Nowhere Newsletter 08: Olivier Kervern

Interview with photographer Olivier Kervern

What is your backstory?

My name is Olivier Kervern. I am 43 and started photography when I was around 19. I remember a friend lent me a camera and an enlarger and I think I continued my interest in photography because I was also printing. Even though I was so bad at it.

I didn't study and was quite bad in school, so I left after High School graduation. I remember that all my friends were going to university and I started photography but didn't know what to do really. So for some obscure reason (that I still don't know) I traveled to India. When I was young, I loved some of the Magnum photographers, and I in a way, copied them. Larry Towell and Josef Koudelka were big influences at that time. I remember I went to India for 6 months, with a Nikkormat FTN. When I came back I did the development and the contact print and everything was bad. I didn't keep anything. For some reason I couldn't accept it so I went back to India a couple of months after and then traveled for a year in Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal. And when I returned, I was happy with the works. That was a big turning point for me.

I did around 20 years of photography alone, with no income for many many years. Just doing my thing. I have spent my life going to bookstores and libraries and I really think I have learned photography by reading photo books. I have met some great photographers in my life with photography - not personally but I feel I live with them in a way through the books. Issei Suda, Robert Adams and Anthony Hernandez had a huge impact on me. So I feel I follow some kind of path, because you are never completely alone I suppose. 

What camera gear / editing setup do you use?

I used to work with a Nikkormat FTN. Then I switched to a Canonet QL 17 for a year or two and then I started shooting medium format. Since 2010 I have used a Yashica 124 for B&W and a Mamiya 6 for color. I also do slide film in color so I need a very accurate lightmeter.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

In B&W, I work with the contact sheet mostly. I print a contact sheet on FB paper, then I cut the one I select. I then spend a lot of time looking at it, until I decide, if I want to keep it or not. Often I bring the contact sheet with me in my pocket to look at, in different places and in different light. Like in the metro or in a café. In color I do almost the same. Slide film in medium format is big enough to have an idea. Also its good to start to looking when they are small. If the picture grow, it has to start small. Then I scan it and work with it on my computer.

Could you tell us the backstory of some of your photographs?

This is a difficult question. But I remember in Nepal, when I was young, I walked for a couple days on Mount Everest - just the easy part at the beginning. I spent a night in a village and I realized I didn't have enough money to continue. Just enough money to walk back to the nearest city where the trail started and to find a stupid ATM. So I woke up early and I went back to the small city. On my way back I saw a nepalese girl and I fell in love at first sight. I followed her up the mountain but lost sight of her. So I ran back for one day until I found the small city. I don't know why. Just a crazy moment. I shot some photos during that moment that i still love. It was strong.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Forget everything about getting rich or famous and then, if you keep being honest and true to yourself, you could live a good life. Otherwise the key, I think, is to be very curious and openminded about the work of other photographers and read lots of photo books.