Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated with faces. I couldn’t keep myself from looking at them, trying to read them, interpret their expression. I felt myself surrounded by books with a human face, in a sense. As the saying goes, quite accurately: the face is the mirror of the soul. I think it is indeed the reflection of spiritual or emotional states that humans sometimes keep hidden. A face can also simply reflect a mood, a fleeting, ephemeral disposition. Or people may, like actors, choose to wear a certain expression or playfully pull a face. In short: the human face is an extremely versatile medium.
I have always had a preference for the extreme ends of the timeline or the ages of man: childhood and the carefree liveliness and creative, fun-loving ingenuity it represents, and old age, which stands for the wisdom and the dignified serenity the passing of the years may confer. In other words: I love contrasts, contrasting human realities, largely preferring them to the middle ground, which I often find bland or characterless, predictable, or simply less inspiring.
These faces, and the looks in their eyes that enliven them, exude a mystery I hope to display (not reveal or fathom) in my portraits.
The same principle applies to places: natural landscapes and man-made architectures, and, of course, the materials and the infinite diversity of their textures, especially when they are crude and flawed. Mystery is synonymous with obscurity, but also with depth, discretion, magic and silence – all aspects I like to explore.
As a child, I often used to haunt the office where my father worked: a gloomy, magical place, full of creepers and masks and other unusual objects from Africa and other faraway countries. This dark realm scared and fascinated me in equal measure.
The colour black is so rich in nuances and contrasts it cannot be reduced to the platitude of ‘chromatic renouncement’, let alone to a complete absence of light. As Pierre Soulages said: from the color black, light springs forth, surges… The two entities are far from antithetical. And it is up to the photographer, particularly in his treatment of black and white, to reconcile these opposites and, like a magician, get them to enhance one another.
This being said, I do not like being exposed to the media spotlights, to the hullabaloo of a life replete with bling and glitter. I prefer to live and work away from the limelight and off the beaten paths. In my self-chosen retreat, I can develop my inspiration, visual acuity and sensitivity to the world – provided the latter is not polluted by artifice and superfluity. Or, as Shakespeare expressed it: an existence led « exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing. I would not change it… ».
Each time I looked at portraits by Serge Anton – or rather, each time a Serge Anton portrait has been staring at me, mesmerising me – I asked myself : what did he say to them, just before he pressed the button? Did he just plant himself in front of this noble African old man saying : « Watch the little bird coming out of the lens » ? Did the one hundred year old marrackchi, guilelessly offering us her broad, toothless smile, do so in response to the photographer’ injunction to say « Cheeeese » ?
Nothing of the kind, as I now know.
Serge Anton’s secret, and the cornerstone of his œuvre, is time.
Before he starts producing his images, Serge Anton establishes trust. Whether in Ethiopia or in the heights of the Atlas, using a universal language mastered only by him, he first and foremost builds a rapport with his subjects. He has been known to spend three days with a subject before proposing to shoot his or her portrait… or not.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that what he calls his souk – a 300 m² surface in Brussels, chock-a-block with objects brought back from Africa in the course of the past 30 years – mainly features tools to facilitate encounters : chairs, tables, carpets, drinking vessels and tools for brewing tea…
Once – just once, in Ethiopia – the authorities saddled him with two official interpreters, Tchoutchou and Mamouchette, charged with convincing the villagers to strike a pose in front of his camera. After these gentlemen had been palavering for eight days, Serge had not even made a start on a portrait. So he resolved to remunerate his two guardian angels for waiting in the car while he went back to his own tried-and-tested method. Just a couple of hours later, Serge returned to the car with a complete series of portraits that should be counted among his greatest, leaving Tchoutchou and Mamouchette flabbergasted…
While taking his time was his method, time passing was also his main theme.
Serge Anton does not like young people. He had been a fashion photographer for ten years when he got fed up with the etenal absence of wrinkles, experience, depth and, in fact, meaning.
He does, on the other hand, love materials : bronze, wood, iron, skin… especially old people’s skin, the parchment that tells a life story – wordlessly.
His material of predilection is the human material brought forth by the African continent.
He minutely, respectfully, explores both types of material, getting as close to their inner truth as possible and, in doing so, steadily building what will one day be considered to be a major body of work focused not on resignation, but on dignity.
Serge Anton’s body of work represents an artistic trajectory spanning a period of more than 30 years and featuring an evolution I have been fortunate enough to follow from the start. Three decades of friendship also, which means the status of « privileged witness » has befallen me quite naturally and simply. We shared a passion for art and for beauty in their most diverse shapes and for the emotions they evoked in us, and I was lucky enough to apprehend these also through the idiosyncratic, atypical, equivocal and far from straightforward manifestations that constitute his oeuvre.
Right from his first tentative endeavours, which were already marked by his meticulousness and extreme rigor, I surmised that this budding artist did not regard photography as simply a professional discipline, but rather as his medium of preference to express and communicate his sensitivity and worldview. Whether through his macro-photographic and quasi abstract study of natural materials and their textures, his both pared-down and lyrical ?? natural landscapes and urban architecture, or, of course, through his extraordinary portrait art, Serge Anton distinguishes himself by his natural aptitude for capturing the poetical charge and mysterious inspirational force ensconced by his subjects. And as a worthy heir of chiaroscuro, this expert in the field also puts us in mind of the striking contrast and reciprocity between the realm of shade and the universe of light.
His is an existence marked by tenacity, a spirit of discovery, an insatiable curiosity and a quest for diverse human encounters, whether coincidental or actively pursued, but always decency and trust. In the course of his peregrinations all over the globe, Serge Anton has unceasingly kept honing his visual acuity and fine-tuning his view of the world and his subjects, while always preserving his capacity for amazement, for wonder.
Like his series of portraits of women, children and old people, glimpsed on dusty highways or back roads in faraway countries. Soulful, mesmerising eyes and faces either grown more powerful with every trace left by time, or still free from any such traces, yet all bearing expressions of the interior treasure that is human dignity. Serge Anton succeeds in translating and transmitting this treasure, as he has never let himself be guided by voyeurism or lust exoticism, only by his unpresuming, deeply felt empathy with the individuals he is photographing.
Far from following any fashions or intellectualising trends, Serge Anton’s œuvre certainly reveals how highly demanding he is with regard to formal mastery of his art, but more than anything it is also marked by his quest for interiority and depth. Besides their evident perfection, no matter how subjective, his prints also evoke a timeless essence that captivates and touches us, yet also allows dreams and the imaginary to seep through…
It is not the incredible technique – though there is plenty of that – that sets these images of people apart, but rather their precise balance of intimacy and distance. Serge Anton brought back portraits from his travels in Africa that strike us as testimonies of highly perceptive encounters. These photographs are in no way snapshots, so-called “stolen” images. Rather, they are portraits made with mutual respect, permitting us to sense the photographer’s great capacity for sympathy. We are moved by the sincerity and directness of the subjects’ gaze. Posing is clearly not known to these people. They are at ease, and their faces tell of their archaic existence far from consumer society. The grant us insight into their being: from the boy who plays with a water jug and looks at us with soft, questioning eyes, to the Berber whose sun-tanned face reflects his whole life, the landscape, the clay buildings, and the dignity of his people.
The photographs of clay buildings in south Morocco can also be called portraits. They are extremely careful photographs of a dying architectural style. It is one so uncommon and extraordinary, that we can perceive its greatness and beauty, even if only ruins remain. Sometimes the buildings are so imposing that they bring to mind the Chartres Cathedral, only in clay.
What particularly distinguishes Serge Anton’s photographs, including his portraits, is his mastery of light. Walls emerge radiantly from the shadows, sometimes in the first light of day, sometimes the last. This is coupled with the extremely rare, spectacular cloud formations, which increase the drama of the images. They are magical documents of a dying culture, reminding us of Alfred Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.