A Dance with Bernard Plossu and a Slow Boat to Corsica
André Príncipe e José Pedro Cortes

With this piece, photographers and editors André Príncipe and José Pedro Cortes continue the series conceived for Electra, which began with Hisham Mayet, in Tangier, and continued with Youssef Rakha, in Cairo. This time, they spoke at length with the great French photographer Bernard Plossu, at his home in La Ciotat. Then they took a boat to the island of Corsica. In a conversation that became very intimate, they talked about life, travel, the passion for the desert, the passing of time, photography, photographers, photo books and also the work that Plossu has done in Portugal. At a certain point, Plossu commented: ‘And it's true, good photographers dance. And probably the closest art to photography is neither cinema nor literature, it's dance. A good photographer is graceful.’ Like dance and photography, this conversation is a way of giving people and things movement and light that take them beyond themselves.

rocher du capucin

Capucin rock, La Ciotat, Spring 2023, André Principe

bernard plossu

Bernard Plossu, a 50 mm Nikkormat, the Sirocco and the Mediterranean, Spring 2023, AP

It’s Friday, 13th of January 2023, and we are lucky. The sky is blue and Bernard Plossu awaits us on the platform of La Ciotat train station, right where in 1896 the Lumiere brothers placed their camera to shoot ‘The arrival of a train at la Ciotat’, one of the first films ever made.

In the following days, in his house, we talk about lenses, photo books, travelling the American West, the south of Europe, the desert and why dance is the closest to photography.

Then, we take a boat to Corsica.

ANDRÉ PRÍNCIPE  Can you tell us about yourself, when and where you were born and how photography entered your life.

BERNARD PLOSSU  I was born in 1945, at the time it was called Indochina… Vietnam. My parents were living there. We got back six months later. I returned with my mother – she died one month ago – on a boat called Le Pasteur. It’s a boat that did Saigon, Colombo, Port Said, Marseille. It was full of people leaving Vietnam because the Japanese were preparing a coup de force [an armed takeover] – they wanted to kill everybody. I have a good brother, who was an Australian soldier, and we cannot talk about Japan; they were terrible. And the French... that was different, they loved the Vietnamese and Vietnam.

JOSÉ PEDRO CORTES Were your parents there for work?

BP  My father was. And my mother... Her father had created the Papeteries de l’Indochine, a little enterprise that made recycled papers, bamboo… Very beautiful papers! He was of Italian origin, my grandfather, he looked like Vittorio de Sicca! My mother was raised for a while in Napoli and my father went to Indochina very young. It was those times, the beginning of the century! I was born just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when we returned to France my father’s work was in Paris. In the beginning we lived for a little while in Villard- ‑de-Lans, in the mountains and in ‘le midi’, the south of France.

AP  How old were you when you got to Paris?

BP  I was about four. To explain about photography... My father was an orphan at 13. My family is from Grenoble. Plossu, means pelossu, ‘que se couvre de peluche’, covered by plush. It’s a mountain name. My father was a very good mountaineer and he was the very good friend of a famous mountaineer named Roger Frison-Roche, who wrote many mountain books where my father is mentioned. He did difficult mountains like des Ècrin and la Meije. Dad and Frison-Roche left for the Sahara in 1937. They crossed the Sahara to ski. As a matter of fact, there are quite a number of books that came out with my dad and Frison-Roche’s [sand]ski pictures. But that didn’t really go well… They could slide, but not really, as the sand didn’t crumble. I say that because I was raised in the mountains. All the holidays were in the mountains, never the ocean, always doing the mountain paths with my father – real mountains – and very difficult tracks. I learned the mountain and mountain photos. I grew up with black and white photos of the Sahara dunes, and all that marked me. Perhaps that’s what made me a photographer, I don’t know.

JPC  Did you go to the Sahara?

BP  Good question! My father took me to the Sahara... Ghardaia and Ouargla, in 1958. He offered me a Brownie Flash, and I did my first photos at 13 years old. The story of photography comes a lot from my father. The Sahara ski photos and the initiation trip. The photos I did back then are just like the photos I do now, there’s no difference at all. It was that right from the start.

AP  Photographs of a place, of your sense of place?

BP  There’s a sense of an initiation trip. You come from Paris, you arrive in the Sahara, everything is different… The smells, the sounds, the people... Later, the calling is for travel photos.

AP  What happened when you went back to Paris? Did you develop the photos?

BP  The first photos I did at 13 were developed in a shop. I still have all the prints from that time. Vintage, small prints. The luck I had was that when I was in Paris I was going to the Cinématheque. I had no diploma, I had nothing, I failed everything. Zero, zero, zero… But I loved the Cinématheque. I learned the history of film and of images; my masters were Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini …

AP  Was it Langlois’ Cinematheque?

BP  Yes, Langlois. At the Trocadéro. There’s a story… Langlois came here, to La Ciotat, in April 1968 to meet Michel Simon, the actor. Simon lived here… And the true course of Mai 68, the idea behind it, was created here by Langlois and Simon. It’s an interesting la Ciotat story…

AP  Those years that you were watching movies, were you printing your photos?

BP  No, that was later. In 1965, my parents realised that I had stopped taking all the exams. My grandfather that lived in Indochina went to live in Mexico and found a job there. Immediately, my parents sent me to Mexico, and instead of going to college, I did photos of all my friends there. That was the encounter with the Beat Generation that lived in Mexico. I was 20 years old and travelling the roads with the beatniks of that time… Americans, Mexicans, Argentinians, French… Those were the great times of the Mexican trip. On the road… Chiapas, Oaxaca…

AP  Were you already taking photos?

BP  I was filming too!

AP  Something had happened between the Sahara and Mexico. Making images was already at the centre of your existence…

BP  Well, high school happened! I had failed to finish it a few times. The Cinématheque, and also – this really counts! – meeting a very pretty woman, ma petitte amie Michéle… She was very beautiful! I started doing photos and filming her. Avant-garde cinema, real cinema, had made a mark on me, and I began to translate it in my own fashion … Photos! Somebody said it very well – it was Christophe Berthoud – he said Plossu was a ‘photoaste’. In French we say ‘cineaste’ et ‘photographe’, and I was both. But it wasn’t a job. I wasn’t making money with it.

JPC  There’s always this thing when somebody grows with literature or film. Why did you choose photography?

BP  I didn’t choose, I did both. I filmed a lot. In January 1967, I went back to France. I had to do military service, and to not serve in the army I had to find a profession. I was 21 years old, without a diploma and the alarm bells were beginning to ring… I had brought with me my Mexican photographs and I went around showing them everywhere… travel agencies, book publishers, newspapers. Little by little, I became a commercial photographer. I did covers and stories for many magazines like Atlas and Le Nouvelle Anglaterre. I sold boxes with photos to travel agencies. I did book covers. My commercial archives are enormous. They are now in the library of the Centre Pompidou. There is a project, one day, to do a show with my photos – I don’t like the word creative – my personal photos, mixed with the commercial ones, to show my photographic life. I discovered the value of my Voyage Mexicain [Mexican Journey] black and white photos years later with people like Allan Porter of Camera Magazine and Claude Nori of Contrejour1, who told me these were good photos. But at that time, I was a commercial photographer. I did everything. I loved that job. In Social Security, I wasn’t an artist, I was a photographic author.


Skiing in the Sahara, AP


Bernard Plossu at home, La Ciota, January 2023, José Pedro Cortes

1. Contrejour is a famous Parisian photo book publishing house founded by photographer Claude Nori that between 1975 and 1995 redefined modern European Photography.