Photo archive Agnès Varda

Although Agnès Varda’s career as a filmmaker and visual artist is well known, her work as a photographer has yet to be explored. Agnès Varda’s heirs’ decision to entrust all her negatives, contact sheets and contact prints to the Institut pour la photographie, reflects their wish to perpetuate a photographic collection composed of just over 25,000 phototypes and to reveal the wealth of it through research and promotional projects.

The work of the French artist Agnès Varda (1928-2019) bears witness to how society has changed over seven decades with a collection marked by the major themes of time and territory. Her independence allowed her to remain at the forefront of the artistic stage throughout her career and to enjoy an international aura.

Photography was part of her work from the very beginning, with the opening of her studio-laboratory on rue Daguerre, her role as official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire, and  her many personal projects. Agnès Varda never stopped experimenting different ways of using the medium. Her “inquisitive eye” also led her to China, Cuba and Los Angeles.

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Born in Ixelles in 1928, Agnès Varda had three lives as a photographer, a filmmaker and a visual artist. She spent her young years between Brussels and the beaches of Belgium until 10 May 1940 when her family was forced to flee the German army. After settling in Sète, she lived on a boat moored at the quayside.

In the 1940s, the family moved to Paris and Agnès Varda became a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne and art history at the Ecole du Louvre. In 1949, she obtained her CAP (vocational certificate) in photography after attending evening classes at the Ecole de Vaugirard. In 1951, her father bought her some dilapidated old shops on rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement which became her home, her studio and her laboratory. In particular, she photographed Brassaï, Calder, Dali, Louis Aragon, Elsa Triolet and Fellini.

In 1948, Jean Vilar offered her work as a photographer at the Avignon Festival, a position she held until 1960. She also worked for the Théâtre National Populaire from 1951 to 1961, offering a complete insight into its activities, from stage layouts, mock-ups and portraits of actors to shots taken during rehearsals and performances. As a freelance photographer, Agnès Varda worked with Galeries Lafayette, the Société nationale des chemins de fer français and covered various subjects for magazines such as Réalités.

At the same time, Agnès Varda also directed her first films – La Pointe-Courte (1954), Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) – thus embarking on a new life and bringing a refreshing breath of freedom to French cinema.

During her trips to Cuba and the United States, the artist-photographer used images as documents, depicting euphoric crowds (Cuba, 1962) or angry militants (Black Panthers, 1968). Her photographic reports covered China, Germany and Portugal. From the 1960s, her work as a filmmaker gradually took precedence over her photographic work and she was rewarded with an Honorary Oscar in 2017.
She returned to photography in the 2000s, in particular for an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier entitled L’Ile et Elle. During this period, she developed artistic creation through installations. In 2015, she also met the photographer JR, with whom she made the film Visages Villages (2017).

Her documentary work is not all that removed from natural poetry. Her activities as a photographer, filmmaker and visual artist offered her the opportunity to create relentlessly and to depict the world around her with gravity and imagination.