Photo Days festival in Paris - meeting Emmanuelle de L'Ecotais, founder and director
For three years, the Photo Days festival has formed a dialogue between contemporary photography and atypical places and spaces in Paris and surrounds. Laurent Issaurat, Head of Art Banking at Societe Generale, met with the festival’s founder and director, Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais. She gave us a passionate account of the genesis of the festival, which was very much moulded by the constraints of the health crisis, and took us on a deep dive of some of the current editions most seminal landmarks: the hidden Balzac Rotunda, the Hôtel de Sauroy in the Marais, the Musée de l’Armée, the Centre Pompidou, and the Saint-Germain-des-Près galleries. You can read about the immensely rich panorama of Photo Days 2022 (15 October - 11 December) below, or listen to the interview.
Laurent Issaurat: Hello, my name is Laurent Issaurat, Head of Art Banking at Societe Generale Private Banking. Today, we have the great pleasure to welcome Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais as our guest. Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais is the founder and director of the Photo Days photography festival, the first edition of which took place in 2020. 2022 therefore marks the third edition of this remarkable festival that takes place mainly in Paris — but not only if I understood correctly. Emmanuelle has a long career behind her in the art world: she is art historian and curator at the national museum for modern art of France, in the photography section, and at the Paris museum for modern art for 25 years. Emmanuelle, welcome and thank you for joining us!
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais : Thank you, I'm delighted to be here.
Laurent Issaurat: We're very happy to have you with us to talk about this festival. Could you give us a few words on the genesis of Photo Days? Where did the idea for the festival come from?
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: The idea for the festival came about after the Mois de la Photo — an event that had been running in France for almost 30 years, and which was the origin of what today is commonly known as Paris Photo — came to an end in April 2017. Mois de la Photo was really the precursor of photography fairs. I felt it left a void in our cultural lives as French people, and as Parisians in particular, so I wanted to bring it back to life. Of course, it wasn't a question of doing exactly the same thing. As you undoubtedly know, Mois de la Photo was a biannual event, and it regularly had a theme. So the idea was to invest something new.
It was also a strange time. My first ambition was to open places that are usually closed to the public and commission artists to create something that resonates with the history of these places. It is a “small” festival in a way, but it also gives tremendous support to contemporary creation. And then the world decided otherwise, because COVID came along just as I was setting up the festival, which made it impossible to open these atypical places. At the same time, supporting art galleries in particular during the health crisis became an absolute necessity. And so on top of this ambition to open atypical places, we created a trail of Paris galleries. Since they were considered as local retail outlets, they were allowed to open after the first lockdown, from 1 December 2020. So it was really that very peculiar context that changed the face of what I had first envisioned for the festival.
Laurent Issaurat: I can well imagine. And if I understood correctly the participants included institutions, places you call “atypical”. Tell us what you mean by that, and can you tell us more about these galleries? How many are there? Where are they located? Are they mostly in Paris itself? Which institutions? And can you also come back to what exactly an “atypical” place in general is? Could you give us a few examples?
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: The first example, which for us is historical because it has featured for three years, is the Balzac Rotunda. It’s in the gardens of the Rothschild mansion in Paris in the 8th arrondissement, and is known for having been the National Photography Centre for many years. It is unknown to most Parisians, including in the cultural space. Even the director of the Maison de Balzac, located in the 16th arrondissement, Yves Gagneux, had never heard of it! And for good reason: for a century, this small rotunda commissioned by Baroness Rothschild was closed and was used as a garden shed, if you can believe it... Photo Days works to bring this place back to life and make people aware of its existence, and invites contemporary artists to reflect on Balzac. That's a perfect example, I'd say, of what we're managing to achieve today. It’s a very complicated space, as it was restored just recently, in 2020. We are not allowed to make any holes whatsoever in the walls or the floors — everything has been restored to the very last detail for this little rotunda. That means we have to adapt to the place. That’s the first constraint, physical and technical, and it has a big impact on the artists.
Also, I always ask the artists to give us their version of Balzac. Over three years, we will have had three proposals, and even a fourth this year as we have two exhibits in the Balzac Rotunda in 2022. Every time, we get a different reading of Balzac by a contemporary artist. This is quite a characteristic example of what I'm trying to achieve with Photo Days, and that is to make a place known. It’s a bit like Heritage Days meets support for contemporary creation, by asking artists to dialogue with a space. We respect the space; we don’t treat it like a white box — quite the opposite. We accentuate it and use it to tell another story, while commissioning paid work by a contemporary artist. We had Alkis Boutlis, a Greek artist; last year we had Daniel Blaufuks; at the moment we have Yann Toma, and in November we will have Jean-Michel Fauquet.
Laurent Issaurat: Could you give us an idea of how many atypical places are on the programme today?
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: This year, we also have a space called we are_. It’s a private club, with a bit of an English feel, on rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. By definition it should be closed to the public. It’s the former Musée du Parfum, and before that was the Maison Christian Lacroix. So it is a place steeped in history. The we are_ club has also been a Photo Days partner since last year, and this year we will exhibit an artist called Nancy Wilson-Pajic. She's an American artist who has been living in France since 1978 —a “grande dame” of photography who exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s, but has been completely forgotten since then, unfortunately. So here it's about turning the spotlight back onto her work that, visually, is extremely ground-breaking and avant-garde in its reuse of old photographs, particularly from the 19th century. That’s one of the exhibitions we’re producing this year.
We also set up a partnership with Festival Planche Contact in Deauville. We commissioned Georges Rousse to create two installations in the old Yacht Club in Deauville. So we produced art on site. In brief, Georges Rousse works by occupying abandoned places in which he paints what is turns out to be an optical illusion — a form of anamorphosis (distorted image from a curved mirror and representation of that image). The work that remains is a photograph. His photographs are currently on display at Nespresso, as part of the Saint-Germain-des-Près trail, also organised by Photo Days. The Saint-Germain trail is also new this year, and features luxury boutiques and Paris cafés.
Another atypical place included last year was the Gare de l’Est. We asked Noémie Goudal to do an in-situ installation on one of the windows on the station’s façade. This year this window was replaced with a photo canvas which we then recycled as tote bags, allowing the story to continue. We try to be conscientious of what we do by recycling everything we create. It’s very complicated to do an installation on the Gare de l’Est for many reasons. I would like to do these installations again, but I can’t programme it for every edition because it’s too much to manage.
Finally, to come back to this year, we have a Fondation Photo4Food exhibition in the photography space of the Hôtel de Sauroy in the Marais. The aim of the foundation is to put art at the service of others. I’m personally very invested in this foundation. It appeals to photographers to donate their photographs to the foundation, which then sells them. All the proceeds go to food banks. Photo4Food is housed in the Institut de France, and has Sebastião Salgado as its patron. It is only two years old, but it is very active. When you buy a photo for 100 euros, 100 meals are distributed, for example, by the Restos du Coeur soup kitchen. Photo4Food also thanks the artists for their generosity by highlighting their work: last year we published a book, and this year the exhibition at the Hôtel de Sauroy as part of Photo Days is dedicated to their work.
Laurent Issaurat: What a wonderful idea! Bravo! Last year, Photo Days also included a number of walking tours and gallery visits. Will you continue this activity for the new 2022 edition.
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: Absolutely! In 2020, we began with around 30 galleries in Paris. Last year, that increased to 55 galleries in Paris and the inner-city belt — i.e. Pantin and Romainville, for instance. It was a huge success, so we we’re continuing this year. The premise of Photo Days is to encourage all the younger generations to make that step and enter these galleries, which too often have the reputation of being a bit select, not unlike luxury boutiques... But luxury boutiques that we now see are trying to diversify and be more accessible. Very often, people don’t dare go inside galleries, thinking that they are exclusive places, whereas this is not at all the case!
We realised this in 2020, and brought a huge number of people into these places. There is so very much you can learn in a gallery; about the work they do in art history. We in the art world know this, but more often than not the general public does not. And we need to emphasise that going into a gallery is completely free of charge, unlike most museums. And it’s not because you go into a gallery that you have to buy something, quite the opposite! I think we helped people understand that through the visits.
The tours are more or less à la carte and organised in small groups. That’s because of Covid, but in the end it works our extremely well. We form groups of no more than 10 to 12 people, and we do the walking tours by neighbourhood or by theme. We offer these tours on our website. They are free and open to all. We walk people through the galleries and explain the work of the artists. We explain what a photo print is, why it is numbered, etc. Perhaps in this way we can encourage much more people to start their own photo collection. We realised that, very often, young collectors are intimidated by photography, precisely because of the technical aspects, the printing. We work to fluidify that link between galleries and the general public. We will of course continue to offer walking tours.
Laurent Issaurat: That's very clear, thank you. From a practical point of view, the festival runs over several weeks. Is that correct? When is the starting date and when does it end?
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais:This year we made the festival a bit longer because, again, with Covid and things being as they are, it was better to make it longer than shorten it. With the first lockdown, we had to run the festival for two months, and we realised that people preferred it to be longer. Therefore, this year we are starting on 15 October and ending on 11 December, with two themes. Or rather, one theme and one “non-theme”. The first theme is called “Photo pas Photo”; it weaves together all the threads between photography and contemporary art. For example, we have photography that is becoming sculpture, paintings that look like photographs, photographs than look like paintings, etc. That runs until 7 November.
From 7 November to 11 December, all genres of photography are welcome, and there is no theme. This also meets a request from galleries whose programmes were all disrupted by the health crisis. We’ve opened the scope as wide as possible, and haven’t imposed any restrictions to enter the festival. The “non-theme” is entirely open and all galleries are welcome to enter Photo Days. I'd also like to point out that there is no sorting or selection process. I don’t make any scientific choices, there is no committee who reviews who we do and don’t admit. With Photo Days, generosity is the rule and not the exception! So everyone is welcome, and after that we try to adapt our gallery tours to the diversity of the works.
Laurent Issaurat: I can well imaging how wonderfully diverse the origins of the artists and their practices must be. Are they international?
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: Yes, absolutely. As it happens, we are setting up a partnership with all the Paris institutions. Photo Days is a unifying force and serves as a platform for all Parisian photography events in autumn. If you’d like to visit the photo collections at the Musée de l’Armée, for instance, bear in mind that we are organising a private visit of these collections. If you want to have a private visit of an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, we also have a few organised. We put partnerships in place with the institutions, and of course their have their own programmes, as do the galleries. The range of work on offer is immense, and you have both international and French artists. From the perspective, we are very open indeed!
Laurent Issaurat: Indeed, last year we were very impressed by the depth of Photo Days’ programme. Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais, my most warm and sincere thanks to you for enlightening us today. I hope this interview will inspire our listeners to discover this outstanding festival. Emmanuelle, thank you!
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: The pleasure is all mine! And I would be delighted to lead a few personalised visits. It would be an absolute pleasure to do that in person and with as many people as possible!
Laurent Issaurat: Fantastic! That brings us to the end of our interview. So, thank you again, Emmanuelle! And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Until next time!
Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais: Goodbye, thank you very much!
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