Photographer Maxime Ballesteros has ‘provocative’ attached to his name. He captures the most intense and beautiful aspects of life – the climax of a party, sex and a fair amount of high heels and leather – in bright colours illuminated by a sharp, uncompromising flash. Originally from a small village near Lyon, Ballesteros now lives in Berlin, which he describes as “dangerous in the best way, in its freedom”. He photographs Berlin’s nightlife and his friends, though his pictures are only loosely connected to specific places and times. Playing with sexually-charged symbolism – leather, stockings, heels – his photos evoke debauched Renaissance paintings and early photographs of the decadent 20s and 80s. Creation and destruction, love and innocence, excess and debauchery – aspects fundamental to human nature – are all ever-present themes in his work.
Whatever his subject is, he manages to capture reality at its best, the perfect moment one wants to preserve forever. Ballesteros' photographs are strong and honest statements sprinkled with only a constrasting hint of irony. Ahead of his upcoming show in Cologne, Dazed talked to Ballesteros about the perfect photo, nudity, and wandering strangers in latex bodysuits.
Dazed Digital: When did you start taking photographs and how has your style evolved since?
Maxime Ballesteros: In high school we had a darkroom and that’s when I learned how to develop my own pictures. I starting spending a lot of time in darkrooms, I basically locked myself up for about eight years. I'm not sure why, but I set myself rules from the beginning – black and white only, prime lenses, manual focus and settings. Then I got a flash and things got a lot more interesting. It allowed me to shoot actions at night. I traded my 50mm for a 35mm, and therefore had to get closer to people and subjects. When I moved to Berlin in 2007 I bought a new camera and got colour films, which again changed everything. It felt almost like a different medium, and I started thinking about and seeing things differently. I began using cameras that were less obtrusive, which allowed me to focus faster and carry it with me all the time.
DD: What did you do before photography?
Maxime Ballesteros: I have a hard time remembering what was on my mind before photography. I was doing circus and riding my BMX but I don't think I had any dreams. When I was about 20, I was writing very short stories. I did a little book at the time, 25 copies or so, hand-bound. It was a sort of self-prescribed therapy. So is photography, it has helped me a lot.
DD: Your imagery is often very sexual; you shoot a lot of leather and high heels. Where does this come from?
Maxime Ballesteros: I'm not sure whether my photos are actually that sexual. I never show an image on its own, it has to be in a dialogue with and bounce off other pictures. I'm driven by everyday situations. Yesterday night at 4am I was riding my bike back home and came across this guy – doing some sort of slave thing I guess – walking around the neighbourhood in a latex bodysuit, high heels and a gas mask, carrying a red rose. I was on my way back from a crowded bar further south, where girls and boys were twerking and sweating - we live in a very sexualised world.
Sex and destruction seem to be something that link different worlds and societies together
DD: What’s your attitude towards nudity?
Maxime Ballesteros: I’ve never been very much into nudity. I always felt the need for accessories and for a "second skin", hiding as well as enhancing the body. This leaves room for imagination, which is what I try to achieve with my work in general. Heels are extremely powerful objects, which are important in my work and I think in our society in general.
DD: Can you tell us more about the aspect of destruction in your pictures?
Maxime Ballesteros: Things, nature, people and families are subject to destruction. This can be positive as well as negative; one can battle against it or embrace it. Traces of destruction can reveal the world, remind us of death, and make our vanity burst for a moment. It can be sad and cold, but also full of life and perspectives. Sex and destruction seem to be something that link different worlds and societies together.
DD: What makes a good picture?
Maxime Ballesteros: Chance and context? I remember seeing a short film of William Klein going through some of his contact sheets and saying: "That's not a photograph." And then: "This is a photograph." His approach has stuck in my mind ever since, it’s the way I see images. The process of selecting is half of the work. It also teaches you a lot – to frame better next time (re-framing or cropping would be cheating), to move more precisely, to be more attentive, faster, and so on. A good picture is never about what’s on the photo or how unusual or beautiful it is. It has to go beyond that.
DD: Which era inspires you most?
Maxime Ballesteros: I studied books from the 30s to the 80s quite a lot when I started taking pictures. The mostly black and white photographs definitely inspired me a lot for many years. But right now there are so many images around that I try to do my best to see as few as possible, to filter as much as possible. Although that’s hard because they almost attack you. Generally, I think there are great photographs from every era. We are maybe just a bit more emotional when it comes to older images and times long gone.
I hope I’ll understand things a bit better when I look back at what I’ve done before I die
DD: Who were the most interesting people you photographed recently?
Maxime Ballesteros: My dear friends at my wedding. Smoking under the intense sun of the south of France. Treating dogs like humans. Getting naked together.
DD: What are your plans for the near future?
Maxime Ballesteros: I’m going on a road trip for Mercedes Benz and a German magazine called Sleek. I also need to find a project somewhere warm to escape Berlin’s winter at least for a couple of weeks. But I will also take advantage of the -20°C outside and spend some time at home and in the studio working on a book I have planned.
DD: What would be your dream photography project?
Maxime Ballesteros: I see my work as an ongoing project and I hope I’ll understand things a bit better when I look back at what I’ve done before I die.
Maxime Ballesteros' work is on display at The Teapot Gallery as part of the show Entre Chien et Loup in Cologne from November 7 to December 5.
Follow Anastasiia Fedorova on Twitter here @anastasiia_f