A French girl who hates wine and champagne, a rising photography star who decided to go to school and study philosophy, an avid reader who distorts fairy tales in her imaginative photos—Sophie Etchart is not your average Parisian. Born and raised in Ménilmontant, the same part of Paris whose winding little streets introduced Edith Piaf to the world, she knew from a very young age that photography was what she wanted to do. Her photographs are gritty yet fanciful, intimate and dreamy, inspired by grey French streets and the encyclopedias and magazines she would read as a little girl alone in her family’s apartment. Resource chatted with Etchart this week about her photographic family legacy, the challenges of Parisian light and how she would spend the perfect day.
You’ve spoken in interviews before about the importance of your family in your life. How did your family and childhood influence your photography?
They didn’t so much shape my photography as show me the results photography can achieve. My grandfather Georges did family portraits and landscapes in B&W (really gorgeous, he had a lot of talent for photography!). My father shot landscapes in color (in Asia mostly), and my cousin Joseph Dasse, who was a journalist, did pictures for his work. I was fascinated by these different cameras running across several decades.
You took a break from professional photography to go to school and study philosophy. Does philosophy influence your work as an artist?
No, and I didn’t go to school to improve myself as a photographer–I did study to understand why I was here, what was around. After a few years, I understood that it was even more complicated than before… I also studied psychology and I left the Sorbonne disappointed!
Where do you find your inspiration?
In people, clothes, accessories. It depends. Pictures come in front of me when I’m listening to music or when I’m sleeping, and when I wake up I’m very frustrated to not be doing them for real.
Your photos seem to have an old-world quality, while also maintaining a gritty, modern feel. How would you describe your style as a photographer?
I think and hope I don’t have a style yet. I don’t really want to have a specific style. I want to follow the faces, the creations of the fashion designers.
For portraits, it is different. I have to try to connect with the person in front of me and accept the situation. It’s always exciting meeting people with a camera hiding my face. A kind of blind date. I can’t prepare myself because I have no idea what the mood of the person will be when he or she is there. It’s refreshing! And frightening too.
What do you think makes for a great editorial photograph?
A lot of luck, probably! And a style that fits with the moment too.
You often collaborate with artist/illustrator Sandrine Pagnoux on ad campaigns and other projects. How did that partnership form? How do the two of you approach a project?
When we work together on a project (for a magazine like Max Italy for example), I take the pictures and she is there to tell me if she needs more details or stuff like that. Then she does her own artwork, taking my pictures and doing it all alone. I’m never there when she’s working; I just see the artwork at the end. And I never tell her to change anything. It’s fun!
As a city, what does Paris offer to photographers? What is your favorite corner of the city?
For foreign photographers, I have no clue. I suppose just the pleasure of being there. For me, frustration I guess. I was raised in Paris, so I’m used to the beauty of my town. It’s difficult to see the beauty when it’s always there. But Paris gave me a love of greys. I grew up in Menilmontant; it’s a place with little streets, a bit like Montmartre but destroyed by the architectural decisions of politicians. The ugly is surrounded by little houses alone in front of buildings, very bizarre. Little stairs, small streets and dead-ends, all gorgeous with their little abandoned buildings. I would run around there with my friends when I was a kid and it’s still there in my memory. I also spend a lot of time in the “quartier Latin,” which is older, gorgeous but still with little streets and a light that sneaks in when it finds a little hole between the old buildings. We have to wait in Paris for the light all the time. We have to be patient…
Where is your favorite place you’ve ever done a shoot?
I haven’t found that place yet. I have a studio I love to work in, the Studio Sala (in Menilmontant), but outside of that I’m always dreaming of little towns in Italy or shooting in the desert of Nevada where The Misfits was shot.
If you could shadow any photographer, alive or dead, for a day, who would you choose?
Deborah Turbeville. I feel very lonely now that she’s gone. So let’s dream of spending a day in her fabulous dreams. Why not ask Mrs. Turbeville to do a shoot with Paul Newman? That would just be the perfect day, don’t you think?