Gérard Rondeau travelled throughout France and the entire world. He created a palette of emotions, always in black and white, against a backdrop of Champagne, New York or Sarajevo. Although he photographed contemporary celebrities as well as ordinary people strolling along the Marne River, his heart belonged to Reims and its cathedral. Portrait: a photographer and witness to thousands of encounters.
Changing lives as if he were changing a camera’s focus: with a snap of his fingers, just like when he spontaneously decided to entirely turn a page in his career in the 1970s. While working as director at the Alliance française in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the 1970s, he discovered a book of photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson; a copy of À propos de l’URSS caught his eye in the embassy’s library. Inspired, he left his job and his life in Colombo to become a photographer. He taught himself the art of photography all on his own. This decisive encounter with his lifelong passion mirrors his career: fervent and perceptive. Born on the 10th of April 1953 in Châlons-sur-Marne in Champagne, he lived with his schoolteacher parents and his older brother Daniel, who would later become a writer and a diplomat. While studying history, he interrupted his coursework to become a professor. For his military service, he was sent to Sri Lanka from 1974 to 1976, where he later became a lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, before taking the director’s position at the Alliance française in Colombo. Once he had discovered his vocation as a photographer, he returned to France armed with a Leica to earn his stripes.
Friendship in focus
The photosensitive world of Gérard Rondeau was portrayed in black and white. He would sometimes offer a quick, mischievous glance when between statues while he wandered the wings of a museum. On other occasions, his regard would be much more solemn and pensive while photographing the battlefields of WWI and covering the Sarajevo war in 1994. Or he would become a co-conspirator as he took an intimate look at a celebrity during a portrait sitting. This last activity offered him many interesting encounters over the years, some leading to great friendships. Fascinated by artists, he was particularly close to Paul Rebeyrolle, making the painter a subject of a film. From 1994 to1999, Gérard Rondeau shot the artist’s various creative steps in the secrecy of the painter’s studio, an exceptional feat as it was the first time Rebeyrolle had accepted to be filmed. He photographed the paths of the first World War alongside novelist Yves Gibeau and travelled up the Marne in a studio boat with journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann, stopping off throughout the voyage to invite passers-by onboard to be immortalized on film.
Portraits as a second nature
Philippe Dagen, a journalist for Le Monde, was a friend for whom Gérard Rondeau created one of his most famous portraits in the 1990s. At their first interview, the photographer presented one of his snapshots. A woman in movement is seen from the back, her left foot half invisible, carried by her momentum. The velvet of her dress, the mesh of her seamed stockings and the geometric pattern of the carpet combine to give the photo a distinctive rhythm. In front of her stand tables inside a restaurant, whose name is now a cliché (Le Cirque in New York in 1988), being set in preparation for the bustle of the dinner service and social events.
This photograph could be a symbol of Gérard Rondeau’s life work, a condensed reflection of what he was aiming for. He would produce a large number of portraits of prominent personalities throughout and after the 1990s: Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alain Bashung, Anna Mouglalis, Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois, Cabu, Jacques Derrida, Paul Bowles, and more. So many different profiles and worlds passed in front of his lens.
Attached to his native Champagne, the region was a constant source of inspiration for him. During his peregrination with Yves Gibeau along the Chemin des Dames or on the Marne with Jean-Paull Kauffmann, and beyond. Gérard Rondeau traced the story of Gothic art in his portraits of the Reims cathedral, a faithful companion during the years he lived in the place Royale in Reims, where he would see it every morning. Posed as protagonists of a theatrical play or a noble family, his photos of the gargoyles form a bestiary with the cathedral as backdrop. A personification that is reminiscent of his pilgrimages through the world’s museums. He would cultivate this indelible connection with the Cathedral until his death on the 13th of September 2016, at the age of 63.