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Major partners of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

Major partners of
the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

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Abbé Perrin (Director of...

The Opera’s studios and workshops through eyes of a photograp

An interview with Heinz Peter Knes

The Opera’s studios and workshops through eyes of a photograp

To mark the Opera’s anniversary year, the German photographer Heinz Peter Knes was given free rein to explore and photograph the Paris Opera’s studios and workshops. That immersion into the heart of the Institution’s artistic professions resulted in a remarkable book* of photographs and an exhibition first staged in the Opera’s two theatres and that will be at the Gare de l’Est railway station in Paris from December 22 2019.

How did the project to photograph the Paris Opera’s studios and workshops come into being?

When the Opera approached me to initiate a project based around the Institution’s artistic professions, I was immediately captivated by the idea of shining the spotlight on those other professions that are usually eclipsed by performers and which rarely get any exposure. Stéphane Lissner gave me the necessary degree of freedom to explore those ateliers; something which is rare for this type of artistic commission. For over a year, several days a month, I visited 17 studios and workshops and came into contact with 200 employees plus freelancers. That allowed me to gather a great deal of photographic material and build relationships with the employees which helped enrich the overall project.  

Your photos have been published in a book and they can be seen on posters primarily in the Opera’s administrative areas and clearly visible to the employees. Can you tell us about these visuals and their place inside our opera house?

From the outset, a book project was self-evident if not indispensable. A book remains one of the best ways to present photographs. We also considered displaying pictures in the Opéra Bastille’s Panoramic Foyer—something I thought to be rather conventional. That’s when the idea of the posters arose. The fact that over 70% of them were exhibited in the work areas frequented by the Opera’s employees helped to create a mirror effect. It was a way of showing the staff that the project had also been realised for them. Furthermore, the choice of images for the posters focused on ones that, in one way or the other, celebrated their work.

What approach did you take when you entered the studios? Did you talk with the workers about their skills and practises as a means to direct your work or was your interaction with them consummated through the lens of your camera?

The tasks are different in each workshop and so is the atmosphere and the personalities of the people in them. I first had to understand the space, the place, and the people in it—the individuals and their personalities—to find a portal into their world. As a result, my work took on an almost psychological dimension. In particular, because of the language barrier, I found it difficult to communicate with most of them. As such, our interactions were primarily done via my camera. I was the silent witness to their labours. Of course, some people didn’t want to be photographed. But gradually, the apprehensions evaporated and they became accustomed to my presence. They proved to be extremely cooperative and we ultimately connected. The project came together one step at a time but also on a case by case basis. I only took photos when it was possible to do so.

© Heinz Peter Knes / OnP

Did having a disconnect between certain people and their activities influence how your work was balanced—between portraits and views of the studios and workshops?

Of course, the question of distance is intimately connected to the portrait. One of the first questions I asked myself was how close should these works be to a portrait? Did I just want to create a series of portraits? I don’t think these shots can be qualified as such... They represent moments in which I captured skilled craftsmen and women at work. The photograph that most resembles a portrait is the one featuring the contemplative seamstress. We are as close to her as a person as we can be. I really like that photo. It’s an ambivalent moment which evokes both the work and the individual.   

The working world with its alternating moments of activity and rest reveal our limits and the extent to which we are human… That very same ambivalence runs through your photographs. You don’t merely capture an expression you also reveal its imperfections and idiosyncrasies with incredible technical skill.

Absolutely. It’s important to show all the flaws and blemishes. To merely photograph things that are perfect would amount to propaganda. I like those fleeting moments where there is a degree of uncertainty. I prefer photos that spur us to ask questions rather than those that merely confirm things.  

© Heinz Peter Knes / OnP

Your photographs reveal an interesting play on scale. You switch endlessly from the small to the large and you yield an important place to detail.

I didn’t intentionally seek to play with scale. I amassed a large number of photos and I printed the ones which interested me. It was only after they were printed that the dichotomy between those vast spaces and the photographic details became apparent. I sometimes got the impression that the set-building workshops were sets themselves. Those spaces are like the theatre’s stage—a stage on which the story of the building of the scenographic elements is told. It is there that one sees the transformation of materials and the development of a project just like a narrative unfurling on stage. I wanted to document that, without ever having to interfere, move anything, or ask someone to repeat an action or gesture. If I didn’t manage to catch it, I would move on to something else.

You talk of a place where the narrative writes itself. Were you also looking to tell a story?

Yes, I had to adopt a narrative for the book. At first, I thought about bringing together the visual material to offer loose associations. But that didn’t work. It was too chaotic and nothing seemed to make any sense. I realised that I had to take account of the evolving nature of the work and show the various stages in the different spaces from the initial design phase onwards. As such, the book offers a journey from one studio and workshop to another and the progressive actions of skilled men and women on certain specific works. That was true for the painting of The Annunciation for the Romeo Castellucci production of Il Primo Omicidio.

© Heinz Peter Knes / OnP

A few of the detailed close-up shots blur spatial and formal references and sometimes make us forget where we are and what it is all about. Those images, which could almost be abstractions help to ensure that the project has a pictorial character rather than one that is purely documentary.

I wanted it to be an open project. I’m not an artist who believes in the documentary aspect in a journalistic sense. I think that every photograph conveys a certain subjectivity. The photographers who allow the world, the subject, to enter and stick to the truth in it are the ones who interest me most. Certain elements in the studios and workshops made me think of some of those abstract paintings from the 1950s. So, I photographed them in the hope that they could intentionally evoke that aesthetic. I also came across things in the studios that struck a chord, like the plaster model of the head of Emperor Elagabalus. Just as I was enthralled by the Artaud book about him, I have always cited as a reference a photograph from Patrick Faigenbaum from 1987 which depicts the face of an ancient sculpture. I think these personal fascinations influence my work and ensure that I pause on certain details.

Among the feelings that permeate your photos, one can sense a certain peace of mind but also a degree of solitude. Were these feelings that you became conscious of in the workshops or are they specific to the photographs as autonomous subjects?

I hadn’t thought about that… But that’s an interesting point. Particularly because solitude is a feeling that is familiar to a photographer. We practise an activity that is solitary by nature. Furthermore, the presence of the camera maintains a distance between us and our subject. Regarding these photos, the feeling of solitude is perhaps also linked to the vast open spaces… But that wasn’t a feeling I consciously chose to bring to the forefront. It seemed to me that all the studios and workshops functioned like a group. In that sense, the book presents two images opposite each other in which we see the same group together, chatting over a coffee. A single photo would not have sufficed. I wanted to emphasise that group moment and explore it on several levels.  

By Marion Mirande

*L’atelier des artistes, Hans Peter Knes - Editions Lienart, 2019

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Partners of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

  • Sponsor of Crystal Pite's production

  • Sponsor of Opera's Battle

  • Sponsor of Les Indes galantes

With the generous support of

  • Sponsor of La Traviata

  • Sponsor of the Emperor box restoration

  • Principal sponsor of the Paris Opera Ballet

  • IT Mobility & User Experience Partner

  • Mécène Services IT

  • Sponsor of the Paris Opera Academy

Institutions associated with the 350th anniversary

Media partners