Raymond Cauchetier, whose camera caught the New Wave, dies at 101
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Raymond Cauchetier, whose camera caught the New Wave, dies at 101
Still from A Bout de Souffle. © Raymond Cauchetier, courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Raymond Cauchetier, the renowned French photographer who documented the revolutionary early films of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and other New Wave directors a half-century ago with now-classic portraits, only to go uncredited for decades, died Monday in Paris. He was 101.

The cause was COVID-19, said Julia Gragnon, who runs La Galerie de l’Instant, the French gallery that represents Cauchetier.

A self-taught photographer who did not own a camera until he was in his 30s, Cauchetier for most of his life was known for pictures of Romanesque sculptures and architectural treasures of Europe and Southeast Asia, including thousands of images of the ancient temples at Angkor Wat, a portfolio mindlessly burned by the Khmer Rouge when it toppled the Cambodian government in 1975.

But the photographs that made his global reputation — a pictorial record of the iconoclastic New Wave cinema from 1959 to 1968 — were taken in his capacity as a low-paid set photographer, one of the film industry’s most obscure occupations: snapping still pictures of stars on studio sets. The prints were typically used for theater posters and publicity releases.

Those photos, now considered central to the cinematic history of the early New Wave, were intended as mere promotional giveaways for some of the greatest films of the genre — Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” (1960) and his “Jules and Jim” (1962), Jacques Demy’s “Lola” (1961), and Claude Chabrol’s “The Third Lover” (1962).

After their brief commercial exploitation, the photographs wound up in cardboard boxes, stored in studio cellars and forgotten for nearly four decades. Cauchetier was able to retrieve many of them only after a change in French copyright laws gave photographers the rights to pictures they had taken as salaried employees.

The resurrection began with the publication in France of Cauchetier’s “Photos de Cinema,” in 2007, and was spurred on by a 2009 profile of him in the photography journal Aperture; by a 2013 exhibit of his work in Los Angeles by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and by the publication of his 2015 art book, “Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave.”

The New Wave, which flourished with Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959) and Eric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), was one of the most influential movements in cinema history. Its directors rebelled against the traditional film conventions of postwar France — safe plots adapted from novels, tightly scripted scenes, and actors of stature esteemed at Cannes Film Festivals.

Instead, they plunged into radical experimentation with editing, visual styles and narratives that reflected social and political upheavals of the day. They used little-known actors, improvised scenes and dialogue, quick-cut scene changes and long tracking shots. The absurdity of human existence was a favorite theme. Tight budgets made streets and friends’ apartments ideal for set locales.

Cauchetier’s images, capturing the essence of films and the stories of their making, were equally rebellious. He refused to stand beside a movie camera operator and take stock shots of actors, as was the custom. Having learned fast-paced spontaneity as a combat photographer in the French Indochina War, he turned his camera toward the directors and others making the film.

He caught directors badgering stars. He snapped chaotic street scenes of milling crowds and curious onlookers. He captured the actors in unguarded off-camera moments, revealing their playful sides and gloomy moods: real life behind the illusory facades.

In 1959, Cauchetier was hired for Godard’s debut film, “A Bout de Souffle” (“Breathless”), the tale of a petty thug (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who steals a car, kills a cop and hides out in the flat of his girlfriend (Jean Seberg). She learns what he has done and betrays him to the police, and he’s shot as he flees on a crowded street. In the confusion, a real gendarme joined shocked bystanders in rushing to the “dying” man. The photographer’s shutter clicked as real and imaginary worlds merged.

For Godard, who once said “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” the film brought lasting fame. His genius lay in simplicity, Cauchetier said.

“Godard arrived in the morning with only a vague idea of what he would shoot that day,” he told The Guardian in 2015. “He had a school exercise book, and he’d jot down some dialogue and copy it out on pieces of paper and hand them to the actors. When Seberg found out about this, she wanted to go back to Iowa. The idea of making a film with lines written on bits of paper left her panic-stricken.”

Several Cauchetier photos from “Breathless” are classics. One has Belmondo and Seberg strolling on the Champs-Élysées, a broken-nose tough-guy with a dangling cigarette and a girl in a New York Herald Tribune T-shirt, chased by Godard and a canvas-covered mailman’s trolley cart with a hole for the camera. Another, of Seberg kissing Belmondo tenderly on the cheek, became a cult favorite.

“I’m always surprised when one of my photographs is seen as emblematic, symbolizing not just the New Wave but also a whole era, even sometimes France itself,” Cauchetier said in his art book. “Yet over the course of time, it is the photograph that constitutes the principal memory of a film.”

Another famous Cauchetier photo, for “Jules and Jim,” caught Jeanne Moreau and her lovers, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, running across a railway bridge, a wave of joy on each face drawn in the split second of an f-stop.

Cauchetier’s photographs documented two dozen New Wave films, including Godard’s “A Woman Is a Woman” (1960), Jacques Rozier’s “Adieu Philippine” (1962), Agnès Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962), Chabrol’s “Bluebeard” (1963), Demy’s “Bay of Angels” (1963), and Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin” (1964) and “Stolen Kisses” (1968).

The Wave continued into the early 1970s. But by 1968 Cauchetier, approaching 50, had tired of the paltry wages of movie-set photography and quit French cinema altogether. His career extended into his 90s, though many critics regard his New Wave work as his finest.

“His photographs,” John Bailey wrote in American Cinematographer in 2010, “consistently tell a story that gives much insight to both the formal style of the New Wave, and to the up-from-the-bootstraps camaraderie and hardscrabble improvisations of these no-budget movies that today have become chapter headings in film history.”

Raymond Cauchetier was born in Paris on Jan. 10, 1920, to a piano teacher who raised the boy alone. He never knew his father, had no education beyond grammar school, and throughout his life kept the small fifth-floor walk-up where he was born.

It was near the Bois de Vincennes, where a 1931 Colonial Exposition opened when he was 11. “Every evening I could see a faithful, brilliantly illuminated replica of the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat through the kitchen window,” he recalled. He dreamed of someday seeing Angkor Wat.

When the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, he fled on a bicycle and joined the Resistance. In the French Air Force after the war, he was assigned to duty as a combat photographer in Vietnam. In 1951, he bought a Rolleiflex, a camera popular with war correspondents, and used it for most of his life. Gen. Charles de Gaulle awarded him the Legion of Honor for his battlefield work.

Cauchetier stayed on after the war ended in 1954 taking photographs of people and landscapes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. His first book of photographs, “Ciel de Guerre en Indochine” (“The Air War in Indochina”) sold 10,000 copies. In 1956, the Smithsonian Institution organized an exhibition of his work, “Faces of Vietnam,” which was shown at museums and universities across the United States.

His childhood dream of visiting Angkor Wat was realized in 1957, when he created what critics called a priceless collection of 3,000 photographs. Given to Premier Norodom Sihanouk, it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Back in Paris and unable to find work as a photojournalist, he was hired to take pictures for photo-Romans, a popular kind of photographic novel. He met Godard through a publisher and was soon immersed in the New Wave. When he emerged, he and his Japanese wife, Kaoru, traveled widely as he photographed Romanesque sculptures in ecclesiastical settings. She survives him.

Richard Brody, who wrote the 2009 Aperture profile of Cauchetier, offered a bit of advice to readers of The New Yorker a year later, on the 50th anniversary of the release of “Breathless.”

“If you want to know what the French New Wave was,” Brody wrote, “watch the movies; if you want to know what its directors thought, read their writings and interviews; if you want to know how they worked, in their early years, there’s no more precious resource than the photographs of Raymond Cauchetier.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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