Last Updated on 09/22/2019 by Mark Beckenbach
Pierre Crocquet may not be a photographer you’ve heard of, but since his tragic death in 2013, one person is doing their best to ensure everybody knows his name.
After his passing, Pierre Crocquet’s sister, Jeannine, inherited all his negatives. In an almost Vivian Maier style story, Jeannie has hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film. She’s currently unpacking Pierre’s photographic story and sharing it with the world. The work is powerful and the response is overwhelming. Jeannine profoundly loves her brother, and her role of being his curator is helping to keep their relationship alive. In a moving conversation, Jeannie invited us to take a look at Pierre’s history. She shares with us his troubles, his creative challenges, and who Pierre Crocquet – the man and the photographer – really was.
“Cartier-Bresson said it best, ‘capturing eternity in a moment.’ I think Pierre captured quite a few of those eternal moments.”
Phoblographer: Hey, Jeannine! Can you tell a little about how Pierre became involved with photography, as you remember it?
JV: My Dad gave Pierre his old Voigtlander Vito B when he was about 16. Pierre fell in love with photography then, shooting all the time. Photos of school friends and activities mostly. I remember them as being pretty good shots, action shots during sports, etc. When Pierre left school for the university he stopped using the camera, but the love remained. He studied accountancy at university and graduated as a CA. He worked for big merchant banks and accounting firms after that, but he hated it, finding the work absolutely meaningless. He left his job at what was then Chase Manhattan when he was in his early 30s and did a course at the London School of Photography. He then took up photography full time for the next ten years until he died at 42.
Phoblographer: After your brother sadly passed on, how much of his negatives did you inherit? What was your first thought on what to do with them?
JV: Pierre was killed in a hit and run accident while walking on a lonely highway in the middle of the night in 2013. He had been on an isolated Buddhist retreat for six months and fled into the dark, wearing only a pair of shorts, after experiencing a psychotic episode.
Along with the grief and trauma came the administrative chaos that accompanies death at the relatively early age of 42. I suddenly found myself in charge of an archive of thousands of negatives as well as boxes of contact sheets and prints.
“I want Pierre’s one or two seconds to really count.”
I had no idea where to start and, with no formal plan, began the simplest job first – finding a way of keeping the work visible and alive. Social media was the obvious and most cost-effective choice. I shared Pierre’s images on film photography groups on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Reddit. The response was always overwhelmingly positive and I realized that Pierre’s work, and the story that went with it, resonated with people. Ultimately a book or something similar would be ideal, but money and logistics are a barrier. I live on the Southernmost tip of Africa and my country doesn’t have a functional postal service. So, displaying the work in a virtual world has been a fantastic solution.
Phoblographer: You have an art background. If you had to describe your brother’s work, what would you say?
JV: I see Pierre’s work as being very classical photography, old school in looks and style. It’s a very ‘decisive moment’ and overwhelmingly people-driven. I have thousands of Pierre’s negatives, that were taken over a period of ten years. There are maybe 20 shots in total that don’t have people in them. No landscapes, no still lives, even shots that are of nature, like his work in the Karoo desert, have small figures in them. Humanity and all its vagaries are what fascinated him.
He also wasn’t interested in the usual African trope of war and famine. Pierre was in Angola just after the 27-year long civil war ended. Other photographers from that time were shooting the aftermath of conflict. People with lost limbs, traumatized children, and derelict buildings, all valid and relevant. But one of my favorite of Pierre’s photos was taken then. It shows three youths on a pier silhouetted against the sun, one of them captured mid-cartwheel.
Curating the feed has literally opened up the world for me.
Pierre was very interested in capturing the beauty in the ordinary, the moments of interest within the mundane. Two kids on a seesaw, an outdoor informal church service in Hillbrow, boxers training next to the sea, a woman having her morning coffee next to a pig’s head – Cartier-Bresson said it best, ‘capturing eternity in a moment.’ I think Pierre captured quite a few of those eternal moments.
Phoblographer: You set up an Instagram for Pierre’s body of work. What was your motivation to do that and how have you found curating the feed?
JV: Pierre’s work was definitely known during his lifetime – he exhibited all over the world and his final body of work, Pinky Promise, was featured in the NY Times Lens section and won awards. That is quite a rarified environment though, galleries and such. An exhibition can mean the work is seen by hundreds of people, maybe a few thousand. On-line the visibility is massive compared to that. Pierre had no social media presence during his lifetime and I think he would be astounded at how much traction his work has received via the internet. Instagram has its detractors, but the reality is that it’s the best thing going, and the reach is phenomenal. The unseen image may just as well not exist, and social media means many, many sets of eyes that have never seen the work before.
Curating the feed has literally opened up the world for me. I was always interested in photography, but in a rather casual and uninformed way. Now I have an obsessive interest in all aspects of the art. It’s meant I’ve become in contact and got an exposure to wonderfully creative people. People whom I probably would never have encountered without this final gift from Pierre.
Phoblographer: Pierre was relatively young when he passed. How has the process of managing his body of work helped with your grieving process over the years?
JV: It has been a lifesaver. Pierre was my only sibling and we were very close, very involved in each other’s lives. Losing a sibling is a particular kind of loss; it’s the vanishing of a shared childhood, a shared lifetime. There are experiences that only Pierre and I shared, a shorthand that only we understood. You don’t realize how unique that is until it’s no longer there. Having his work has kept him very present in my life. His notes, the markings on his contact sheets, they are communications from Pierre that are really meaningful. Having his work, seeing it nearly every day has kept him very much alive for me.
When it comes down to it we are only the things we leave behind when we die. Luckily for me what Pierre left behind is exceptional and having others see it and appreciate it is quite magical. I just wish I could tell Pierre how it has all unfolded.
Phoblographer: Pierre had a very well regarded series titled, Pinky Promise. Please tell us more about this series and the impact you feel it had on his audience?
JV: Pinky Promise is a difficult and complex body of work in that it documents childhood sexual abuse. Not only from the perspective of those that survived the horrific experience, but also the stories of those that perpetrated the abuse. I don’t often post work from it as it’s not really geared for the style that works on social media. The work needs to be seen as a whole to be understood. A shot of a naked pedophile on the beach gets a lot of reaction but not of the necessarily appropriate kind.
Pierre spent many hours with pedophiles while shooting the images for the books. He really worked on separating his revulsion for the act from the person who committed it. One of the abusers had molested many children but had also lovingly nursed his wife during her long illness with cancer and had been devastated by her death. Another, the aforementioned naked guy on the beach called Bob, was himself a survivor of sexual abuse who became an abuser in adulthood. Pierre was very much drawn to the intricacies of people, within the depths of evil that sliver of good.
“Pinky Promise is not a popular work, but it is important.”
The nature of the work was not without problems for Pierre though; he went through a stint of rehab in the middle of the project as he was worried about an escalation in his drinking and drug use. I feel this work also ultimately lead to his death. He was completely burned out after the completion of the book, and that led him to the retreat on which he had the mental breakdown which caused his death.
Pinky Promise is not a popular work, but it is important. It was an absolute labor of love for Pierre in that it was a commercial failure. People have no wish to hang images of sexual abuse survivors or pedophiles on their walls. The response [to the work] was usually puzzled, “But your other work is so great, why do this?”. When Pierre died, he was completely bankrupt, had lost everything, so I am really pleased that the work has had new recognition over the last 18 months.
David Goldblatt, who is an icon of South African photography, selected works from Pinky Promise for the final exhibition he curated. The exhibition featured the works of four photographers that Goldblatt admired, one of them being Pierre, and has been very successful. It is still touring 18 months after opening and is going to Bamako in Mali very soon.
Sadly, Goldblatt died a few months after the exhibition launched, and as a huge fan a highlight for me is what he said about Pinky Promise:
“Pierre Crocquet tried to interest me in his work at a time when I was heavily committed to a major project. To my shame, I failed to respond and when I finally tried to do so, he was dead. There can be few who engaged with pedophilia and child abuse so plainly, frankly and yet delicately as Crocquet. Seldom has any piece of work in photography and words been more frighteningly titled than Pinky Promise.”
Phoblographer: Wow. That’s so powerful! When Pierre was creating his work, what cameras did he use?
JV: Pierre was not gear oriented at all, he would work with one camera that could get the job done. He had very few lenses too. Pierre’s early work, the Africa series, was purely street photography. He traveled the continent and just shot what caught his eye. He would get in his station wagon and head off on long road trips. Some of his best shots come from those random journeys – the kids on the seesaw was something he drove by, as was the boy rollerskating in the middle of nowhere.
At this stage, he used his Nikon FM as it was hardy, a solid workhorse, and needed no batteries. Later, when he began working on dedicated and long term projects he switched to medium format. All his portraits from the Knysna Forest and Pinky Promise were taken with his Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with a Mamiya Sekor 110mm lens. I sill have both cameras and they work perfectly.
Phoblographer: Would you ever shoot with him? How was that?
JV: No, sadly, I never did. I was always very interested and involved in his projects, especially the woodcutters of Knysna Forest series as I live in Knysna. Pierre put an intense amount of thought into his work, quite obsessive in a way. He would discuss his motivations at length. I’m very thankful for that now as I feel I have some insight and understanding of his later work especially.
Phoblographer: As a person, what three words best describe your brother?
JV: Persistent, interested and generous.
Phoblographer: Finally, what would you like his legacy to be?
JV: Pierre was very aware of leaving something behind, he put everything he had into his 10 years as a photographer. It cost him all that he had materially. He was wealthy in his early 30s, owned properties and was a big earner. He gave all that up, and by the time he died he was bankrupt and effectively homeless as his properties were repossessed while he was on the Buddhist retreat. To him, that was a price absolutely worth paying – what he valued was his work, his family and his friends.
Any photographer’s body of work ultimately only contains a few images that are outstanding, Pierre included. Someone recently directed me to this quote by William Klein that really resonated. He summed up a photography career, “The picture is taken at 1/125 of a second. What do you know of a photographer’s work? A hundred pictures? Let’s say 125. That comes out to one second. Let’s say, more like 250 photographs? That would be a rather large body of work. And that would come out to two seconds. The life of a photographer — even of a great photographer, as they say — two seconds.”
I want Pierre’s one or two seconds to really count.
You can enjoy all the work curated by Jeannine by visiting Pierre’s dedicated Instagram.
All images by Pierre Crocquet. Used with permission.