“I’m famous here for Nouvelle Vague photographs but far more famous in Indochina for pictures like these,” Raymond Cauchetier says, gesturing to two pictures taken during his time in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
They are the only ones in the James Hyman’s Mayfair gallery that give us a glimpse of the other side of Cauchetier’s photographic career.
Cauchetier has travelled to London for the first time to mark his 95th birthday, and to witness the opening of his first ever solo show in the city.
Cauchetier has become synonymous with French cinema’s iconic 1960s movement Nouvelle Vague thanks to his frank shots of on the sets of directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, capturing performers like Jean Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Jean Seberg on films like A Bout de Souffle (1959) Une Femme est Une Femme (1960), Jules et Jim (1961) and Peau de Banane (1963).
Cauchetier is still full of energy, snapping pictures of the journalists with his Leica. “My first camera was a Rolleiflex,” he says. “The advantage is that it’s very solid, when it falls in the water, you only need to dry it once and it works again.
“That happened to me a lot in my travels. [Henri] Cartier-Bresson said that the Rolleiflex is inept because if God wanted us to take pictures like that he would have given us eyes level with our belly button. It’s not that at all, it’s very mobile to me.”
Yet, Cauchetier became a photographer almost accidentally, while working in the press corps of the French Air Force in Indochina. At the urging of General Chassin, who wanted to create an album for the personnel, Cauchetier bought a Rolleiflex and started photographing the experiences of the Corps. After he left the army, he carried photographing.
“I left the army to become a photographer, which was a terrible idea as you don’t win much money as a photographer,” he says. “I don’t regret it in the slightest.”
Upon his return to Paris, Cauchetier began mixing with a circle of film critics from Cahiers du Cinema, chief among them a young Jean-Luc Godard. In 1959, Cauchetier was hired as the on-set photographer for Godard’s first feature, A Bout de Souffle.
He photographed Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo walking down the Champs Elysées, or Seberg in her New York Herald Tribune t-shirt, with behind-the-scenes, in-between takes that offer how unorthodox, how free, Godard and his performers approached the process of filmmaking.
There’s a refreshing matter of factness to Cauchetier, who describes his work as more photo-journalism than artistry. In Indochina, as on the film sets of Jean-Luc Godard, he approached photography like a reporter, without intervention on his part. It set him apart from other on-set photographers, whose aim was simply to create publicity stills.
“To be an artist is treason,” he says. “It is to enter a situation artificially. It’s beautiful, ok, but it doesn’t correspond to life, to the event that produces itself every day and which is, to me, far more fascinating than a studio-shot photo where everything is lit in an artificial way. Artists are creators, I am a witness. That’s the difference. I was the witness of the Nouvelle Vague but not its creator.”
Yet there is a strong sense that there were two revolutions on the sets of the Nouvelle Vague, the spontaneity and lack of artifice of motion film, and stills photography. On the one hand, the creation of Ilford film stock made the artlessness of his Nouvelle Vague shots possible, as it required less and sometimes no artificial lighting. “You could film like a documentary”, he tells me. “Something imagined by Italian neorealism 20 years earlier but only possible thanks to Ilford. Ilford was my friend!”
Cauchetier was leading a quiet revolution of his own on set, rebelling against the monotonous aspect of his job description.
“Before, set photographers didn’t work like this. After a scene, everything was reconstructed, the photographer took a shot and then disappeared. I thought that was stupid,” he says.
“I wanted to work in the moment. I took photos almost clandestinely as the producers didn’t want to show them. For a while the doctrine of producers was that the audience needs to believe that what’s on screen is real. They want to believe that [Jean-Paul] Belmondo is a genius who flattens his enemies easily. You had to believe it was real and if you saw photos from the set then you knew it was all artificial. The public must not believe it was artificial, it went against the dream. So they were hidden.”
While his Indochina pictures were always properly attributed, his film set shots remained anonymous. Then, in 1992, the law changed in France, returning copyright to photographers. Cauchetier’s film set photographs were properly attributed, and revealed to the public, for the first time. “I became their owner again,” he says.
Cauchetier is philosophical. “Today the spectator is more intelligent, so they came out at the right moment, when audiences became adults,” he says. “Luckily the photographs weren’t thrown in the bin; they could have been. A few have disappeared. They treated those films like kilos of tomatoes. They were resold by distributors like objects with scripts and other negotiable things. Sometimes without them – [Georges de] Beauregard sold A Bout de Souffle without the photos – they weren’t asked for. His widow knew their real worth and kept them apart.”
One of the highlights of Cauchetier’s career, he says, was being invited by the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, to take photographs of his country for tourism material.
Cauchetier spent a week travelling the country. He was given everything he needed, including a helicopter. He created thousands of pictures and left with just a few copies while the rest were stored in a special air-conditioned safe in the palace.
Not long after his visit, the king was deposed. Then, in the years after the Vietnam war, the next regime was overtaken by the Khmer Rouge, whom destroyed the 3000 photos contained in the safe.
“They blew it up thinking it was jewels,” Cauchetier says. “All the films were burned. And there were no jewels. I found out about it 10 months later, I still have 10 or 20 copies from that time, but the rest are gone.”
I ask him if he has any favourite pictures from his oeuvre. Cauchetier shifts uncomfortably, gesturing towards his image of Ha Long Bay, taken in Vietnam in 1953, a sunset that he is fond of, before changing his mind.
“It’s one of a thousand,” he says. “Each one corresponds to a specific instant in a specific place, and you can’t compare them.”
Raymond Cauchetier‘s New Wave is on exhibition at the James Hyman gallery, Savile Row, until 14 August