Surrealistic Photos of Jean-Yves Lemoigne

Jean-Yves Lemoigne

Jean-Yves Lemoigne

An award-winning photographer, Jean-Yves Lemoigne prefers to call himself an image-maker. He aspires to tell stories, rather than show off a specific technical skill or some digital sleight of hand.

Although Jean-Yves remains busy professionally and wins awards each year — from the likes of CLIO, International ANDY, Eurobest, Epica, and Cannes Lions — he believes it’s important to pursue personal projects. He doesn’t have a gallery yet so the easiest way to view his work is on his website and Facebook page. I reached Jean-Yves at his studio in Paris.

Conceptual drawings from the

Conceptual drawings from the “Urban Gods” series


Stefan Gruenwedel: How would you describe your personal body of work?

Jean-Yves Lemoigne: I like to explore everyday subjects in a surrealistic way.

Gruenwedel: How do you prepare for a shoot?

Lemoigne: When I prepare for a shoot — either agency work or my personal projects — I create sketches to help me decide how to take the photos. 

Gruenwedel: Are there differences in your approach to commercial work compared to your personal work?

Lemoigne: When I create photographs for advertising, I apply post-production effects like compositing the images digitally. But for my personal work, I like to set up the effects in the camera and photograph what is actually in front of the lens.

Gruenwedel: Who or what influenced your artistic style as you were growing up? 

Lemoigne: I was especially interested in comic books and graphic novels that used a mix of photography and drawings. I discovered photography later. Movies were also a big influence. I am very fond of the movies directed by Terry Gilliam, Luis Buñuel, and Jean Cocteau.

Gruenwedel: What motivated you to pick up a camera?

Lemoigne: Photography is an easy way to realize my concepts. 

Photo loop: Teacup

Photos in motion


Gruenwedel: What inspired you to create photo portraits that move?

Lemoigne: In Paris there are outdoor digital screens in the subway, but the content displayed is not very interesting. I wanted to show that it’s possible to make high-quality photos that are very close to portrait photography but with an element of surprise: motion when you don’t expect it. It’s not really a photo and not really film but something in-between.

Gruenwedel: The motion in these portraits is subtle.

Lemoigne: I was looking for some simple animation that loops by itself, something you do every day — like stirring a spoon in a teacup. I wanted to add a simple animation, so at first you might not see it’s a loop. But as you look at it for a longer time, you realize it has to be a loop.

Gruenwedel: Are there particular challenges to this looping technique?

Lemoigne: Looping photo portraits is similar to how you would animate a GIF — so in some ways it’s simple. However, when you are using high-res portrait photography, it becomes more complex. You have to line everything up perfectly during the shoot. If the face is not perfectly still or there’s a slight change in position, it will be noticeable to the viewer.





Photo loop: Hair

Making photo loops

Gruenwedel: How do you make a photo loop?

Lemoigne: A photo loop may seem like a small step to the viewer, but it is a huge step for the photographer — you change everything.

Instead of my usual digital medium-format camera, I use the RED EPIC camera because it was created for still and motion photography. With a RED you have plenty of choices for lenses, accessories, and so on. Also, the RED software REDCINE-X is not so far from the software I use with my digital medium-format camera. 

Photo loop: Paper airplane


When I shoot still photography on the set, I work with strobe lighting. It is small, powerful, and easy to use. When I’m creating photo loops, however, I work with HMI continuous lighting. Because it is heavy duty, you need more people. Also, it’s almost impossible for continuous lighting to be as powerful as strobe.

The post-production is different, too. I started using [Adobe] Photoshop 20 years ago on still photos. It is an old friend. But with motion photos you have to work with edit software, post-production software, color grade software, and so on. Posting them on the Internet means learning about digital compression, codecs, and so on. There’s a lot to learn.

Gruenwedel: How are you using Adobe After Effects?

Lemoigne: I prefer to create loops in-camera, but when post-production is necessary, we use After Effects.

First I do a rough edit to choose the perfect part of the take. After I identify little jumps that occur on some part of a loop, I bring in the After Effects artist to match the first frame and the last frame.

In the “Tokyo Rockabilly Club” loop, there was a slight change in the position of the hands so we had to do some morphing on the hands to make the loop work. For this we use a RE:Vision [Effects] plug-in for After Effects called RE:Flex.

Gruenwedel: How did you do the “Equilibrium” loop?

Lemoigne: We used only a little bit of post-production. The guy was standing on the chair, there was a piece of wood behind the chair, and then there were some people holding the chair [in place] to create the motion because the guy couldn’t hold the position [for long]. During post-production, the motion graphic artists erased the people using After Effects. 

“Tokyo Rockabilly Club” series – Knife: sketch

Photo loop: “Tokyo Rockabilly Club” series

Photo loop: “Equilibrium” series

“Human Project/War” series – Red

Off to war

Gruenwedel:  Regarding your “Human Project/War” project, there’s something eerie about your cinematic stills showing troops in battle while clad in red, green, or black full-body suits. Tell me how you approached this project.

Lemoigne: I was interested in taking more landscape shots, so I brainstormed ways that I could tell a story by taking photos of myself in landscapes. I worked alone. I packed up my car and drove until I found some nice landscape, and then I set up the tripod and put on my costume. I held the position to take the shots. Later, in post-production, I composed the final picture.

Gruenwedel: Wait, you mean you took multiple exposures of yourself and then merged the shots in Photoshop?

Lemoigne: Yes. It’s quite simple. I think the longest part of this project is finding the perfect landscape. Once I have it, I put the digital, medium-format Hasselblad H2 camera on the tripod. I put on my tights, set the camera to take 200 photos, one photo every 15 seconds, and then I do all the positions. I try to find different positions for each part of the landscape. I really don’t want to crop the figures in post. Almost all of them were really where you see them. The editing and post-production takes two to three days. The last series I did had a layer of complexity with smoke at the location, which added more of a war mood.

Gruenwedel: Are your character poses inspired by toy soldiers?

Lemoigne: Not so much toy soldiers as actual soldiers. When I was studying art, I read many books about painting and early war photography. I was living in New York and there was an exhibition about war painting and early war photography in the U.S. I like some of the historical war photography because it’s large-format photography. It was mainly landscapes because the shutter speed was so slow. As a result, all of the soldiers are quite small in these compositions and the photography is very much inspired by paintings. I tried to experiment with this kind of approach: large-scale photography featuring large landscapes and small people.

“Human Project/War” series – Green

Gruenwedel: Tell me more about your costumed characters.

Lemoigne: The colored costumed characters represent a kind of war — the red guys are pitted against the black guys and the red guys are fighting against the green guys. The composition is like the board game Risk. I like the tension in the game when you invade some countries and when you go to war. 

Gruenwedel: Speaking of characters, why did you choose to pose as the soldiers?

Lemoigne: It’s a way of putting myself in the picture. This series is still a work in progress. Someday when I have a job in another country, like in Africa, I’m going to try to bring along my tights in my suitcase. I hope to have enough [spare] time to make some new pictures.

Life as a pictogram

Gruenwedel: Explain your series about the everyday life of a pictogram.

Lemoigne: That was the first series I did with the [body] suits, about four or five years ago. As a graphic designer, I’ve always been interested in pictograms and graphic signs. When I did this series, my goal was to convey the everyday life of a pictogram: He wakes up in the morning, shaves in the bathroom, and then goes to work. At work, he’s like a classic “work sign.” Then he leaves work, does some shopping, comes home, works again, uses the vacuum cleaner — he assumes almost the same position as at work — and then goes to bed.

An image of a working man from the

“Pictogram” series – Work

An image from the

“Urban Legends” series – Los Angeles freeway

Urban invisibles

Gruenwedel: Your series showing people with big horns on their heads is surreal.

Lemoigne: That’s a personal project that was inspired by Neil Gaiman, who has written many comic books and novels. I really enjoyed his novel American Gods. The story presents the idea that when you believe in gods, they exist for real, and when you don’t believe in them anymore, they still exist in the world but nobody sees them and they have nothing to do. This book really resonated with me. I liked this idea of mythological people who exist in front of us, but we don’t see them.

I like how novels from Latin America often focus on the magic and strange things that occur in everyday life. Sometimes there aren’t any explanations for these occurrences. For the subjects in my series, these people are here and we don’t know where they came from but we know they exist. I like that kind of idea for a project, when you think something is possible but you’re not sure. You still believe in fairy tales but you’re surrounded by a very modern setting. The concept is that magic is not too far from us; it is very close to us.

Gruenwedel: Explain the production process for the “Urban Legends” series.

Lemoigne: I wanted to make something very strange and surrealistic but create all the effects in-camera as opposed to during post-production. I designed the cones and designed the guys to make them look like they’re homeless — because society doesn’t look at homeless people anymore. I thought it would be a good concept to do in Los Angeles because it’s the city of modern mythology. There are so many homeless people there that you don’t really see them. So perhaps you miss one, this unicorn person. I liked the concept of being unsure of this [reality] because it creates a very strong surrealistic sense of what is real.

An image from the

“Fetish Factory” series for SOON magazine

Robotization of desire

Gruenwedel: Robots are real but they also inhabit the realm of the not-yet-possible. Describe your latest project about the robot factory.

Lemoigne: It’s a fashion series I created for SOON magazine. I do a bit of fashion photography, but sometimes it’s difficult to bring my ideas and my world to fashion because they have no budget to realize them. A few months ago some stylists contacted me and said, “We like your photography. It’s very surrealistic and we think it would work well for a fashion shoot. If you have an idea and want to do something together, we would like to work with you.” At the same time, the French production company I work with told me that they had a CGI director [Olivier Jeannel at Wanda Print] who wanted to do some CGI for print work but they didn’t have a project yet.

I’ve had this idea for a while about shooting a girl along with a very realistic robot. I decided to match these two groups up so we could collaborate on this project. When I first started the series, I made a bunch of sketches to help me define how to capture the shots. I’m quite precise in the beginning. I get very detailed about the composition. The sketches become an easy way to show people what I want to do. But after I make the sketches, sometimes I try to forget everything — to start fresh. I don’t want to reproduce the sketch exactly.

Gruenwedel: So the woman and warehouse setting are real but the robot itself is fake? 

Lemoigne: Yes, the CGI artist bought a robot [design] on the TurboSquid website, which was a starting point. I wanted to work with a very classic factory robot. Then we changed it a bit because I wanted to add more articulation. First we worked on updating the shape of it and then we worked on the texture.

The outfits the woman is wearing are real. It’s high fashion: Dior, Saint Laurent, and Gucci. The necklace is a piece of jewelry from Chanel or JOOP. The magazine chooses a theme for every issue, and this [December 2013] issue was about fetishism.

A sketch by Jean-Yves Lemoigne, for the series

Sketch for “Fetish Factory” series

A sketch in Autodesk Softimage by Jean-Yves Lemoigne, for the series

Designing the robot arm in Autodesk Softimage for “Fetish Factory”

Gruenwedel: What vision were you trying to achieve?

Lemoigne: I envisioned a highly fashionable girl who was interested in fetishes. I imagined that she had a robot and wondered what she would do with it. Will she use it as a tool and play with it? I still find that fascinating — that mix of the very basic and very everyday — rather than characters that you might see in a science fiction movie. I like it that people who view the series think the robot was actually on the set.

Gruenwedel: How did you combine sketches with on-location photographs?

Lemoigne: On the set while we were shooting the photographs, I created a robot [stand-in] using some stands and arms — just to shoot something while we were working with the girl, to know how the robot would fit in the frame. During the photo editing, I made more sketches and drew directly on the photo itself to specify where the robot stands and how it is positioned. Then I worked with a CGI artist [Jeannel] to create the final version of the robot. I spent a lot of time with him to give the robot the perfect position. Working with [French retouch artist] Adrien Bénard, we also added dust to make it look older and added some textures — scratches and peeling paint — in Photoshop.

Explorations into sports

Gruenwedel: What are you focusing on now?

Lemoigne: I like to keep a few different ideas going for my personal work.  I’m interested in sports photography. I want to make it more interesting. Much of sports photography looks the same to me.

Gruenwedel: Give me an example.

Lemoigne: Usually photographers position a strong strobe light on the athlete so the athlete appears frozen, while the background is black. I think it would be interesting to do the opposite. Instead of lighting the athlete, light the background so the athlete appears in silhouette. That type of shot makes the experience more about the attitude of a sport — the sport itself — rather than about a particular athlete.

Gruenwedel: Any advice for budding photographers?

Lemoigne: Be creative and forget technique. Techniques change. Be true to yourself and try to do the kind of photographs that you would like to see. Whenever I shoot, I ask myself whether this photo is interesting and whether someone has already done it. There are so many photos everywhere that it is important not to add any meaningless or uninteresting visuals yourself.