Publishing books and articles on photography usually involves obtaining reproduction rights from image copyright holders. Over the years, my experience with this process has been very mixed: from easily finding the relevant copyright holder and being granted the right without problem to long searches for rights holders with no tangible results, ensuing in complicated discussions with publishers concerning so-called fair use arrangements (reproduction without permission when publications have an educational purpose). There are a few indicators for how a search for a copyright holder may progress: First, the more well-known the photographer the easier it is to find the right holders, which are usually agencies or galleries/museums; secondly, the older the photographer, the safer the copyright duration rule whereby rights on the work expire 70 years after the creator’s death (the legal rule is the author’s life + 70 years); and thirdly, well – everything in-between! Of course, the legal situation is infinitely more complex, and I tend to treat each image I need on a case-by-case basis. In addition, the medium of photography poses further challenges, including the most obvious one that there is no such thing as an ‘original’ photographic image and hence no obvious place where ‘the’ image is held. This differs from a one-of-a-kind oil painting, such as the only painted portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche, which is part of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay (Paris). Nineteenth-century photographs are also often misattributed, sitters misidentified, and dates falsified, far more often than is the case for painting.
Be this as it may, I’m bringing up this usually very time-consuming and, if truth be told, often stressful research for image copyright for the reason that in one specific case, it has led me to a very interesting encounter with a photographer whose portrait I propose to sketch here.
After the 2015 centenary of Roland Barthes’s birth, I prepared an article for publication which included several photographic portraits of the famous theorist and writer. Among them was a Barthes portrait taken in 1970 by André Perlstein that prominently featured during the centenary exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France Les Écritures de Roland Barthes, Panorama. The photographer has his own website (he is part of case #3 above) and I wrote to him asking for permission to reproduce the image in my article. Over the course of a few email exchanges, instead of the commercial exchange of image and reproduction rights, our shared passion for photography quickly became the main point of conversation and we decided to continue our stimulating discussion in person.
A few months later, at the end of 2017, we met for lunch in a Parisian café. André Perlstein arrived with a plastic bag in his hand, which contained, as was quickly revealed, a large catalogue of some of his extensive work: Chronique des années 70. As our tiny table was cleared to make room for the volume we talked about his fascinating photographic career and his life more generally.
André Perlstein’s family came from Dorsten, Germany, but fled from the Nazi regime to France in 1939. André was born in Lyon in 1942. Separated from his parents and hidden by a French family together with his older sister he escaped deportation. He never saw his parents again but remains close to his sister who still lives in Lyon. The details of his childhood experience as a German-Jewish immigrant in France touched me deeply on both emotional and intellectual levels and it was tempting to see a connection here between his enforced position as an outsider and his chosen profession of photographer, not to speak of the parallels with other photographers who left Nazi Germany to permanently settle in other countries, such as Gisèle Freund in France and Grete Stein in Argentina. André emphasized that he took up photography by coincidence, but also as a way to escape authority. When he entered the French Air Force in his teens in the early 1960s, he picked up a camera and immediately took a liking to the half present, half absent observational stance of a photographer. A meeting in the army with future journalist and politician Jean-Marie Cavada provided the opportunity to meet and photograph cultural celebrities of the time and sell the images to photo-reportage magazines. By the mid-1960s, Pelrstein became a photojournalist and worked for the French weekly magazine L’Express, where, in 1970, he took a series of portraits of Roland Barthes, as part of a weekly column featuring writers and intellectuals. From 1972 onwards he also worked for other well-known journalistic outlets, including Le Point and Paris Match and became a member of a number of photography agencies, such as Gamma, Sygma and Contact. Perlstein was also connected to the world of the moving-image, working as the still photographer for a number of film productions by the celebrated French directors Claude Lelouch and Jean-Pierre Melville, and he later moved into fashion photography. In recent years, he has focused increasingly on international exhibitions of his work, book projects and other ventures. He works with NGOs and contributes to educational events by talking to pupils about journalism and photo-reportage. He also still takes photographs from time to time.
During our meeting, I was given a guided tour of the photographs assembled in Chronique des années 70, which contains an astonishing array of faces together constituting a genuine who’s who of 1970s France and beyond. The list of celebrities he captured in revealing and always compositionally interesting fashion is long and varied: it includes politicians (Georges Pompidou, André Malraux, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing); musicians and singers (Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday and Tom Jones); filmmakers (Claude Chabrol, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Tati) and actors (Alain Delon, Anna Karina, Isabelle Adjani, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Marcello Mastroianni and Dennis Hooper), as well as writers and intellectuals, including Georges Perec, Simone de Beauvoir, Eugène Ionesco and Jean d’Ormesson. All of the images are black and white and one can sense that the photographer was no stranger to the aesthetic of capturing the ‘decisive moment’ à la Henri Cartier-Bresson. But the images by Perlstein are franker, more direct, and the photographer does not entirely disappear from the image. Perlstein refrains from flash photography (and image manipulation), and has a unique way of engaging, and being engaged by his sitters – as in the case of a 1980 portrait of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein who instructed the photographer not to ask him to laugh, but to make him laugh! (A lot of people laugh in Perlstein’s photographs.) Most of the pictures are taken ‘in action’, that is, when the subjects are occupied by their creative activities. Each image tells a story, each represents the proverbial slice of time, and during our meeting André Perlstein filled the gaps and missing links with his animated and enthusiastic accounts of the genesis of each arresting image. His fondness for certain sitters and frustration with others was as lively as I imagined it to have been in the 1970s. I couldn’t help but notice that his excitement over retelling the moment of a picture’s taking some forty years later was interspersed with moments of reflection and expressed thankfulness for the opportunity to be a professional photographer.
By the time we finished looking through the catalogue, the lunch crowd had long disappeared from the café and we decided it was time to part. We have met subsequently and are discussing possible collaborations. Thus a normally prosaic search for the rights holder of a portrait of Roland Barthes ended with the discovery (for me) of the entire œuvre of a photographer and an extraordinary life lived with and thorough images – in other words, just the sort of serendipitous and affecting encounter with photography that Barthes so eloquently celebrated.
(The scholarly article that led to this meeting is entitled “Picturing Barthes: The Photographic Construction of Authorship” and will appear – with André Perlstein’s portraits of Barthes – in a volume to be published by Oxford University Press: Interdisciplinary Barthes, edited by Diana Knight.)