In the spring of 1982, when he was a child, Guillaume Simoneau’s family adopted a nest full of abandoned baby crows. His mother photographed the two families—one animal and one human—growing up together. These photographs are immortalized and enshrined in Simoneau’s upcoming book Murder (MACK), which weaves new photographs in with the old, making for a thoughtful exploration of tradition, nostalgia, and a strange combination of both a grim and idyllic visions of childhood.
As a book, Murder is very self-conscious and raw. Underpinning the images of crows, family and landscapes is a careful homage to Masahisa Fukase’s famous photobook Karasu (Ravens). Simoneau traveled to Kanazawa, Japan, where Fukase photographed many of the birds in Ravens, to make his own images. Bound in the pages of Murder is a careful and conscious homage to Fukase—one that references the history of photobooks, mixes found photographs with made images, and walks the line between darkness and hope, tradition and the contemporary, the personal and the global.
In this interview for LensCulture, Simoneau talks to Dylan Hausthor about the intricacies of producing an homage, the nuances we see in post-documentary images, and the violence of life.
Dylan Hausthor: Tell me about your trajectory as a photographer, and how you’ve seen your practice evolve over time. When did you become interested in combining images that your mother made when you were young with your own into your upcoming book Murder?
Guillaume Simoneau: As a Canadian photographer based in Montreal, I split my time between personal projects and editorial and commercial assignments. But I’ve been looking for ways to present the work of my mother, Jeanne-D’arc Fournier, to a new and larger audience for a long time. I knew for a while that her portraits had a universal resonance to them, but I wanted to add even more to them. I didn’t want to simply say, “Hi, this is my mom’s work, bye!”—I am much too close to my mother for that. It took me years to come up with the right layers and complexity to make these images ready for the public.
DH: In 1991, Masahisa Fukase published his seminal photobook Ravens. You traveled to Kanazawa, Japan—the birthplace of that work—to make many of the images for your own book. What weight does Kanazawa hold for you? Why did it feel important to make images in conversation with Fukase?
GS: Fukase’s masterpiece was originally presented as an eight-part series in Camera Mainichi between 1976 and 1982. Karasu (Ravens) was only published as a book, four years later, in 1986, by Sōkyūsha (Yokohama). Kanazawa is not only the region where Fukase made his first photographs of a murder flying through the night sky—it was also the home of Yōko, his beloved second wife and muse. Knowing these details, it felt relevant to feature the region in the final edit as part of my homage-attack on this monument.
DH: What do you mean by “homage-attack”? Is there something problematic about that book for you?
GS: No, far from it. I simply wanted to be 100% authentic while producing the work. I couldn’t respond to such an “untouchable” collection of images in any other way. Fukase’s magnum opus is raw and honest. I had to position myself the same way in order to be solid and ready for potential backlash. Thankfully, the work has been embraced. But I can assure you that while you are building a body of work largely based around the killing of ravens—despite describing the premise as a pursuit of brighter days—doubts are crippling.
DH: That’s really interesting. Does nostalgia play a role in Murder?
GS: As Anne Wilkes Tucker argues in her essay Why so Personal? (from the book Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers, published by Aperture in 2006), “Memory, commemoration, and nostalgia are repeatedly used as the impetus to photograph. But what is commemorated, and why?” With Murder, I try to honor the Japanese master in a violent and modern way. This same violence, juxtaposed with the calm and gentleness of my mother’s images, offers a romantic—maybe even watered down—vision of childhood and the past. These oppositions and tensions are at the core of my practice. To me, they reflect the essence of human existence. As Brad Feuerhelm once wrote in a review of Fukase’s Ravens, “It would be too simple to dismiss the darkness within without paying homage to the light under which one is bound to examine its counterpoint.”
DH: There is such a stark shift in tone from the photographs that your mother took of the crows during your childhood and the images that you’ve made in the last few years. It seems to go from tranquility to something more turbulent and dark. What do you attribute this shift to?
GS: The government of my province, Québec, literally just passed a law overnight banning the wearing of all religious symbols. I am so embarrassed. Life is extremely violent—a tragedy. My life and my work are a constant quest for light, and sometimes in order to find it you have to show some teeth. The turbulence you feel in Murder is equal part life and teeth.
DH: There is some really interesting repetition in this book. Some of the images seem to have been made seconds apart. How do you hope this seriality affects the read of them?
GS: I simply see it as an additional means of representation, moving away from the “one image says it all” narrative that defined the early days of documentary. Brought together, it establishes a better sense of time, subjectivity and honesty to the effort.
DH: A throughline of your recent work is a manipulation of nature and the human stories that surround that. In Murder, you, as a photographer and a child, become a protagonist. How did that change your experience of making it?
GS: After looking outwards to the great outdoors, I am back to a more personal and intimate narrative. With Murder, I feel like I am returning to a private space reminiscent of the emotional charge of Love and War (Dewi Lewis, 2013). It is a place I am very comfortable in and cherish very much—a labor of love.
DH: Your work seems to cleverly exist in a space between lyrical storytelling and specific documents of place. Do you feel like you are a part of the history of documentary photography?
GS: “Post-documentary,” definitely. It is more about responding to the documentary form of the 1930s to the 1960s while offering a photographic approach, at times lyrical, that nowadays moves away from its formerly imperative role of depicting reality. Since such a role was ill-informed and dishonest all along, it feels appropriate in a post-truth era to let the viewer decide what is and what is not represented. From now on, as a photographer, your work is a proposition.