Marin Karmitz by Christophe Lunn
Our meeting takes place in the offices of MK2. In the lobby, three posters of movies by Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas and Charlie Chaplin illustrate Marin Karmitz's eclectic taste.
On the wall of his office, a series of black and white photographs of hands by Christian Boltanski. They seem to clap. They could also be seen as fluttering white butterflies. Propped up on the floor, a framed Diane Arbus print representing a man in a raincoat, holding his hat over his heart, as if to hide it. Behind his desk, a large grey portrait by Patrick Faigenbaum. A group of prints from the Passenger series by cult director Chris Marker, which were presented in Arles in 2010, dominate the wall at end of the room. The images represent women on the subway, sleeping in their seats, photographed by Marker when he was on his way to his chemotherapy sessions. Across, on a low shelf, a photograph by Kiarostami : A couple observe a painting by Georges Leroux entitled Dans la grande galerie du musée du Louvre, 1954 which was shot in the Louvre Museum! Several items of the tourists' clothing echo those worn by the characters in the painting. The treatment of the color reinforces the mirror effect : Where does the photograph start, where does the painting end?
Marin Karmitz arrives and explains that Kiaorostami's work is unfinished. The object we are looking at is a rough draft. He mentions discussions with the artist about cropping and texture effect (the photograph is printed on linen). It is a work in progress but the idea is visible. And the anticipation of seeing the final version by the iranian artist, who he supports in film and in the art of fixing the image, animates him.
How long have you been collecting?
For fifteen years.
What was the first photograph you fell in love with?
A photo by Gotthard Schuh, the famous miner (1937). I met the miner thanks to Christian Caujolle. Since, I have bought many other works by Gotthard Shuh.
Do you have a fetish photograph? A talisman?
No, because I live with my photographs. I salute them every morning. And, depending on my mood, I spend more time with one or the other.
What is the oldest photograph in your collection?
I think portraits by Witkiewicz from 1912.
How many works do you buy each year?
Each year, I don't know. It can take months before I find a work I fall in love with. And there can be many in the same day.
I read that you had a maximum budget of 1000 euros per work. Is this still possible today?
No, you can't maintain a budget of 1000 euros per work. On the other hand, I fix myself maximums, which forces me to look for works I fall for at reasonable prices.
Are there specific criteria for a photograph to enter your collection? Do you develop a particular theme?
While doing my exhibition in Arles (in 2010), I asked myself : Why have I chosen these photographs, why has my emotion, my eye, drawn me to these photos I was showing? And I realized in fact it was "me", I was the central theme. And it was an exercise in auto-analysis, a bit wild, but pleasant.
And in this auto-analysis, do the points of view of the photographers confront each other or do they tell the same story?
They do both at the same time. What interests me, is the confrontation of photographs between each other. It is their capacity to have a conversation. And at the same time, what unites them, what draws the path, is me, my story.
Does photography help you understand reality or go beyond it?
What I like in photography, is going beyond reality, to start from reality and go beyond it. And I like that in every work of art. I think the main element of creation is the capacity to transform reality. And in doing so, not to make me understand it, but to give me the possibility to bring my own interpretation. This means a universe open enough to allow me to include my dreams, my intuitions, my emotions.
Do you favor artistic photography, where the technical gesture of the camera is just a step in the creative process? Or are you also moved by a photographic document, which transcends the anecdotic?
Both. Take an example of photography I find very touching in the idea of the absolute non-technical gesture : the photographs of Miroslav Tichy. I love Tichy's work. I love his way of looking at women, the obsessions he develops. It is obvious there is an absence of technique because he builds his own cameras with bits and pieces. What is important is the capacity to transform reality. So never mind which path you take. Technique is not so useful, it is not important.
Is there a print process you prefer?
No. You see the difference between a good and a bad print. For me a good print is when the emotion is intact. A bad print is like, you know, often in sculpture, posthumous castings turn out clogged bronzes, bronzes where the details, the finess, the cast backs disappear. I like it when you see the detail.
Are there essential events, such as photography fairs, which you never miss?
Paris Photo for me has become essential. I do not go to other photography fairs. And there is the Rencontres d'Arles, and places I go to see photo exhibitions, to discover.
Do you have advisors? Are you still able to choose, decide on an acquisition completely independently, without being influenced by a dealer, an advisor or an art critic?
I have always had advisors; for my films, for my paintings. For photography, I do not have an advisor, but someone who is a passeur (relayer) and who is Christian Caujolle. I need to talk about the history of photography. He has much more knowledge than I do in this domain. So he is more like a professor than an advisor.
You said in an interview in 2010 (Ciné-Fils) that "collectors are selfish people" because they collect for themselves. Yet you showed a part of your collection in Arles. Was it hard to be seperated from your works for the duration of the festival?
Because I live with my works, I always have a hard time parting with them. There is something interesting however : When they return, you have to make them dialog with each other again. I put a great emphasis on hanging the works, because it allows me to rediscover them, to see them differently. And that is a very emotional moment.
What did you learn from this experience? Were there any particular reactions from the public to your eye, to your choices?
It was a very passionate experience for me, at first because it brought me to understand why I had bought these photographs. Then, I tried to find an eventual cohesion or link which did not seem obvious to me. And what made me most passionate was to create the mise en scène of the exhibition. I rediscovered the pleasure I had when I was a film director. I felt the same urge to work with this material as when I worked with actors. I believe in exhibits which are mise en scène. I had a story to tell using these works only, and I had to respect them. So I tried to respect them all the while directing them and giving them a point of view. As a result, the viewers' reactions were extraordinary. I received an incredible amount of feedback from all over the world. People still talk to me about it. I think it was a shock for them. I respected the space (A church : L'Eglise des Frères Précheurs), I respected the works, and I think it was useful for the artists.
Do you ever give advice to budding collectors?
No, I think there is nothing worse than advice. You have to learn to use your eye. Let yourself be led by emotion, but emotion is not enough. You have to train your eye. You learn to use your eye, like you learn to read. And you have to be able to graduate from the Comtesse de Ségur to Joyce. And it does not happen overnight.
When was the last time you were stunned by a photographic work?
I am often stunned. I was stunned by a young photographer in Arles : Dorothée Smith. I was stunned by another young photographer whose work is absolutely incredible and she is totally unknown, who is on her second tome. In her first volume she took photogaphs of her family when she was a little girl. They are childhood pictures. And she embroidered on these photographs. Her name is Carolle Benitah (Féminité sans tabou presented at Galerie Esther Woerdehoff). I fell head over heels when I saw her work. And so I bought her first and second ones. I must be her first collector. Her work is tremendous. It is very strong and very refined at the same time.
I also saw a series of photographs I like immensely. And I was asking myself : Is he a photographer or simply a witness of his time? It is Roman Vishniac. He is a great photographer, witness of his time, but who was consumed by the fact that he was made into just that : a witness of his time. No one saw his dimension as a photographer. And it is wonderful. At his New York dealer's gallery I discovered photographs he took in Berlin, completely different from those we know and which were published in his book (now out of print). And it is just fascinating.
Have you ever returned a work?
It happened to me once I believe. It was a portrait of someone I knew. And I no longer wanted to look at that person's portrait. So I returned it. It was a very beautiful portrait, but I returned it.
It is often said the French market for photography is very young to excuse the fact that it is behind the United States of America, where photography seems to have developed considerably in the last forty years. How do you explain this gap?
I am baffled because I discovered photographers from all over the world in France. And in the USA, in general, they only sell American photographers. And it bothers me to no end. If that is being developed, for me it is not the case. What interests me in photography is its diversity, its universality, and the very wealth of existence of photographers from very different countries, of great value, and of whom we know nothing. And when you speak to American dealers, to American critics, well, they do not know them, and they do not publish them. Those photographers are published by Steidl or by Delpire.
Do you favor an American style of patronage, where collectors support museums by donating works of art against tax breaks?
We are very favored regarding fiscality and works of art in France.
And concerning photography?
A little bit less with photography because of the very important part the governement plays, but which it does not fulfill. We are very behind. We see that collections, which were given to the government by several photographers, are mistreated, that photography is not exhibited enough. There are few areas in Paris to show photography. Beaubourg (Pompidou Center), whose collection, in my oppinion, is admirable, does not show it often. There is the Jeu de Paume : a few exhibits a year, usually internationally reknowned photographers. In America, on the other hand, there are no exhibits of French photographers. And then there is the Maison Européene de la Photographie (MEP). And after that, not much... There is Arles.
Do you think there should be another museum?
No, I don't believe in museums. I believe in spaces. I think we lack spaces to show art in. And to mix photography, painting, etc... But with a certain way of seeing. It is not a flea market. The museum is a very particular structure, very big, with funds, with specific means.
What place do photography books have in your collection?
I do not really collect books, but I use them for reference. It is interesting because that is where you see the diversity of the work. It is where I can understand how an artist functions, how he went from one period to the next, one theme to another, from the relationship between black and white to color, or a transformation in black and white. And they are often very beautiful books.
Do you think you will stop collecting photography one day?
I hope not, because I get a lot of pleasure doing it. It really makes me dream. Each photograph has a story which allows me to develop other stories.
Can you imagine a screenplay between all the photographs in your collection? A film?
A film, no. But a screenplay where I can tell my life story through photographs, yes.
You handed over your company MK2 to one of your sons. What future have you planned for your collection?
You know, I live in the moment. I am an immigrant. I arrived in France in 1947. I have a great sense of transmission, but transmission of knowledge, transmission of a company, because there are people who work in it, because it is a social space. But the transmission of goods does not preoccupy me so much. What I simply want is that all these works be respected.
You have no desire that it be kept together and not dispersed?
It is a very personal collection. What I mean is it's "me". In the end I realized that it was an autoportrait. So, are there people who will want to live with an autoportrait of someone else? I am not so sure. Each work has its own value, so they can all be dispersed. I do not have a particular fetish on that level. I do not want a monument "in memory of".
Are your sons interested in photography?
One loves photography more than the other. He even went to photography school and has a great passion for it.
Does he also collect?
He does not have great means. But each time I give him a photograph, he puts it in his home. He lives with it at least. He has a very beautiful eye. He took some great photographs too.
So you passed something on in a way?
I passed on the apprenticeship of the eye. That yes. I tried to teach him to train his eye. It takes a long time. I know I took a long time, despite my knowledge as a cameraman. I know what it is to develop. I spent hours and hours in darkrooms, in the research labs of Ferannia, Kodak, Agfa, in the 1950s. Despite all this, I still had to train my eye to look at a photographic creation and inscribe it in a historical context. There are actually a lot of people taking pictures, young photographers, many young artists, who do things without knowing it was already done fifty years ago, and they don't do it as well. So at some point, someone has to say : "Well, no. Do better. It is not so bad. If you want to be inspired by something, inspire yourself, but do better. Work."