“All humans, without exception, have great capacities.”
Hurtling through time and space an explosion of elements scattered and circling a nucleus with no discernible chance of combining into anything other than chaos. An auteur watches quietly, patiently, benevolently, as these disparate things swirl across his plane of vision, waiting for that celestial alignment, that rare eclipse when all things combine together with geometrical precision into his frame and in an instant the mundane streets and provincial towns we inhabit are distilled and in one millisecond compressed into a perfect little rectangle.
Fred Mortagne is a king among men. Not only by virtue of his artistic ability, examples of which any human can clearly see for herself among these pages, but because of his understanding. Having an understanding of how the world works and your place in it is humbling and those who have embraced this understanding are the kind of people who quietly go about their work, building a family, a career, following artistic pursuits, and you can see a similar style and craftsmanship through all of these endeavors. Seeing one of Fred’s photographs is like seeing into his mind, a trait of most great photographers. His voice is apparent, his sensibilities are revealed, and that voice and style permeate past his photography into his family life, his legendary video work, and the way he holds himself as a man. Thoughtful, playful, and able to put into order the frenzy around him.
– Ed Templeton
Words: Guillaume Le Goff
Your most recent work is the publication of your book of photography called “Attraper au vol” (“to catch on the fly”). Why the title?
It was really hard to find a title. Thomas Campbell and I wanted a title in French. I found a lot of options, but I adopted this one because it was perfect for my two passions that I combined in this book: skateboarding and photography. Many skate moves, especially those with flips, must involve a moment when the feet come to “catch” the board to stop its rotation and complete the whole movement, so that the trick is replicated and retracted. This is one of the many determining factors of “style”. As for street photography, it consists of capturing moments on the fly as well as the ephemeral and furtive scenes in life. The title suits both skateboarding as well as my photos in which skateboarders evolve, therefore connecting both worlds.
Its content has been publicly called ‘the most beautiful coverage’ released by a photographer in the skateboarding universe. How does that affect you, and to what extent does it matter to you that people within your circle view your work with this kind of positive attitude?
I always wanted to make skateboarding accessible across my work, but also let it stay focused and credible for skaters. I’ve been passionate about skateboarding for almost 35 years; it totally changed my life in the best way possible. It’s often criticised because certain negative cliches are very prominent, which seem like the only visible part to the general public. So this made me think of something I had never realised: am I trying to express the clichés of great photography to counter the negative clichés that stick to skateboarding? When you’re truly interested in skate – when you approach it in a sociological way – you realise that it’s a highly rewarding discipline beyond the sport, one with a multitude of levels. While conservative education couldn’t help me orient myself in life, skate completely succeeded in doing that. So yes, when feedback coming from the outside world is ultra positive I am very happy, because beyond my work, it’s the skate that’s appreciated.
How do you think your approach could benefit skate and skaters—considering that your work has managed to resonate with the general public?
Let’s just say that the older I get, the more I see things as a whole. I think that our societies function completely upside down. At school, if you aren’t a good student, you will fail the system, and it can have a largely negative impact on your place in the world. While history shows that many school dunces have become perfectly successful people in life, it doesn’t work every time because the system can really break a person down. That almost happened to me, but skate reached out to me just in time and pulled me out of that mess. All of this is to say that society shouldn’t beat down the kids who aren’t made for school, but who nonetheless have enormous potential within them.
At school, if you aren’t a good student, you will fail the system, and it can have a largely negative impact on your place in the world.
All humans, without exception, have great capacities. So at my level, promoting skate is a way to change mentalities, move things. The general public is slowly realising that skate isn’t just something teens do who waste their lives passing time by making noise and damaging urban property at the expense of the taxpayer. It’s actually the opposite of that. The skater became cool, because in our dysfunctional societies, to stay free and to live by your passion is ultimately something the whole world dreams of, but the classic cycle doesn’t help anyone turn that dream into a possibility. So ultimately, my work tries to contribute to breaking the view that skateboarding is a hobby without purpose that disturbs others. Parents shouldn’t be freaked out that their kids go skateboarding. The skateboarders that turned out badly make up a very small portion of the ones I know.
For those who don’t know you, can you talk about how the book started—why did you decide to make it and with what goal in mind?
For all of my work, above all I try to do everything super well, to the maximum potential. It’s hard to make a book. Especially when it has to contain almost 15 years of photography and especially when you don’t have experience with it. I knew that it wouldn’t be something I would be capable of making by myself. Despite my desire to publish my first monographic work, I never took steps to turn that into a reality. I had quite a few propositions —not uninteresting ones—but my intuition told me to be patient and not to force things.
How did you end up publishing it with Um Yeah Arts and Thomas Campbell?
I already had a lot of respect and appreciation for Thomas’s work. We collaborated together for the first time and with great mutual enjoyment on his film “Cuatro Sueños Pequeños”, for which he asked me to be the director of photography. He was also in the process of finishing “Wayward Cognitions”, Ed Templeton’s book, as well as his book about surf called “Slide Your Brains Out”.
All his publications in general are marvellous. He has something unique. Everything became clear, and the conditions were such that we could start of making my book. I never thought I’d make it with Thomas, and also never imagined that it would interest him… and for me the fact that he proposed working together was a great honour.
I may have been able to attract a larger publishing house, but it was more of a priority for me to make the book with someone I connected with, someone in the same circle who knows it well, with the goal of creating an artistic project—rather than making a commercial project that would probably bring in more money. That’s never my priority.
How did you decide on having the legendary Anton Corbijn introduce your photos?
He’s the visual hero of my adolescence. Even before I was interested in the art of the image, his work greatly touched and impacted me, especially seeing his music videos for Depeche Mode. I had no sense of a culture of images, apart from the mess we were served on TV. And his universe so singularly stood out from the lot. It was maybe the first time that I perceived a profound artistic sensibility. I adored the aesthetics, narration and grain of the image, but it didn’t influence me right away in my work or in my first videos. It wasn’t until over ten years later, when I started with photography, that I started to understand the impact his work had on me. So it seemed appropriate to ask him to write the preface, without thinking too much about whether it would be possible or not. I had met him really briefly in 2002 at a shoot for an ad he made for Vans with Geoff Rowley, who had hired me as a skate consultant. There were many little things that connect us—like the fact that he, Thomas Campbell and I have all shot ads for Vans with Geoff Rowley! I really like that kind of thing. After seeing a preview of the book, Anton asked me if there would still be so much grain to the photographs once the book was published, to which I responded “absolutely”—and so he accepted the task of writing the preface. That truly touched me.
Your creative approach towards skateboarding, architecture and life in general has shaped your career as a photographer and videographer. Let’s talk about how you chose the pictures in the book: was it easy? Painful? Have you adopted a particular selection method and are you satisfied with the result?
This is precisely why creating the book with Thomas was the best option. When you look at any of his books, you say to yourself: this guy does stuff brilliantly. Having worked for many years as the photography director of the magazine Skateboarder, he has a lot of experience in photo selection. The decision-making was really hard, yes. The idea was to avoid making a 300-page book, so we had to leave out a lot of things. I trusted Thomas entirely with the selection and the flow of the book, which he spent time on with his designer, Tosh Woods. I was hardly involved in this part of the process. We had obviously discussed a lot of stuff beforehand, and during the pre-selection of images I expressed some wishes. Then Thomas made his mix. It may seem strange that some of my very famous pictures weren’t selected, and that more secondary photos are in the book, but this is related to the flow we needed throughout the pages—so that we could create connections and correlations between the photos, as well as breathing space. The book would have been too intense using my most well-known photographs, and finding this balance was the hardest part.
Can you tell us about your other activities or upcoming projects you have planned?
It isn’t well defined yet, but there’ll obviously be a lot of things related to the book: Thomas has set up many things in the US, including an exhibition in San Francisco in March. My close collaboration with Leica will continue in many ways, as well as my collaboration with Element Skateboards as an advisor to the brand. And, in spite of all the projects, it’s important that I continue being a good dad who’s present at home for the year my little girl Nico turns two.