Lucien Clergue’s career was shaped by tragedy, opportunity, and experimentation. In a time where photography was just beginning to artistically evolve, Clergue saw to it that his pictures would capture the same beauty, shape, and engagment that other art forms had been doing for years.
Born in Arles, France in 1934, Lucien was exposed to the turmoil of war at a very young age. Having been evacuated to the countryside due to the destruction brought on by World War 2, he returned at the age of ten to find his home completely destroyed. While struggling with the needs of everyday life, as well as the illness of his mother, Clergue managed to receive access to his first camera at age thirteen. While infatuated with the art form, his interest was cut short due to his mother’s passing in 1952. He took a job at a food distribution business in order to support himself and his father, but continued to take photographs recreationally.
Lucien Clergue’s traumatic start could have stifled his creative drive. However, it was his introduction to Pablo Picasso that helped redirect him to the pathway of a photographic career. Having met the artist in 1953, he insisted on showing him his collection of photographs of the damages of the war. These images captured blown out buildings, dead animal carcasses, and skeletons. Seeing the skill and potential in the photographer, Picasso encouraged his persistence with the medium, and introduced him to influential people such as Jean Cocteau, who would later go on to assist with the publishing of Clergue’s first book, “Corps Mémorables”. He and Picasso would remain good friends throughout the duration of his career.
In 1959, Edward Steichen purchased ten photos by Lucien Clergue that were to be housed as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Clergue utilized the momentum and renown he was gaining to found the International Photography Festival in his home of Arles, France. The next forty years of the institution’s founding was spent gathering photographers from all over the world. While receiving many offers from a variety of fashion magazines to shoot photographs for them, Clergue insisted on remaining a purist, and stated that his photography was for art alone.
His fascination with decay followed him throughout his career and was incorporated in a many of his books and exhibitions. He also captured groups of people from his home, such as gypsies and traveling circus groups. His other, most notable works were of nude women, which was inspired by his appreciation for American photographer, Edward Weston. These photos are easily identifiable due to the fact that they heads are often cut out of the photograph. What started as a decision to respect his model’s anonymity in their photographs, developed into a notable style that emphasized the shape, lighting, and curvature of the nude form that is often compared to that of terrestrial formations.
Clergue was knighted to the Légion d’honneur in 2003, and in 2006, was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts as the first ever photographer. He served as chairman of the society in 2013. He died in 2014 due to a cancer diagnosis. He has since been remembered through a variety of exhibitions all around the world, including one a year following his death in his home of Arles.
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“Lucien Clergue - Biography.” Anne Clergue, Anne Clergue Galerie, 3 Dec. 2015, www.anneclergue.com/lucien-clergue-biography#lucien-clergue-biography-full-book-cover.
“Lucien Clergue - Obituary.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 Nov. 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11238840/Lucien-Clergue-obituary.html.
“Lucien Clergue (1934-2014).” Lucien Clergue - Photographer - Beetles+Huxley London | Beetles & Huxley London, Beetles and Huxley , 2015, www.beetlesandhuxley.com/artists/lucien-clergue-1934-2014.html#bio.
“Lucien Clergue.” Lucien Clergue | Artnet, Artnet Worldwide Corporation, www.artnet.com/artists/lucien-clergue/.
Vitello, Paul. “Lucien Clergue, Master and Promoter of Art Photography, Dies at 80.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Nov. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/11/27/arts/international/lucien-clergue-master-and-promoter-of-art-photography-dies-at-80-.html.