CONVERSATION WITH THE FRENCH-IRISH PHOTOGRAPHER AND ILLUSTRATOR OLIVIA HB
by David Laurençon
dL: I was fortunate enough to stumble onyour impressive work as a photographer . You do other things: illustrations, linocuts… Good. Before we start this conversation, tell me your name. All your works are signed HB. « HB » is not a name, it doesn’t mean anything. HB reminds me of school. School supplies. « Please get an HB pencil ». What is your name? I need to know the names of the artists I talk to.
Olivia HB: And even, David, this acronym could have been a chemical symbol!
Olivia HB: By chance, if there is such a thing, you have come smilingly down my little road. HB are the initials of my two irish & french names, my father’s name Hewson and my mother’s name Bonneau. But as you point out, these initials often resonate with this relationship with the pencil, which is a shame for someone who don’t know how to draw.
ULSTER, EXILE & WANDERING
dL: don’t know how draw? Of course you know. We’ll return to that question later. Let me put a couple of things in perspective first. You were born in Belfast, you’re Franco-Irish. You currently live somewhere near Caen. What do you do in Caen? Apart from eating « tripes « and drinking Calva?
Olivia HB: Ah, the food of our Viking ancestors! Proud fellows who grew thick with that clever mixture!
On a more serious note, i was born during the troubles in Northern Ireland and lost my father during the fighting, exile was forced and for safety’s sake, my mother brought her little family back to where she could recreate, start again, see her children grow up serenely, in her native region. The years make the roots grow and finally we build ourselves where we feel safe! At the same time, she regularly goes back to her « other » country, where memories are missing, but to provoke others.
dL: I understand. Stop me if I seem indelicate, narrating this past, but there is something in there that interests me particularly and anyway, this interest has to do with the spirit of your photos. Black and white, a rendering so… You can tell me that.
You lost your father during the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland. « Trouble » is a shocking euphemism, by the way; your mother returned to France with her « little family ». Right. You talk about roots, construction, memories. My question is about you now. Where do you stand in this? As a woman. As an individual. As an artist.
Olivia HB: Yes, to go back to the word ‘Troubles’, it’s a purely British name for what any Irish person would call ‘civil war’. The Thatcher years, in which I grew up but also fled at the age of two, only amplified this political and religious separation between the same nation that Ireland was to be. For a very long time I lived in a great anger that was directed both against a History that deprived me of my history and that had distilled a lack and a melancholy in a little girl who had not asked for anything except to exist and to be a little like the other little girls she attended at school, in a typical parental pattern. This anger subsided as I got to know my roots, this wonderful and hospitable people and the recurrent trips I made to Ireland, but indeed, what is most deeply rooted and still very, very fragile, despite being over 40, is the lack of a father. There is inevitably this imprint in my work.
dL: Yes, that is to say, when we look at your photographs, you don’t think: « Well, there’s a father missing, a father who disappeared during the civil war ». however, one can almost observe an inescapable slide towards a void that fills itself up again, of its own accord, by itself. The impression given by your photos makes you dizzy. It’s not easy to write shivers.
Olivia HB: These little people, alone, apart, without necessarily knowing where they are going, or who to turn to… a sfumato like a lack that won’t dissipate, this deep solitude, despite everything, persistent, even in company, this wandering because part of the construction of oneself has not been possible.
dL: Your construction…
Olivia HB: She’s always there, the little girl who is lost but lucid! To use Lacan’s formula, « the non dupe wanders ». ( In french : Le non dupe erre )
WINDOW VS. MIRROR
dL: Ah, Lacan… I prefer to quote you. I did take notes before meeting you. Here it is: « Very early , I knew that I was not a mirror but I was a window; that means that I was going to look at the world, I was going to find myself in places to which I didn’t belong and that I was going to try to bring back with me some fragments of these lives » Okay. What does that means exactly?
Olivia HB: Okay, that’s a pretty poetic formulation of my artistic process; in fact I was using the term « mirror », as an object that is present and necessary to the camera. The mirror reflects reality back to us, without distorting it. If you take a picture in the street, of course there is a window between you and the world, but you will have in response the instantaneous vision of what you have looked at. It is therefore a question of photo-mirror, of what your eye has really seen, as you objectively observe yourself (or not) in your mirror. Having experimented with it for some time in the street, I was looking for something else. The moment, the mirror, the reality as it exists, palpable and alive, no longer suited me.
Olivia HB: I missed the simple vision of a nonpoetic reality, no longer being able to find in « the banal, the common, the everyday » an element that challenged me. It was necessary to be a « window », in that it was a question of creating a super-reality by crossing moments, by imagining compositions, different exposures which would shape, no longer a moment, but above all an emotion. From that moment on, it was the opening towards a more cathartic work where one really gives oneself up, where one wants to go towards the interiority. The objectivity of the instantaneous street photo is replaced by the subjectivity of a revealed emotion. And so much the better, if the people who look at this kind of photographs, catch a piece of themselves, which otherwise would have gone through this window, like a kite.
dL: About the technique, the pure technique. I had heard of a thousand types of cameras, but never of Lomography. I’m looking through your work, and I discover: « lomography ». It is not a trivial system, this « limography »… How did you discover it?
Olivia HB: David, you’ve just invented a great concept and you don’t even know it, with this word « limography ».
Olivia HB: Don’t you have a mix of engraving and photography in mind? I’m teasing you, but this slip of the tongue is very poetic!
THE LOMOGRAPH, A DEVICE FOR MELANCHOLY
dL: A poetic slip of the tongue… Oh yes. « Limography »… Oh, dear.
Olivia HB: So you’re talking about lomography… This mode of photographic technique goes against the grain of the digital camera. The latter, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated, offers those who know how to use it a maximum degree of pixels, perfect photos, impeccable light, image stability despite movement; whereas tomography seeks all these opposites! The audacity of lomography is that it is above all silver; one will note the holes in the light, the sometimes insistent grain, the blur which always gives the idea of movement, and this very, very imperfect photographic quality which recalls the daguerreotypes of the 19th century.
dL: I see. Very interesting. But you didn’t tell me how you discovered this LOOOmography.
Olivia HB: Very young,
dL: What do you mean?
Olivia HB: When I was about twenty, it was in Northern Ireland, at a Philip Jones Griffiths exhibition on Northern Ireland, I came across a photograph of a soldier. It wasn’t the subject that caught my attention, but the texture that covered it, the scratched, scratched, dirty, lightless look that gave the portrait a real dimension. This photo was the beginning of a search, starting to tinker with my own filters, to rough them up, to scratch them with pebbles to find and create this « disgusting » and yet so beautiful image. Later, there was the Rolleiflex camera, and then the real Lomography camera, which in itself is almost a toy since it is designed from the minimum and its precision is random. So being imperfect and incomplete, I needed a camera that suited me.
dL: OK, I understand these technical aspects. What you just said there, your last sentence, « being imperfect and incomplete, I needed the camera that fit me »: It’s a hard and wonderful sentence. As with all artists I admire, it makes me want to vamp what’s going on in your head, to understand how you get such artistic completion.
Olivia HB: You know, each composition is the result of chance: the capture of several moments, mixed with the state of mind experienced. Generally, my photos contain two moments, which are superimposed, it can be a landscape and a silhouette.
I notice the systematic presence of a subject, most of the time alone, whether it is an average individual or a mise en abîme of myself, in any case there is always a very distant relationship to the lens, as if the individual is being snatched from his world of thoughts and observations, the one in which he is. In these cases, the subject is always in osmosis with the setting in which he or she evolves, becoming completely immersed in it, to the point of sometimes almost disappearing… I would not speak of « photographic romanticism », even if each place seems to be the state of mind of the person who evolves in it… The setting and the subject are integral.
The camera and its very particular, lomographic rendering, brings this aspect of sfumato, of disappearance or of very strong contrast highlighting the photographed subject, and this even under a great sun and a place full of joy. A bit of a melancholy camera.
dL: Okay. Tell me, I searched and searched. I found Le Salon du petit format in Bordeaux, the Galerie Ohhh, in Lorient. Why don’t you exhibit more, in galleries?
Olivia HB: You touch on a very interesting point about contemporary photography. First of all, despite a few exhibitions, the conditions are still a big cost financially: choice of paper, framing, etc. and few galleries take on this burden, which is heavy to bear. But also, we are faced with a lot of refusals.
In this age of information overload, of images that grab you as soon as you turn your eyes, contemporary photography is only very rarely accepted. Galleries and festivals are looking for photographic reportage or street subjects. This brings us back to the desire to find a perfect image, a moment, a mirror in which the photographer has physically invested himself in an investigation of images. A request from elsewhere is much better accepted than an internal search.
dL: It’s impossible not to mention that photo that was stolen from you, Strongly. It’s crazy.
Olivia HB: That photograph was « borrowed » from me, citing me as the author, but it wasn’t the borrowing that was more disturbing. It was the misappropriation of it. It is a street photo, a double portrait, focused on the tears of a little girl, a scene that took place in the street. Walking along, I hear screams on my left, a mother’s (or at least a woman’s) scream and the cries of a little girl. Wandering around, with the camera in hand, you feel the moment, so this little girl crosses barely a metre from me and throws herself into the arms of this other child. I captured the moment, this little lady crying, comforting herself in these other little arms she knew. This photograph, harmless in its context, was then taken again, to my great surprise, to illustrate a report on the separation of siblings during population migrations in 2017. This was absolutely not the subject of this photo. I wanted to keep it, to keep it in this streetview, without any political message. I just want to put it back into its context of ordinary wandering and small whims or big childish tantrums.
Often, images accompany the texts, including in the poetic field, where each person can appropriate an illustration to support his or her own point of view or take it towards the one he or she would like.
dL: Eh eh. You’re talking about, for example, a poet who spent the whole night « trying » to describe, in alexandrines and cross-rhyming, a fucking sunset and then woke up and thought, « wow, I’m great, my sonnet deserves to be accompanied by a Van Gogh! »
Olivia HB: This is indeed an extreme and nicely sketched example. As soon as a work is taken out of context, it loses its intrinsic value at the expense of emotions that have nothing to do with it. The question arises as to the usefulness of the illustration of a piece of writing or, conversely, the usefulness of words on a work.
Olivia HB: You cannot and should not take away from each image its reality and its context of creation. To take an image or a photograph back is to forget who created it. Each photograph has a before and after, each photographer remembers the history of each photograph made.
dL: Speaking of illustrations. You said earlier that it was by chance that I landed on your path. In fact, I founded Les éditions sans crispation in 2014, and I was in charge of it for a few years. While I was hanging around on the internet, I saw that you had illustrated the cover of a book recently published by this company: Fractale, by C. Messyl. That’s how I discovered you. Three paintings (or three panels), which represent a flower… Er… A flower which is soft at first, and which becomes stiff. Is it erotic, or am I out of my mind?
Olivia HB: I don’t want to wish you a torticollis in the mind, and here I am speechless, because we have never considered it in this aspect at all !
It’s true that there is a vitality, a desire to straighten up in relation to life and the juxtaposition of these images, as if one had cut an 8 mm film and stuck these few images together in a fractal… But the explanation is written. On the inside.
dL: Okay… « A torticollis in the mind »… I like that expression… I don’t know where it comes from, but I like it.
Olivia HB: Did you want to stop with the publishing world? Is it indiscreet to ask why?
dL: I felt I had done all I could do. Or rather, what I could do. I’m happy and proud to have published these few books, but sooner or later I would have ended up going in circles. This thing, « going in circles », I could only wish on my worst enemy.
And then, you need money to publish. You need money for everything, in fact. Some people say that money rules the world. I don’t know. All I know is that, with publishing, I haven’t been able to earn enough to heat my swimming pool and I can’t get over that. Enough of the chitchat. Olivia, do you know Thierry Girandon?
Olivia HB: David, if you only knew how uneducated I am when it comes to contemporary literature! This is an excuse to tell you that I don’t know this gentleman.
dL: This « gentleman »? Thierry Girandon, madam, is the best. There are no other words. In a way, it’s his fault, if I started publishing, by publishing his collection AMUSE-BEC. And in another way, it is thanks to him, on a beautiful summer morning in 2021, that I decided to end my publishing career. I brought out his 7th book. I like the number 7. And this 7th book is called : PERPET. That’s it. I start with an appetizer, I end with a life sentence. And boy, am I chatty. I forget that I’m the one asking the questions here…
All this makes me think, cool and far away from all this, of things that have got the better of my patience, that have ended up disrupting me: the inbred milieu of « small publishing ». Always the same heads, always the same obscure literary blogs, always the same editorial lines.
And I’m back on my feet: Ms Hewson-Bonneau, you work, or have worked, as an illustrator for online magazines and micro-publishers. My question: what did you do in this obscure galley?
Olivia HB: Galley is the word and the idea of having to move forward with a project that you are dragging along with your arms and in which you invest yourself to the point of often losing your own personal sensitivity to the detriment of an acquired technique, which tries to unite with the emotions of another person, in this case an author.
Poetry is intimidating (since that is the framework in which I illustrate), and you can easily miss it if your reading is not demanding or if the writing is unaffordable and you cannot get into it.
dL: Good reasons to pass it up, right?
Olivia HB: Yes. Fortunately, a kind encounter opened doors for me and gave me warmth and confidence: Jean-Louis Massot, who first used some of the images on the inside pages of Fabien Sanchez’s book Dans le Spleen et la mémoire and with whom I worked again on a personal collection, to be published in 2022. And then Ben Coudert, Voyage immobile, in 2021, but once again, with this gentleman, I had all the freedom possible and very nice exchanges: a wonderful chance, of quality.
Illustration can also be realised in small filmed works. With my partner Lili Frikh, we worked on microfilms of a few minutes, based on his voice, his words, with original music, which had the chance to be shown to an audience.
dL: Oh yes! I saw two films on Youtube, Trottoir and Noir de vivre. Another facet of your work. It shows your visual style, to put it simply.
Olivia HB: With these microfilms, it’s a more fragmented search for moments, an even longer search. And then to have the luxury, since in general no illustration is remunerated, apart from copyright sometimes following the sale and distribution, of refusing if the link is not present or if the affinity is impossible.
In any case, I have a thought for all the magazines, which are most of the time a refuge for the illustrators and authors. Without them, few places of expression would be allowed. There are many of us who thank them for existing for the little light they offer to everyone.
dL: Okay. I’d say there are a couple of things that bug me about it – all those magazines, all those asylums! – but the important thing, I suppose, is that almost everyone can find their way around. Okay, that’s the main thing. A few more words, Olivia, about these illustrations?
Olivia HB: The great constraint of illustration is that you have to try to get into the mind of someone who is writing an image and at the same time thinking it and asking you to render it.
We are trying a mind rape, a blindfolded hypnosis. It will only be the author’s gaze that will tell you if you have hit the bull’s eye, if the target has been reached.
dL: It’s a horrible job, actually.
Olivia HB: You really forget yourself for the duration of the job, letting your hand and your technique take precedence over your emotions, since it’s someone else’s that you have to put into the picture, for a few weeks. And then, blow hard if the result is satisfactory and find a way to decompress, since you can’t do things without feeling like you’re gambling with your life. Because it’s a JOB. But in the end, it’s a joy, this confidence, even if the illustrator is often in the shadow of the words. But that’s fine here, that shadow part, you know.
LINOCUT & FINAL
dL: I guess so. You say: « blowing hard »: how do you decompress after these kinds of « fights »? If my information is correct, you have… er… « little bags of knickers » embroidered. What is that?
Olivia HB: Being selfish, I smile of course; putting aside some requests for other work and trying to create a little for yourself and by yourself: linocutting is physical work – scratching a plate to lay down a design in depth, and in relief a pattern – is a technique that requires a physical gesture. It is also a work of concentration that allows you to be in the moment, as if in a bubble where you think of nothing else. This approach is quite close, in its finality, to silver development. Once the motif has been created, all that remains is to ink it: the black, the work in black, as in a darkroom of the same name. It is only then that you really discover your drawing. Just like the developer bath. There really are parallels, even if you seem to get lost and try different techniques.
As you say, those little future knickers have gone for embroidery… The black is trying to get coloured under the hand of Véro Ferré who I met as an authoress/writeress (sorry, I never know) and who embroiders rock’n roll!
dL: If you want to be friends, there is no such thing as an author. Inclusive writing is crap, take my word for it.
Olivia HB: Hahaha! Those words are messing up.
dL: Too bad. Secondly: Do you like rock’n’roll? I love it.
Olivia HB: I’m in love with the Smiths and Morrissey. I discovered him in the early 90’s with the album « Bona drag », and as a young teenager I was thrilled to see him rock out to « November spawned a monster », and then explore the whole of the Smiths’ past, and even now, even if Morrissey’s albums are less and less powerful, there’s always a nugget. So yes, I’m a fan of pop, and especially of big sound, without too much electro, and I’m curious about new releases… A bit of desert blues too, like Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder, which I like to savour with a smoke and whisky! But opera is also very rock’n roll!
dL: Yes, absolutely. Rossini, especially. His William Tell overture kills me. Ah, music… I knew that at some point we would talk about music. When I discovered your photos, I had JOY DIVISION in mind, haunting…
Olivia HB: We are the Joy Division generation, Sisters Of Mercy, Virgin Prunes… Your thought is relevant because I’ve heard it before, while people who know me know that I’m a bit, a lot, into joy of life! But your analogy with this group and their universe, of course, refers to a family subject mentioned above.
dL: With you, one navigates, one goes back and forth easily between laughter and enthusiasm, and… er… sepulchral mists. You don’t really seem to want to shine in the spotlight, while accumulating collaborations and projects. I don’t have a specific question, to end this conversation – because it must end: just your final feeling. You’re doing a remarkable job, while remaining quiet in your corner, so to speak.
Olivia HB: We don’t make a living from any of this, you know that yourself, David! But you try, you hang in there and even in the moments of exacerbation, you think you’re lucky to have been seen, read or asked for…it might never have happened. All it takes is a few encounters, outstretched hands, a willingness to pass through, enthusiasm and a little bit of madness, as you have given by offering me this interview, by giving a place to someone you didn’t know, by offering him your trust and know that it is reciprocal. A little corner in black and white where to say, to think, to tell and sometimes to grumble. This little corner is there and from the heart, thank you for creating it, David!
Interview by David Laurençon
Paris, 7th February 2022
Dans le spleen et la mémoire, Fabien Sanchez, ed carnets du dessert de lune ( 2016)
Nuages de saison, Jean-Louis Massot ( 2017)
Fable, Anne Bernasconi , ed Apeiron ( 2019)
Voyage immobile, Ben Coudert, ed Unicité ( 2021)
Derrière la porte étroite, Fabien Sanchez, ed à l’index ( 2021)
« Salon du petit format », Bordeaux, 2019
Permanent exhibition at the Oooh Gallery in Lorient
Publication in « Photo magazine », August 2019
Screening of the film » Noir de Vivre « , on a text by Lili Frikh, Lux cinema, Avignon, October 2020