Photographer creates urban canvas

Photographer Stephane Couturier revels in Hong Kong's complex and chaotic urban landscape

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 11:50am

Dynamic vertical and horizontal lines, elegant curves and dramatic effects of light - for Stephane Couturier the more visually complex a scene the better. It's not surprising then that the French photographer gets excited when talking about Hong Kong's chaotic urban landscape of criss-crossed bamboo scaffolding, crane-heavy construction sites, housing estate facades and mish-mash architecture.

"Colours, grids and shapes have always fascinated me and Hong Kong provides all of these … It's the concentration of all that comprises a new 21st-century city. Urban density and natural landscapes with the sea share this city. I love Hong Kong and have no criticisms. As a tourist you see only the good side of a place," he says.

While sightseeing was on his agenda, Couturier's main reason for visiting the city was to launch his first Hong Kong exhibition, "Mutation", at Espace Louis Vuitton in Tsim Sha Tsui. Curated by William Zhao, the exhibition features works from his Melting Point, Landscaping and Urban Archaeology series, alongside a new series of photographs and videos focusing on the architecture of the Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation For Creation building in Paris. Located in the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park in Paris, it is scheduled to open next year. Until then, the exhibition provides an insight into the architecture in progress.

"For the Louis Vuitton project, I wanted to show the building not as a part of a construction site but as pieces of a monumental jewel."

Mission accomplished. The images not only capture the industrial beauty of the site but also succeed in breathing life into the mundane. It's a Couturier trademark, one born out of his philosophy that all cities are living organisms.

"My images provide a new way to consider spaces and how they function - or could function - in a changing post-industrial world. I like to experiment with the city and other peopled spaces, I consider them living organisms."

Ironically, his work is devoid of anything living: no clichéd portraits of people. Not even the hint of a tree. What you will see, however, are industrial images showing urban decay and the destructive effects of modernisation.

"I want to photograph cities in a way that would reveal something about them, to disclose hidden sections of housing developments undergoing change; interlocking structures as brightly coloured as they are ephemeral; beams propping up crumbling facades or shoring up immense excavations ... Ambiguous spaces that look at first glance as if they were the result of some technical manipulation."

Courtier's love for urban landscapes was engrained from a young age. "I grew up in Paris and my environment has always been very dense urban spaces."

His love for photography started in 1984 after being exposed to the works of Franco-Russian fashion photographer Harry Meerson, Italian photographer Franco Fontana and French architect Jean Nouvel.

A decade later, in 1994, he showed his first works in a series called Urban Archaeology.

"Viewing the city as a living organism with multiple aspects, I photographed it, deliberately avoiding anything that suggested poetry, nostalgia or strangeness. My photographs juxtapose planes, and eschew depth of field and perspective," he says.

For his Melting Point series in 2005, Couturier experimented with a new medium: video. "I used videos with this melting point technic to merge two photos or two videos … The result is something between reality and fiction."

In 2011, the Melting Point project was shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Pictet, an award for photography that sends messages about sustainability to a global audience. The series of large-scale time-exposure photographs depicting a hi-tech Toyota assembly plant in Valenciennes, France, explored how modern cultures can construct and destroy.

Since then his camera has zoomed around the globe, capturing urban scenes from Seoul to Chandigarh to Barcelona, resulting in a smorgasbord of visually stunning architectural photographs.

"Mutation" is Couturier's first major exhibition in Asia. The photographer is working on a project about Algiers and the work of Fernand Pouillon, a French architect prolific in the 1950s and '60s. He is also preparing several exhibitions in Brazil, South Korea and in Paris with a major exhibition in Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2014.

As for making political comments about urban sprawl, decay or the destruction of heritage buildings, Couturier remains ambiguous.

"It is not easy to answer all the questions about urban changes. The answer is more about the ambiguity of this new world. It's fascinating but at the same time it's frightening." he says.

The "Mutation" by Stephane Couturier, Espace Louis Vuitton Hong Kong, 5 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Open 10am-10pm daily until August. Inquiries: 8100 1182