in Née de la Vague” (1964)
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Lucien Clergue, “Nu de la mer Camargue, in Née de la Vague” (1964)
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