French Photographer Gregory Herpe Unmasked
For several months, we have been living the anguish of the Corona, the health and economic crisis, all over the world. For artists too, times are difficult. Galleries and museums closed, exhibitions cancelled. How can we continue to create and live? Gregory Herpe, a French photographer living in the Netherlands, was confronted with these problems as early as February. Fortunately, he was able to count on an artist’s residency in Holland to keep him busy and creative. Invited by the Lokalen, in Lichtenvoorde, he immagined a series of masked portraits that went far beyond simple protection against covid-19. The mask is symbolic, and some of his models protect themselves from fear or illness. But others use the mask to hide their addictions, obsessions, phobias, or their real personalities.
What was the worst thing for you since the beginning of this crisis?
The worst thing is not being able to travel and make new pictures, not being able to create anymore. And then all my international exhibitions and conferences have been cancelled, or postponed to next year.
Luckily, the artist residency I was invited to was not removed.
Tell us about this artist residency…
The Lokalen, in Lichtenvoorde, is a place of work where local start-ups use their creative thinking together. There are graphic designers, musicians and videographers. And every year they invite local and international artists to come and work on a project. During the whole month of May, I made a series of masked portraits. The initial idea was to talk about Corona Virus, but very quickly I wanted to enlarge this theme to enrich my project. The mask protects, but it also serves to hide our addictions, obsessions, pains, phobias, or simply our true personality. I wanted to show all this, these nuances, by talking about our society, our differences.
How did you find your models?
Very easily! I was interviewed by the regional press at the beginning of the project and I launched a call for participation. I received dozens of e-mails from all over the country and from very different people; it was very enriching for me humanly, to meet and talk with them. They told me their stories and I imagined an image, a mask, a concept, more or less close to them. Dutch people came from Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Utrecht, but I also had French, Russian, Finnish and German models living in the Netherlands! Very international! People were nice and curious to meet a French photographer lost in this wilder Dutch region. They all asked me what I was doing there!
Have you photographed any atypical models?
Of course, there are some that stand out, but in the end, all my models had a beautiful personality, a unique story. Men and women, a drag queen, a transgender, children, a real Russian princess, a gay couple, from 14 months to 92 years old! I was especially touched by a young man with Down syndrome, so happy to pose for me! This is what I love about this job: meeting all kinds of human beings, communicating and sharing with them, and capturing a moment, an emotion. There was also my oldest model, a 92 years old veteran still madly in love with his wife, who disappeared too soon. A man full of humor and mischief, of sensitivity! He made a glider flight last year, participated in a rock band s video clip, and he makes his own penis-shaped breads that he distributes to his neighbors! he loves life and doing crazy things! And he looks really beautiful in my picture.
Some of your masks are rather symbolic. Is it important to deal with different subjects in the same project?
Of course! It’s even a vital need! There was this nurse who told me that she took showers several times a day, to wash herself, to protect herself. So I imagined a mask made of a curtain of water. She was standing naked behind the purifying water. Nothing erotic! Just a symbol linked to a reality. I like to deal with different problems of our societies in my series. There, I was able to discuss gay marriage, the third sex, the rights of women and children, cruelty to animals in slaughterhouses, but also sugar addiction, which is everywhere, the pain associated with our childhood, recycling and biodiversity. There are also lighter pictures, of course! But I like to have surprises in front of a model, to adapt, to change my plan at the last moment.
What are you going to do with this work? Are there any exhibitions planned?
Yes, of course! I have a project for an exhibition in Amsterdam, but it hasn’t been organized yet. But I will be showing my series in Paris at the end of the year, and in August/September at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hilversum, the Netherlands.
I will also participate in a group exhibition in England with photos of this work, at The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge Museum, in Canterbury! In a few days the book will also be released with the 52 photos of the series and the texts, and also a great preface written by French Icon, lingerie designer and ceramist Chantal Thomass, who gave me this great pleasure. The book “A Coronew World” will be on sale on the net and via my website. You can contact me to buy a dedicated copy!