“I am thrilled to be haunted by beautiful things”
Interview with Stéphane Hette, naturalist photographer & image hunter.
Hello Stéphane, thank you for agreeing to talk with us. We’re delighted to kick off our “Fanatalk” session with you, a fellow nature enthusiast.
You’re a naturalist photographer, and we’d encourage our readers to take a look at your work through a selection of images to illustrate this interview. The French TV France 5 gardening programme “Silence, ça pousse!” did a report on you to that you can watch if you click the link at the bottom of the article. You admitted: “I am thrilled to be haunted by beautiful things”, and we completely understand your point.
Fan. What has been your experience during this strange period from which we are just emerging on a personal and professional level?
S.H. On a personal level I was worried about the older people in my family, but it didn’t change my life a great deal. I live in the countryside, I see more animals than I do people, so it didn’t affect my work. I filled in the French government’s official permission slips so I could go to work, that was the only difference. Some of the images used for the interview were actually taken during lockdown. It was quieter around the ponds. I was able to make videos, which is something that I couldn’t do before because the noise pollution is usually too high. I missed riding my bike. It was hard to go two months without cycling!
Fan. We feel the same way! And it was tough to get back into the swing of things as well. Did you notice an upsurge in species during the lockdown period?
S.H. Nature simply can’t recover completely in two months. But because there were fewer vehicles, it was easier to see foxes, hares, etc. The pond I usually go to wasn’t maintained, and that was cool! I am campaigning for us to prune later and better, to create one row rather than three… But no, I haven’t seen more species than usual. Perhaps because the weather was warmer, so we saw creatures earlier – especially insects – but it was more to do with the temperature rather than it being quieter.
Fan. We discovered your work through your collaboration with the entomologist François Lasserre in the amazing book: « les vraies fées de la nature » (the real fairies of nature). When and how did you decide to start taking pictures of insects?
S.H. With insects it just happened by chance, about twenty years ago now. I saw a butterfly in my house, I slipped a sheet of paper behind it and I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty, I like that”. I was fascinated. But it was hard to recreate that happy coincidence. So I set aside one of the rules of nature photography, which is to never touch your subject. I went walking around with a butterfly net and a set of little boxes. I always carry little boxes with me when I go for a walk and I bring lots of creatures home with me. It just happened naturally, and I gradually became more and more intrigued by how all this life comes into being.
Fan. Yes, because you have been developing a very specific technique for your shots.
S.H. That’s right. I put a white background behind the subject, whether it’s a plant, an insect or a bird. If it’s a bird, I photograph it outdoors, of course. I adjust the screen size to fit the subject and use two groups of flashes: one group that exposes the subject and the other that exposes the background, so I can remove the shadows that are generated by the first group. It might seem a bit complex, but it’s just a two-curtain sync. It’s a simple process: there are no cables, no heat, no stress for the living thing, and all the equipment fits into a backpack. I’ve been walking around with this kit for over fifteen years. People often ask me if I ever get fed up of always taking photographs in the same way! But it’s really the subject that makes the photo great, not the technique.
Fan. And you don’t touch up your photos. The result is striking as much in its precision as in its poetry.
Fan. You have a soft spot for butterflies, and your two blogs « artofbutterfly » and « la vie rêvée des papillons » (the dream life of butterflies) really show that. What do you love so much about these animals?
S.H. It’s their metamorphosis! Everyone loves butterflies, but no one likes caterpillars. I think it’s wonderful to have the ability to be several things at once. We’re all several things at once, we all have different aspects to our character. I’m a huge nature fan and I also love motorcycles! Ideally, I shouldn’t love Grand Prix motorbike racing so much!
Fan. Humans are a constant paradox!
S.H. You just have to live with it. But I’m happiest behind a camera lens. I just love taking in all the beauty around me. I don’t create that poetry; it is already there. Perhaps I enhance it, when I do my job well.
Fan. We recently published an article on the pioneers, those “naturalist explorers” who shared the richness of the world’s biodiversity through their high-quality observations and expert drawings. What legacy have they left for today’s naturalists?
S.H. First and foremost, knowledge. They enhanced beauty with knowledge. Nature isn’t just pretty. Beauty is a question of taste and while you could say that universal beauty does exist, it is not much use in isolation. These pioneers have served as inspiration for me, but not just the ones from Europe, I really like the prints made by the Asian, Chinese or Japanese explorers. Some Chinese painters have made incredible observations, they noticed that butterfly wings actually twist, something which was only proven scientifically very recently. I have lots of books on talented illustrators from the Far East.
Fan. Could you recommend any of them in particular?
S.H. I have this little book called PAPILLONS (butterflies) published by the BNF, which doesn’t cost very much. It is a collection of some wonderful ancient works. I am fascinated by these painters whose culture is so different from ours, and who are also outstanding naturalists. The art of contemplation is deeply rooted in Asian philosophy, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Fan. Thank you Stéphane, we’ll add a reference for that book at the end of the article. Speaking of Asia, you sign all your works using a Japanese monogram. What does it mean?
S.H. I was adopted when I was two years old, and although he was a great parent, I didn’t really see eye to eye with my adoptive father. So my last name, “Hette”, didn’t mean very much to me. I did many years of research and it turns out that in Japanese, [E-TE] means “the hand & the image”, therefore the illustrator, the painter, the photographer. Before, I used to be an illustrator, I can still draw, and I actually sign my books with a drawing. This Japanese name suits me much better than the original in French. And it’s a nice way to round off my pictures. Without it, I feel that something is missing to confirm that the work is mine. My signature is the small rectangle on the left, and the square that goes with it means: “the description of nature”.
Fan. It’s discreet, elegant and understated, it really suits you. We’d like to thank you, Stéphane, for giving us a glimpse into your wonderful world. We’ll be keeping a close eye on your work as a nature ambassador. Good luck and see you soon!
Translated from French by Ruth Simpson
If you’d like to learn more about Stéphane Hette, here are some links to his treasures ▾
‣ Bedside books
- PAPILLONS – MESSAGERS ÉPHÉMÈRES, Morwena Joly-Parvex – BNF
- Zao Shao Ang Hua Ji
- Plantes et Fleurs Du Voyage. Dessins Naturalistes XVIIème-XIXème Siècles – Actes Sud
- Fabuleux Insectes, Paul Starosta – Léon Rogez – Jean-Pierre Vesco – Éditions du Chêne
- Les fleurs par les grands maîtres de l’estampe japonaise, Amélie Balcou – Éditions Hazan
- La quête du naturaliste, Benoît Fontaine – Éditions Transboréal
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