He’s a world traveler who photographed the monumental ruins of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia as well as hundreds of Romanesque church tympana and sculptures from Norway to Coptic Egypt—but Raymond Cauchetier lives in the same apartment in Paris’ 12th arrondissement where he was born in 1920.
He is a photo autodidact who did not acquire his first camera until he was over thirty years old—yet he became the set photographer for many of the greatest French New Wave films. At a time when most photojournalists were shooting with 35mm Leicas—he chose a much larger format, a 2 ¼ Rolliflex. He is, even today, according to writer Marc Vernet, not widely known by the general public in France, even though he created dozens of the most iconic movie photographs of that era, images that are embedded in the film consciousness of generations of his countrymen and those of us who were American film students when the New Wave films were in their first domestic release.
Raymond Cauchetier fell into motion picture set photography by an accident of geography, of fortuitous time and place—but abandoned it when he became discontented with the poor remuneration and the struggle to control his own work. This happened during a time when the New Wave’s young critic/directors were exercising the “politique des auteurs” for themselves—yet he, also an artist, possessed little legal authorship of his creations. These are some of the intriguing dichotomies in the career of Raymond Cauchetier.
While serving in the French Air Force in Indochina in the early 50s, Cauchetier began documenting the activities of his own unit with his new Rollei, not at first out of a compelling interest in photography, but because the unit had no assigned photographer. A few years later, he published a photography book of time spent at the Ton Son Nhut air base, north of Saigon. In it, he recorded France’s changing fortunes in the last years of its colonial era in Southeast Asia — a decade before an equally futile American venture was undertaken on the very same ground and in the very same air.
After France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords of 1954, when France surrendered control of its former colony, Cauchetier remained in Southeast Asia.
He was photographing at the Angkor Wat Temple complex in mid-1957 when he met director Marcel Camus (Black Orpheus) who had arrived in Cambodia to film Mort en Fraude (Fugitive in Saigon). Cauchetier’s friend, Jean Hougron, who had written the eponymous novel which won the Grand Prix Roman from the Académie Française in 1953, asked Cauchetier to assist Camus in securing locations for the film. The director then offered Cauchetier the job of set photographer in order to save money by not flying in a more experienced photographer from France.
A few years later, back in France, Cauchetier sought work as a photojournalist but was hired by Hubert Serra, publisher of a series of then popular photo-novels. (In Italy they were known as “fotoromanzi”, the subject of Fellini’s The White Sheik). It was through Serra that Cauchetier met both film producer Georges de Beauregard and then still emerging cinematographer Raoul Coutard, also an army veteran of the Indochina War. After the Cannes Festival success of Truffaut’s first feature, Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows), Beauregard recruited Coutard and Cauchetier to work on Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). So Cauchetier became swept along in the surge of the French New Wave.
Almost fifty-five years later, on this March 23, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opened an exhibition of 125 of Cauchetier’s New Wave photographs in its Wilshire Blvd. Grand Lobby. It is the first exhibition of this work in the United States.
Several weeks ago, I wrote Cauchetier to ask if he would answer a few questions about his working history and methods, questions that I had not addressed in the several essays I have previously written about him. In his always-elegant style of writing French, he responded quickly. For a man in his nineties and in poor health, he has enormous, if husbanded, energy. Since my own Peace Corps French is far from being able to translate the nuances of Cauchetier’s writing style, Ragan Carpenter of the Academy graciously offered to provide a translation:
John Bailey: Many of the most revered images of the Nouvelle Vague films are not “frame grabs” from the actual movies, but are discrete photographs that you made—such as the shot of Belmondo and Seberg walking the Champs Elysee between takes of “Breathless,” or that of Catherine, Jules and Jim racing across the railway bridge. Can you describe how your “still” camera eye so perfectly captures these purely cinematic moments?
Raymond Cauchetier: For the walk down the Champs-Elysee in Breathless, Godard had thought that the filming could remain unnoticed by hiding the camera in a postal cart.
But, as feared, as Godard gave direction to the actors, the passersby sensed that something was going on, and a crowd began to gather. I preferred therefore, during a pause in filming, to take Jean Seberg and Belmondo down the Champs-Elysees, to a place still deserted, to take a photograph in the spirit of the scene – thanks to my experience directing photographic shoots for novels. To my great surprise, this photograph has become, over time, a cult photo, for not only the film, but also for the New Wave, as well as for Paris and France.
For the scene in Jules and Jim, I simply took photos at the end of the race while Truffaut was filming it with Coutard. It was a job for an athletic reporter as it was necessary to capture at one five-hundredth of a second, the crucial moment. As an exception to my normal procedure and because I sensed that this was going to be an exceptional moment, I used a Linhof-Press camera, the 6×9 cm format being superior to that of the Rolleiflex. But it was still necessary to manually reset the shutter button and advance the film. Therefore, I was only able to take one photo for each of the four takes that were filmed that morning. What luck that they were all usable.
Many cinematographers have an uneasy alliance on the set with the “stills man.” Yet you always seem to be inside the action, as if you are invited to be at the camera. What was your working relationship like with cinematographers such as Raoul Coutard, Jean Rabier, and Jean Boffety?
In France, the set photographer depends entirely on the production office, and is completely independent from the shooting team or the camera crew. I maintained very nice relationships, nonetheless, with the directors of photography like Jean Rabier, Denys Clerval, Jean Boffety, René Mathelin as well as Henri Decae, who asked me to take pictures of his children. But it was actually the opposite experience with Raoul Coutard, who owed me his start at the camera. He chased me away from Beauregard Productions, in order to use one of his friends instead.
Tell us a bit about the kind of cameras you used for the films. I know you love the larger format of the Rolliflex. Obviously, you did not employ a motor drive with that camera. How many exposures would you normally make for a scene?
Since the war in Indochina, as all of the war correspondents, I used mainly the Rolleiflex, a solid instrument, almost unbreakable, that offered many layout possibilities. We could use it on the ground or in the air, arms extended and not necessarily held just at the level of the navel. In addition, an even greater advantage was that the 6×6 cm format provided a surface five times greater than that of a 24×36. At this time, no camera offered a motorized film advance or an incorporated photoelectric battery. One had to choose his aperture at a glance, so experience was indispensable. The Rollei allowed you to take, with 120 film, 12 6×6 photos. I pressed the shutter each time the conditions seemed right for a shot, without ever being certain of the result. Because, for action scenes one must anticipate a little bit, just as in a hunt, the shooter must aim his gun even before the bird flies by and doesn’t succeed in all attempts. That is why I always carried two Rolleiflexes at hand, to continue to work with the second one without waiting to reload the first.
In a five decade career that includes war photography in Indochina, a priceless archeological photo record of the now much damaged Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, and intimate, even deeply emotional color images of ecclesiastical Romanesque sculpture, the Nouvelle Vague work constitutes barely a single decade of your career. Did this period of cinema lose its appeal for you as an artist—or did you find more compelling subjects to explore?
I never considered myself an artist. An artist is a creator, and, except for the period in which I directed photo shoots for novels, I always acted as a reporter, as a witness. The circumstances allowed me to work in regions where something interesting was always going on, or to work on exceptional subjects. By luck, at that time, orders were rare, and I could take photos as I wanted to take them. This is also how I was able to spend months photographing the temples of Angkor Wat, which would not have been possible if I had, as a few of my colleagues, tracked the Princess of Monaco or other celebrities. It was my travels that allowed me to discover those subjects that seem insufficiently known to the public at large, and to attempt to make them accessible by both image and word.
You recently have had exhibitions in French and English commercial photography galleries. How has such renewed interest in your cinema work affected you and your wife Kaoru?
A good photo exists only if it is at first conceived, and then, carefully taken. My first exhibition took place in the United States, in 1956. The Smithsonian Institution displayed my photos from Vietnam, mainly those of the indigenous populations from the center of Indochina. It was a traveling exhibition that toured for several years in American museums and universities. But this work, as the work after it, was ignored in France; it took the James Hyman Gallery in London, in 2009, to present my photos of the New Wave and for my countrymen to recognize my existence. My wife Kaoru, who has shared my life and work for 40 years, is also a bit like the “auteur” of my photos, since they would not exist if she had not helped me survive in circumstances where my life hung by a thread. My health did not permit me to go to London for the opening of the exhibition at the Hyman Gallery, but she represented me very favorably, and for her, it was a well-deserved reward.
I believe that the AMPAS exhibition is the first public showing of your film work in the United States. Do you anticipate more awareness of your work in this country? Do you think the AMPAS exhibition will contribute to a greater appreciation of your work in France?
Certainly. The exhibition at the Parisian gallery Polka [in January of this year] took place only because the AMPAS project was already well known in the Parisian photo labs. If not, nothing would have happened.
You mentioned to me that you are preparing a body of work, possibly a book on your photographs of Angkor Wat. Can you tell me a little about it?
I have been passionate about the site and its sculptures since my childhood, when I saw from my window the magnificent reconstruction of the Angkor Wat temple complex made for the French Colonial Exhibition of 1931. It seemed to me that the people who had demonstrated such genius did not deserve to be colonized. But I had been unaware of the complex colonial history of several Asian countries, and I learned that it was protection by the French that helped Cambodia to avoid being invaded by their neighbors, the Vietnamese and the Siamese. In any case, a longtime after, I went to Angkor to photograph the temples. The prestigious French School of the Far East offered me a position as their official photographer. But my need for independence compelled me not to accept this honor. I did well in doing so, because I have since discovered secrets that I would have to have had to kept quiet had I remained a civil servant.
What do you feel is your most important body of photography, your legacy?
I do not believe in legacies of this kind. When young photographers ask me for advice, I tell them: Don’t listen to advice! Seek your own voice, and follow it, without listening to others. It is your difference that will make you valuable.
In the summer of 2010 I visited Raymond Cauchetier and his Japanese wife, Kaoru, at their Paris apartment on the Rue Taine, not far from the Cinemateque Française. We lunched at a nearby restaurant they have frequented for years. A few days later, we watched a broadcast of the final match of the soccer World Cup on a hot July Sunday evening. We have become friends. This is a photo I took of them that night.
A year after my visit, Carol and her sister, Betty Littleton, who helped me on the recent “Three Graces” essay were in Paris getting topo maps and gear for a planned third leg of the Santiago Campostella pilgrimage trail they have hiked in southern France. They stopped to visit Raymond and Kaoru who generously offered them advice on some gem-like small chapel sites not to miss. The Cauchetiers are expert on many “off the (even Campostella) beaten paths” because of their own twenty-five year “pélérinage de photo,” photographing the sculptures of remote Romanesque churches. Kaoru took a snapshot of Raymond, Carol and Betty. You can see some of Raymond’s maps and slides on the table (eye loupe in fg.). The shelves behind are chock-a-block with the papers, books, and CDs that fuel Cauchetier’s ever-restless mind.
Carol responded with a photo of the effervescent Kaoru; over her right shoulder are the metal files holding some of Raymond’s work. Their fifth floor walkup apartment is home, office, and photo archive.
Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave photo book Photos de Cinema can be ordered from this site:
If you want to know more about the artist and his work, visit his website:
You can find the three-part essay I wrote for this site in March 2010.
Don’t miss this historic exhibition. It will be at AMPAS thru Sunday June 24, 2012.
Next: A visit to the home of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor.