25 April 2023
Behind the scenes: Mecànic, photobooks and poetry of everydayness
Interview with the French photographer, Jean Letellier, who captures "l'arrière- monde" and was the former director of Mecànic gallery in Barcelona.
Text by: Elena Isaeva @boredbutsuddenly
… Time passes quickly, and photography is a memory. We still remember that unique space on la calle Ventallat in Gràcia, where we used to frequent for a vermouth, networking with other creatives or just a good dose of aesthetic meditation over its huge whimsical photobook collection! A bar, a photo gallery, and a store, Mecànic was a legendary cultural meeting point in Barcelona between 2017 and 2020.
To do a flashback to those days, we met Jean Letellier, who was an owner of Mecànic and is a French photographer, based between Barcelona and Paris. How was it for him to direct such an art project in Barcelona? Why did he start collecting photobooks, what are his recent publications about, and what forms his own style? Immerse yourself in his world and find out!
Jean, I know you as the owner of the Mecànic project, which was focused on photobooks. Even after its closure, on one of your Instagram accounts (@jean_letellier) you keep posting a lot about your photobook discoveries. So, why do you think photobooks are important?
I began to like them much later—first I started photographing. Then I began developing an interest in photobooks. Initially, I was into big volumes, then became a fan of smaller formats. One of my own first photobooks, The White Book, was published only in 2014!
I think photobooks are a great way to feel closer to many artists. Also, sometimes you cannot buy prints, but in a photobook you have lots of images, so they can have almost the same function as prints. These ideas provoked my passion for collecting photobooks: I started visiting fairs and forming my collection in 2012.
How did you come up with the idea of founding a project like Mecànic? What was the whole experience of directing it?
I wanted to do a project related to photography and decided on photobooks because the world has started to become too digital. So, with my partner, Xenia Gasull, we started with an idea of a photo gallery in Gràcia that has become more of a bookstore later! At the beginning, the collection was 50-70 pieces, but in the end, it grew to 500 books!
Our niche was self-published books and smaller formats. There was nothing similar in Barcelona at that time, and we just felt the courage to try! Now we see much more choice, formats, and affordable prices. Moreover, publishers create smaller “personal” books with great prices!
The project of Mecànic worked well, as we met many photographers. But it was also hard to manage because the concept of a gallery, bar, and bookstore was too much for us two.
Jean with a sample of his latest publication "Arrière-Monde"
What happened to your collection after closure?
We gave some books back to the shops because they were on deposit and also organized various book fairs with lower prices. We announced them via Instagram as we had lots of followers by that time.
Why did you decide to close?
It was the Covid time. We hoped to have more support from city hall but didn’t get enough. We organized three big expositions, and it was pricey. The first one showcased works by Nicu Ilfoveanu from Romania. The second was the artist from Düsseldorf, Laurenz Berges, a student of Bernd Becher. The third one was Jane Evelyn Atwood with her series about women in jail in the 1990s. We got sixty
black-and-white works and spent a lot organizing that show.
Why did you choose women in jail as a topic for your exposition?
We wanted a theme related to women. And the topic of prison was sensitive for Spain in those times as they had political prisoners due to the independence referendum.
The article in Crónica Global by El Español describes that you had problems with some radical people of Gràcia. They wrote offensive graffiti on the doors of Mecànic: ¨Pijos, ¡fuera del barrio!” [English: “You posh, go away!”]. Do you feel that art galleries are still considered too elitist by many people?
Neighbourhoods are changing, house rents are increasing, and it is not our fault. People from Gràcia should also have the choice to buy photobooks. In our case, those graffiti were related to the illegally occupied house nearby. I wrote a response: “Wrong idea—come inside!”; took a picture of it, and published it on Instagram. Then they replied, “Stop complaining!” In the end, they had more time than us, and we just ignored them.
What was the most rewarding thing during those four years of directing Mecànic?
To get support from the entire photographic community of Barcelona and build a network of 10.000 followers!
By the way, do you like social media as a photographer?
Not that much as a photographer; I do not post my work a lot. As you have noticed, I transformed one of my accounts to talk about bookshops in various cities. But I think that when you own a space like Mecànic, social media are fun. Mecànic was a very photogenic place! By the way, all the furniture we used in Mecànic is still at home with me—there were my chairs and my lamps!
Tell us about your own photobooks. How many did you publish?
I published two little books before The White Book. Then I had Dialogues, Le Rien and the last one is called Arrière-Monde.
Samples of the Jean's prints
How do you promote them?
Promoting, selling, and distributing is hard. You should network, go to bookstores, leave copies, wait, and talk to people. I collaborate with two stores and Polka Gallery in Paris, and in Barcelona, my books can be found in Terranova shop and Foto Colectania.
How do you develop concepts for each of your photobooks?
The White Book encompasses five years of my photographic work. The same is regarding the Dialogues.
As for Arrière-Monde, it took me three years of work. There is a French phrase “passer en arrière”, meaning “to step back behind the coulisse, into the world hidden from the spectator”. It is linked to my idea of capturing things people do not pay attention to and landscapes where time stops.
Why do you have such an interest in “everydayness”?
Maybe because I used to work on products that had to be perfect during my job at an advertising agency.
So, now I am interested in old places and objects that tell a story. These objects, captured in warm light, provoke emotions. For example, an image of a window with fake flowers in The White Book was taken in Munich and made one man cry as it reminded him of his grandmother. A picture of an old horse toy on another page also touches many people—they say it makes them nostalgic about their childhood.
I work with light and colour and do the minimum amount of editing. When it is a grey day, I almost never bring a camera with me!
With such passion for everyday objects, I guess you took a lot of pictures during the pandemics…
Actually, I was in Normandy with my mother! You can see the black-and-white series “Bel Animal” on my website. It is quite atypical of me, as I do not usually work with black and white.
What is your recipe for how to stand out and develop one’s own style as a photographer?
To do what you like. If you do what others want, you lose yourself.
But young creatives often have the problem of earning money. Do you think it is possible to make
ends meet with photography?
It is better to have another job and, in parallel, keep on with your projects. Because if you publish a photobook and have to make money with it to live, it will affect the book!
Photo part of the Jean's project "Petites Constructions"
Do you actively participate in photo fairs and professional markets?
I like the photo fair Revela’t very much! By the way, every year I send them some projects but I have never been accepted yet. Let’s see! It is a good-quality event. In 2018, we did a collaboration with them for Mecànic. So, yes, I am active and participate in various open calls and residencies. The truth is, only 20% of a photographer’s work is taking pictures, the rest is editing, promotion, writing, and publishing.
What are you working on now? Do you think to do some similar project like Mecànic in the future?
No, I have nothing like Mecànic in my plans now. I am just working on my own stuff. Right today, H2O gallery in Barcelona confirmed that they will exhibit my works in September 19 and 22, 2023. I love this space! In 2021, I had an exposition “Ombres Longues” there. And this week I am going to Paris to participate in a big collective exhibition called “L’arte habite L’Espace” together with 21 other artists!
… One hour of our conversation with Jean flew by. When a waiter reappeared to check our table, he caught us browsing Jean’s recent photobook Arrière-Monde and some prints he was passionately showing and explaining to us about… An empty chair in a backyard, a wire fence with someone’s forgotten clothes, a group of trees with very geometric tops stubbornly growing in the middle of an empty field and motorway. Those ordinary objects were captured at absolutely different places—Katmandu, Nepal, Paris—but all seemed universal, very familiar, and mesmerizingly poetic. The series, indeed, could be called “poetry of everydayness”.