Get off at Mantes-la-Ville station, an hour away from Paris on the J train. Following that, drive about 15 minutes and you will reach Mustapha Azeroual and Alix Curan’s secluded country house made from stone. On the way, as the discussion veers towards recent events, Mustapha interjects, “I didn’t know that. I stopped listening to the news two months ago.” The pace and proliferation of world news seem to have little influence on the relationship and time demanded to the 19th century photographic printing process of gum bichromate; the heart of Mustapha’s inner musings. While discussing his background and upcoming artistic projects, he explains his interest in this very particular photographic technique that offers him more possibilities with every new trial.
Alix joins in on the conversation and expresses her interest in offering Mustapha critical feedback and a new perspective on his work. From an education in the arts, a twist of events brought her to work in real estate. Their two careers strangely resemble a reversed mirror. On the one hand, there is an engineer turned self-made photographer with a disregard for the invisible barrier formed by the rules of art history. On the other, an aspiring painter, in love with flea markets and second-hand objects who today helps clients through the minefield of real estate regulation. Moving from the 11th arrondissement in Paris, Mustapha and Alix traded this urban lifestyle in for the quieter rural setting of Rosay. Here they find their balance as a pair in a house that has been progressively designed to reflect themselves and defies a singular aesthetic.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.
Mustapha, what were the steps that led you to become an independent photographer today?
Mustapha: I have a scientific education and worked for several years in consultancy firms as a project manager. Photography was a passion. I might have started late, but I am happy that it has today become my job. It is with the members of the collective Atelier 22, who supported me, that I learned the basics of commissioned work. I have done architecture, interior design, advertising and studio photography.
I started taking pictures ten years ago with my first camera. Four years later, I was working as an assistant for Atelier 22, learning on the job. After a year as an assistant, I was able to take on my first commissions, that I have combined with my own work ever since. Since 2012, things are picking up. I am affiliated with a gallery in Beirut and I’m starting to participate in several international art fairs. The ultimate target for me is being able to dedicate myself to my research work.
How did you start working with the printing process of gum bichromate?
Mustapha: After a meeting with a photograph who used that type of developing process and pinhole cameras, I took closer interest. I was attracted to silver film, and when I discovered gum bichromate, I was fascinated by the possibilities that the process opened up. The ability to manipulate the image and to reinterpret it was in line with my approach to images. I am quickly bored with photography in direct vision. I favor abstraction while trying to forget what I saw to blur the lines, to be in the unseen or try to make certain things appear.
What exactly is a gum bichromate photographic process?
Mustapha: It’s an emulsion made from pigments. In this case graphite powder and black for fresco, gum arabic which is a binder, and potassium bichromate which makes the gum sensitive to UV. It is put on printing paper and then must dry in the dark because the emulsion is sensitive to light. Once dry, it is exposed to a UV lamp. Gum bichromate is a very flexible process that can be used to print in one go, or in my case, in several layers to obtain more nuances in the image.
What is your work process? How do you imagine a new project?
Mustapha: My projects are mostly based on an initial reflection, before shooting. I think of my image as a final modified object. The process must be above all at the service of the image, and not the other way around. Depending on the project, I then choose different development processes, however, I always shoot on film. The shooting itself is only one step in the project, then followed by different printing techniques and alterations.
Are these “alterations” are what you’re looking for? It appears that in developing phase you are continuing the recording process and that the image captured acts as a basis for further work.
Mustapha: It is indeed completely part of my work process. This process is extremely rich in the interpretation stage, so too, the directions the various possible directions one can take with the image. The more the final image appears, the further away I move away from the original captured image. During the print process, the image becomes less sharp and becomes less and less detailed. I select my paper depending on the type of outcome I want to obtain. I like the matt quality of paper and how it holds through several baths.
It’s very useful to have a lab at home. Have you always had one?
Mustapha: To be honest, I hadn’t had one for a long time. In Tours, my hometown, I didn’t have a problem with space. But when I moved to Paris, things got complicated. I started a residency at the Capsule in le Bourget. I turned the room with its vaulted ceiling into a lab. It apparently once housed a Franco-Belgian bar. The date August 16th 1978 was even carved in the stone.
My current lab is good for small developments but I quickly run out of space when I need to work with larger formats. To develop my personal projects further, I was fortunate to get a residency for two years in Mantes, in a cultural centre that had a space with all the necessary equipment.
You seem very proactive in contacting galleries and clients. How do you approach this business side of your work, when you’ve only been in this sector for a short time?
Mustapha: I improvise a little. I put together a portfolio that I sent to galleries and I managed to get several interviews. Contacting exhibition venues or finding commissions has never come naturally to me. It’s trial and error and I learn as I go. I do some intense research to find residencies and production grants, which can be difficult given my unusual background, without any formal artistic education. Now having produced my first few shows I have gained experience with exhibitions and I feel more legitimate and confident to go beyond the formal format of a CV.
Alix, what attracted you both to Rosay?
Alix: We were living together in the 11th arrondissement in Paris and we wanted more space. We looked at alot of places in Paris, and progressively we looked further away towards the West of the city. I grew up in the area and I know it well. We found the house in Rosay by chance. Three years ago, we decided to visit this house that was withering away and was uninhabited for several years. We liked it and saw it as a project with which we could bring our own personal touch. It is charming, with a nice garden, a private front yard and an interesting set up of different terrace levels around the house.
How did you imagine it when you moved in?
Alix: When we got here, I already had a lot of objects and furniture found in flea markets that I had accumulated for a decade. I started second-hand shopping when I was around 15. In Paris we had little space, and therefore few things. Once here, I was able to unpack almost all my boxes. Every object I find is dear to me, whether small or large. I should probably sell a few to free up some space. I’ve never thought of interior design in terms of style or an overall ensemble. I surround myself with objects I like. I don’t like an exclusive single period or style aesthetic. I’d rather mix objects from the 1960s and 1980s so they can respond to each other. That’s the spirit of “brocante” – buying items from a flea market.
Where does that taste for flea markets and secondhand shops come from?
Alix: My mother used to take my sister and I to antique shops, and taught us to flip an object upside-down, to see where it came from. All three of us now share this passion. My mother recently discovered the Internet and eBay. Since then, she spends a lot of time online and goes to antique sales less and less. She could have been a home decorator because she has a real sense of colors and materials, and an artistic sensibility. She transmitted it to us. About a year after we moved into the house, we would go to a couple of garage sales every weekend in the area. My parents have a house in the Vosges region and when we visit them, it’s also an occasion to go to garage sales. These days I go on the weekends when I find the time.
Do you have a specific idea in mind or particular objects you look for before you arrive?
Alix: Not at all. I try to asses every object I find. When it’s a new one, I imagine it with others to make sets. There are a lot of self composed series’ and collections in the house.
Alix, would you say you and Mustapha share the same tastes in terms of home decoration? Or does one of you leave their touch more than the other on the interior design?
Alix: At first Mustapha didn’t go to second-hand sales. Now we go together. We each have a look around on our own and in the end we share what we each like and decide what to buy.
When you were talking about artistic sensibility, you mentioned you developed it during your studies. How did the change from art school to your present career in real estate come about?
Alix: It’s true I studied Arts at school, followed by a program at Penninghen, and then a degree in Decorative Arts. It was an extremely fascinating program, during which I became interested in faux wood and marble. But once my studies came to an end, I didn’t know how to put that knowledge to use. Things came by chance. I wouldn’t know exactly how to explain it, it’s a bit like my objects, I feel anxious at the thought of talking about it. It is quite personal and putting words to it stresses me out.
After my studies, I wanted to work and be independent very fast. I started working with my parents who had a real estate agency, while waiting to find painting work. In the end I got hooked and I’ve stayed. I have since worked in real estate for the past six years.
Do you share your creative opinions with Mustapha?
Alix: I am envious of Mustapha, because as a self-made photographer, he has a more detached vision of art history and conventions. Certainly my education enables me to analyse works of arts, but it also gives me the feeling of being constrained. The subjects of my work were often too focused on researching and trying things out, as opposed to the finished work.
Mustapha: But thanks to that, I can often ask your opinion! You have a very precise and direct view on things. You can identify what doesn’t work in a picture or a composition and your opinion often helps me move forward!
Thank you for this charming afternoon out of the city in your calm and relaxing home. You can discover Mustapha’s photographic work here.
Photography: Fred Lahache
Interview & Text: Léa Munsch
Translation: Geraldine Satre Buisson