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Spotlight On: Guillaume Simoneau

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Mayflies, on location ELA, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTO
Mayflies on location ELA Canada
, 2015 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Guillaume Simoneau’s approach to photography caught the attention of collectors and critics through his award winning body of work, Love and War, which subtlety documents many things: the practical difficulties of long-distance relationships; the intermediary nature of technology in contemporary society; and the way that war forever changes combatants and the people they love.

The connections that Simoneau chooses to explore in Experimental Lake are equally evocative. Ontario Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area is a scientific laboratory on a geographic scale. The research pursued there is of value to all the nations of the world; however, in 2012 Canada’s Conservative-led federal government made a controversial decision to withdraw all funding. The media coverage of the situation inspired Simoneau to make his own investigations, resulting in the quietly assured body of work presented here.

I posed some questions to Simoneau to ask about his interest in the Experimental Lakes Area and to learn about his artistic practice.  

–Craig D’Arville, COO, FFOTO

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Stream L625 eight, on location ELA, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTOStream L625 eight on location ELA Canada, 2015 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FFOTO: What drew you to want to work on a series about the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA)?

Guillaume Simoneau:  I first heard about the ELA on CBC radio. One of the founding researchers was explaining how devastating the announcement of an imminent closure of the ELA was for her and her colleagues. It meant losing 40 years of groundbreaking freshwater management research and data; in other words, her life’s work. I had never heard of the ELA at the time but it seemed greatly shortsighted to shut down such a unique research facility at this point in history. The following day I did some research online and found close to no visuals of the area. Coming from an applied science background, I knew right away I had to go there to produce work.

Lightning storm clean, on location ELA, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTOLightning storm clean on location ELA Canada, 2015 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: As a documentary photographer, are you making work with a specific audience in mind, or do you pursue topics for your own satisfaction?

GS:  I use documentary aesthetic and form but I feel that my work plays a much different role than “documentary photography” as we know it; or at least that’s what I am aiming for. I would call it author-documentary or post-documentary as suggested by award-winning, English documentary photographer Paul Graham. My personal practice is a sanctuary entirely made of subjects and stories I carefully pick and research. I cherish and protect every part of this process. Very rarely will my editorial practice overlap and bring something to the table I would consider for my personal work, but when it does, it is a blessing and everybody wins. The opposite consideration is possible as well. In the case of Experimental Lake, I originally proposed the story to a magazine as a way to fund my first trip to Kenora. The publisher was, at the time, looking for stories about communities; it was a perfect match.

Graham peeling orange two ELA field station Canada, 2014 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery | FFOTOGraham peeling orange two ELA field station Canada, 2014 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Some of the Experimental Lake compositions make the subject matter appear to be otherworldly; the remoteness is tangible. The mechanical constructs suggest things like the Mars Exploration Rover, sometimes the terrain looks alien, and the interiors look purposeful and transient. And then to balance all of that, there are those images that feature a scientist peeling an orange – a distinctly lyrical, almost Classical pairing within the larger series of photographs.. Can you talk about the compositional choices you make?

GS:  Since the mass democratization of photography, finding a good subject to photograph has been getting more and more difficult. It feels like everything has been photographed and if it hasn’t been yet, its audience will most likely be photo-weary if not completely closed to the idea. The power of photography has never been so openly acknowledged, used, and feared.

That may seem like a tangent answer but to me, in order to make relevant work, if you’re a photographer then you need to find a subject that hasn’t been exposed much, or at all. Then you introduce your personal sensibility to it, your own story, your own set of values, your principles and aesthetics. It is the addition and interactions of all these factors that will create compelling work that makes people want to look at it – and then look again later.

Bree Seeley, former photo editor at The Walrus, once said these very kind words about my work: “You trust ephemeral associations and allow them to creep into your work. I think that’s a reason your work holds secrets – a quality that brings so much plus.” Her words summarize perfectly my relationship to photography.

When I am in the field, I do not constrain myself. I photograph anything that is interesting to me or that attracts me. I will pay as much attention to a group of wasps eating away at an abandoned pear on a picnic table as I will to a riot-police horse wearing a perfectly fitted full-face protection visor. The balance you are asking about Craig, only comes much later for me, when it is time to edit the work. A good edit is just as important as the subject or as the initial capture itself.

Galaxy one, on location ELA, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTOGalaxy one on location ELA Canada, 2015 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: The 1990s produced a generation of artists who work with subject matter that is “close to home”. Like Nan Goldin, who arguably could be considered the common influence among that subset of documentary photographers, these are artists who collaborate with people in vulnerable contexts; a deep sense of trust is evident. Is that something you’re also striving for in your photography?

GS:  It is something I visit from time to time, yes. I hope to never come to a point where I cannot recognise the immediate potential of my surroundings. I would feel very pretentious and, quite frankly, would be terribly disappointed in myself. I don’t believe in the glamour of the foreign for its own sake. If you are in the middle of something unique, you should by all means recognize it and use your proximity as an instrument to help you produce great work.

Establishing trust with my subjects is something I “strive for” more in my work than collaborating with people in vulnerable contexts. The subject can be fully capable and healthy but if he or she doesn’t trust you, you are wasting your time, no matter how powerful the context.

Dan Rearick on location ELA Canada, 2014 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery | FFOTODan Rearick on location ELA Canada, 2014 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Your profile as an artist really took off through the attention focused on your project, Love and War. That must have felt alarming in many ways, since that series chronicled such a personal experience. How has that level of scrutiny affected you as an artist and how you work now? 

GS: Yes, post Love and War was daunting, indeed. Given the non-replicable nature of the work, I wanted and needed to distance myself from it as much as possible, no matter what the consequences would be. In order to do so, I knew deep inside that all I needed to do was to trust myself and follow my intuition. But it took almost a year to really sink in. It took, in fact, exploring a subject like Experimental Lake to rebalance the intimacy level of my practice as a whole. Now I feel I can go wherever I want from here and it feels truly liberating.

Mobile, ELA field station, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTOMobile ELA field station Canada, 2014 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: What kind of collector is drawn to your work?

GS: My base is in Montréal but my audience is worldwide. Therefore, I think my practice particularly resonates with collectors who have a strong knowledge of the international contemporary photography scene. I would also add to that my work appeals to individuals and institutions interested in the future of contemporary Canadian photography.

Six three, on location ELA, Canada - Guillaume Simoneau | FFOTOSix three on location ELA Canada, 2015 © Guillaume Simoneau / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: What’s next for you?

GSMURDER, a timeless dialogue with the work of my mother, Jeanne D’Arc Fournier, and an homage-attack to the acclaimed Ravens series by Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase (1934-2012). (I’ve seen the work; “homage-attack” is a thrilling description – Ed.)

Experimental Lake will be published in book-form later this year by MACK. Simoneau’s next project, MURDER, will be released in 2018.