Stéphane Hurel – Winner’s Interview

Stéphane was crowned 2019 Historic Photographer of the Year for his stunning image of the ruins of Arromanches Harbour. Here he is in his own words…

Why Did You Enter HPOTY?

I found HPOTY through a photography website and it immediately attracted me. I live in a region (Normandy in France) where every year we commemorate the Normandy Landings on June 6th 1944. That’s why I chose to present a photograph linked to this theme (WWII and more especially the landings) and the region has numerous places to photograph.

How Did You Feel When You Found Out That You Won The Competition?

The manager of Trip Historic had sent me an email to announce the good news but this email was stuck in my spam messages!

I heard that I had won the competition as the Historic Photographer of the Year thanks to the website. I couldn’t believe it! I understood and realised my award when I saw my photograph marked with ‘Winner’ on the front page. Obviously, I personally hoped to win this prize because I worked a lot to get it.

To make this image I had to prepare a methodical task. It was not by chance. Nevertheless, the great photographs taken by other competitors showed a very high quality with a perfect skill concerning low and highlights and the long exposure, as well. I believed it without believing it!

Why Did You Choose The Image Of The Ruins Of Arromanches Harbour To Submit?

This is a very special historical site. From an aesthetic aspect it is a photogenic site.

Driving to Arromanches through the hills and seeing down to the sea from several miles away this artificial harbour stands on the waves. I saw the view and I found it pretty magic. It is known that some pieces (parts) of the Phoenix caissons collapsed because of violent waves during storms every year. Unfortunately, this historic site will be gone in years to come.

During WWII, Churchill and Roosevelt had mentioned the concept of a landing to save Europe from the Nazis. ‘If we can’t capture harbours we have to build one!’

Built in England 76 years ago, this monumental and architectural masterpiece has been flowing slowly in the depths.

What Is The Story Behind The Photograph?

If you want to walk to the Phoenix caissons you will have to wait for high tides. The photograph was taken in September 2019 during the Equinox tides. My goal was to involve several elements: working at the time of the balance between the ‘Golden Hour’ and the ‘Blue Hour’. Therefore, a part of the photograph adds a warmth to the picture (in the yellows) and another part in the foreground adds a blue warmth because the caisson was already in the darkness when I took the image. So I had to go back to the site three times.

The first time the tide was still too high and the caisson was unreachable. The second time the tide was too low and the sky was too cloudy. With a scientific teacher friend we calculated the exact day and time to walk there for having the tide which begins to rise, and at the same time, the good lights between the ‘Golden Hour’ and the ‘Blue Hour’. The time is very short (within minutes). Antonio Gaudencio, a photographer, one of my favourite ones, uses an application called ‘sun surveyor’. it’s more simple! At Arromanches the tide rises so fast that I was surprised by the water which reached my thighs! Fortunately, I could put my equipment in the bags. I was alone in the darkness to return to the beach. Sometimes you have to take risks!

What Inspired You About That Location?

When you go to Arromanches you absolutely feel history and events which still sound there. It could be weird to say such a thing but you always meet someone when you get there. Every time I went to the site with my camera and heavy equipment I met a person with whom I talked. Some people can feel close to the photographer because they understand the magic of the site. I met Colombian women, Japanese people… the whole world comes here to commemorate and understand the events that happened 76 years ago.

How Did You Get Started In Photography?

I was pretty young, nearly 16. I had a silver process camera (Pentax). First, I took photographs for my pleasure without a specific goal. I made a lot of mistakes. Later, I met a couple of films directors when I was a teen. At that time I was at the British Film Festival in Cherbourg. We discovered Peter Greenaway’s and Jack Clayton’s films who came here to introduce their creations.

I remember a short story: I had a small camera while filming Jack Clayton through a large glass of wine which was standing on a table, during an interview for ‘les Cahiers du Cinéma’. Then, he stopped and said to me with a laugh ‘Don’t Make Art! Make Commercial!’

Obviously, my photographic activity is inspired by cinema. Later, I studied literature and cinema at university. When I was a student, I learnt photography with some specialised managers (trained at the FEMIS – a cinema school in Paris) during some scenes of short stories in which I was a film director.

I learnt how to light, what lenses to use and their characteristics. I mainly learnt to observe light because when you take a photograph you write with light. Our film director (who was in charge of a group of students) used to repeat: the photograph and painting represent one image and cinema starts with three images.

In Your Opinion, What Makes An Award-Winning Photograph?  

I think a good photograph must be a technical success like a pianist who creates a sound, it must be without mistakes. To me, a successful technical photograph has to be in line with the photographer’s wish. It could be a blurry image with a character who is not set up at the third of the picture, as recommended by the rules. In that case the picture is a success if the photographer wanted to do such an image.

Then, the image is polysemic in essence and it could be reason for several interpretations. I think of a popular image made by William Klein in New York with a young boy who points a gun at the photographer. Does he report youth violence ? Is the boy a mirror (reflection) of the robber photographer who steals images ? If the image tells something it remains in the mind of the viewer.

Where are your favourite locations for photographic inspiration?

I’m thinking of Oscar Wilde. He said ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life’. So, all sites are almost similar, provided that you are able to use them with your own ‘poetry machine’ which is your camera. Inspiration comes from authors. To me, I am inspired by photographers such as Raymond Depardon, Jeanloup Sieff, Sarah Moon, Reza and Olivier Mériel or filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick, who, in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, changes a disused area from the suburbs of London to a Vietnamese city by only filming some sequences at the ‘magic hour’ or the ‘golden hour’ (adding some palm trees, as well).

Besides, I am fond of a location that we can name the ‘Little French Ireland’. It is situated on La Hague with Jobourg, Goury, the bay of Ecalgrain. Lighting and landscapes are breath-taking and attract travellers. It’s where Roman Polanski filmed Tess with Nastassja Kinski, the story is supposed to take place in the English countryside in Dorset…

What Types Of Historical Locations Make The Best Images?

The Mont-Saint-Michel is a unique location. I would say it is a magic place because it is more than historic. We can feel spirituality that goes from this site. Well, it is not really true in August when thousands of people walk in the narrow streets but in winter the monument shows all its soul when it is hidden in the mist and when the Archangel’s sword that sits above the wonder, reaches low clouds.

I carried out some tasks about interior courtyards from the Middle Ages in Caen in the footsteps of William The Conqueror and Queen Mathilde. These intimate places were very interested to photograph. This work has been exhibited at the Klébert Gallery (16th arrondissement in Paris).

What Is Your Favourite Period Of History, And Why?

My favourite period of history is the Middle Ages, of course! (Mont-Saint-Michel, Rue Froide in Caen, the village of Saint-Emilion in the south-west of France) and I enjoy the 18th century for its aesthetic appeal as well. Indeed, I refer to cinematographic works like ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ directed by Stephen Frears. I could mention Kubrick again, with ‘Barry Lindon’. This film has specific purposes for filming into natural lighting with inside sequences which are fully candlelit. The director of photography has made a real treasure on a photographic film. This is an amazing work.

What Are The Top Five Historical Sites You Would Love To Photograph?

Mont-Saint-Michel in France

Alhambra at Granada in Spain

Hautville House, Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey

Buddhist Monastery in Tibet

The city of Matera in Italy

Do You Have Any Advice For Aspiring Historical Photographers?

If you want to take a photograph do it about what you know, what you enjoy. We can feel it on photographs. Have a look, watch what the other famous photographers have done. To do this is good for a better practice (your eye will be familiar).

It seems to be obvious when you look at Joseph Hoflehner’s photographs. I think about his Taj Mahal picture (taken in winter) with a long exposure, a very contrasted black and white and a cloud of birds which fly around in an almost unreal atmosphere. So I can say I saw thousands of pictures of the Taj Mahal but this one is really special!

Now That You’re An Award-Winning Photographer, What Are Your Plans For The Future?

I want to carry on my photographic practice as a Photographer-Author status which allows me to answer some orders. I have been preparing a photograph book for three years. My book should be published soon. I was inspired by the region of La Hague. I have also done my first steps on social networks. I created my Instagram and a website is coming soon.

For a long time I didn’t understand the importance to be seen on the internet! I mainly concentrated my energy on exhibitions. But you have to know how to live with your time.

Translated by Alexandre Grigorieff

Follow Stéphane on Instagram @stephanehurel.photography