“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” This Mark Twain quote is a cheeky joke, but it’s certainly true for the photographs of Charles Fréger. For over a decade, Fréger has taken portraits of people dressed in the get-ups that place them in their own particular cultures and communities: Finnish sailors and synchronized skaters, French students learning to be midwives and chefs, young sumo wrestlers. His pictures are never stiff and anthropological, but instead exemplify a playful reverence toward our places in civilization, whether the subject is a janitor or a doctor.
Wilder Mann is a project Fréger has worked on for several years now; after picking up on a trend of “wild man” costumes used in traditional ceremonies and pageants, he traveled to eighteen European countries photographing the different iterations in each one. Wilder Mann shows men dressed in shaggy goat skins, prickly twigs, black hoods, fearsome face paint. They look like bears, or deer, or yaks, or aliens. They are the wild things, so within the frame of the photos is, literally, where the wild things are. The costumes exaggerate the male form in the same way a clown costume or massive sports mascot outfit does: the body is larger, the head is downright gigantic, and the effect is equal parts mesmerizing, comical, and scary (at least for young children). Fréger poses them outdoors, standing in snow drifts or on grassy plains, straddling the line between human and beast with no apparent existential angst about this fact.
The Wilder Mann exhibition opens April 12 at The Gallery at Hermès in New York and will be on view through June. Artlog spoke to Fréger about the process of conceptualizing and shooting this extensive, fascinating project.
Tell me about how you first got the idea for Wilder Mann.
I saw a show in France where there was a costume of one of these kinds of characters in Austria, and then I decided to go to Austria and do something around this community in particular, and then from there, I started to travel around Austria, then Hungary, then Croatia, and then I went to Italy. That was over two winters, so step by step. But there was a moment when I understood—maybe after five groups, I said, there’s something there, there’s something bigger behind it—so I had to really dig into it, and I started to meet some anthropologists and museums to see what they had in their collections and archives. Like old books about traditions in Europe. And then I could really define, okay, I want to document this, that, et cetera.
So you saw images in books when you were doing research. How did you decide to pose people? Was it to imitate poses you saw in books, or did you create the poses yourself?
First of all, I did not photograph them in the context of the masquerade [the events and ceremonies involving the costumes]. So in that context, it’s not directly anthropologic. It’s not like showing the tradition, or the reportage of what that village was doing at that date of the year. I did most of the shoots out of context. I imagine it myself, I come to the village, there’s an appointment, they dress up for me, and we do it. So the attitudes, the poses, are my poses. I ask them to pose like that. I put them in the landscape. I twist their body in the right landscape, I put them at the right place in the right moment.
So you’re shooting outside all the time?
For Wilder Mann, yes, 99.9% of the time outside in the landscape.
How did you go about finding where you wanted to shoot?
I knew that the work to be done was going to be during the winters, so I took time in the spring and summer to do research, a list of groups, regions, where I should travel, and then organizing a trip going from one place to another. For example, one trip was to go to Austria, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Another trip was the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland. Another trip was Portugal and Spain. First I wanted to do twelve countries, but step by step I discovered there were similar traditions in other places, so I pushed further—Finland, Scotland. We almost stopped at the Turkish border, too.
How did you end up with Hermès?
They already knew my work because they collected my work a few years ago. The Chinese Opera series, they have that in their collection. And they felt interested by the Wilder Mann series in particular, so they published pictures in the Hermès magazine, and then we discussed the show in Bern, Switzerland, and then in New York.
When you visited these groups, did you ever feel as if you were intruding, as a foreigner coming into these different cultures? Or did it feel more natural?
When I start a project, I really quickly make it my territory. I make it my subject. Then, I’m collecting something, and they want to take part in it—not the other way around. So I’m doing research, and the research is full of energy, and when the groups understand that I’ve already met this group, that group, et cetera, they then want to do it. They jump on it. It’s why it’s interesting. They want to be part of this project, in a way, because it may be the first book where you can see all the pictures [of this tradition] from different places in one place.
Did you show pictures from earlier groups to newer ones as you continued shooting?
Yeah! The most complicated [shoot] is the first one. When you’re starting, when you really put your finger on the project. And then step by step, you figure out how you’re going to work, what you want to do, how to put people in the landscape. After that, the subject becomes your territory.
I saw your photos were in National Geographic. How do you classify your photography? In that context, it looks like travel photography, but I don’t know if that’s how you consider what you do.
Wilder Mann has been shown in fashion magazines, in media magazines, National Geographic, magazines meant for children. It’s not a problem. My work is: I’m an artist, I do portraits most of the time, portraits of people taking part in a community, and sometimes it meets the interest of National Geographic, or a museum. It’s all fine with me. I’m not in any particular church. I’m interested in different networks.
Were there any Wilder Mann where you grew up?
I grew up in the center of France. My father was a farmer. I grew up in the countryside, and there was no tradition like that in central France.
So do you feel like you’re seeking that tradition now?
I want to point out that we all have traditions which are similar, and I want to know why—why you find the same thing happening in different places, 12,000 kilometers away from each other. And now, I’m just trying to confirm my research for the start of a new project.
What are you starting?
I started, last year, two years ago, research about the Brittany area of France, Bretagne, about traditional dressing in this area.
[He sends over a photo of a young girl in traditional dress, a blue dress and white bonnet.]
Aha. This looks like a different direction for you with cultural dressing.
This will be a series about women in the Brittany area. There’s a big tradition of dressing this way. And it’s very fundamental, very important for them. The Celtic culture in Brittany is as strong as in Ireland. I’m collecting portraits of these young woman dressed in these traditional costumes from the 19th and early 20th century. I think it’s a good answer to Wilder Mann.
I saw the musician Teho Teardo did music related to Wilder Mann.
Yes, Teho Teardo contacted me the summer after I wrote my book, saying he wrote some music on Wilder Mann. He wrote about certain pictures, and then he finished the album in December and it came out in January. It’s pretty beautiful.
Do you plan on involving it in the display of the photos?
Yeah. He’s going to play at my show soon, in France.
What else do you have planned for the future?
I have just done six months of Les Bretonnes. After that, I think… I won’t tell you.
It’s a secret.
A secret… I do things one after the other. I have like four projects at the same time. I finish one, I have another one ready. So sometimes the projects are pretty long, like Wilder Mann, which was two or three years, and sometimes my projects are one week of work, but they’re still interesting in their own way. I can go for one week for a project I planned for two years.
How do you prefer people to look at and experience your photographs—at an exhibition, online, in a book?
With their eyes.
So it doesn’t matter as much?
No, it’s always better to open a book than to go to a show, for sure. Always better. The book is the right tool. It was really made for a book. I always think of my projects in books: I want to do a book about that, so then I start to do the project.