July 2019 French photographer Stéphane Gautronneau boarded the Ms. Austral in Petropavlosk. The ship sailed the Bering Sea, past the Aleutian Islands and reached the Alaskan Coast 21 days later. Due to global warming this Northern Passage has become more and more accessible. The melting ice offers unseen spectacular landscapes and traces of human intervention, such as wrecked submarines and planes from the Japan-US war. The initial plan was to work on a reportage for Le Monde M, following the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Seward. The forest fires of that summer urged to a chance of plans.
The Austral dropped Stéphane off at Juneau, Alaska. He made his way to Fairbanks to meet his local contact, a Native American who was going to help him on this reportage. Stéphane likes to set off on his own and hire assistants and help locally. It gives him a chance to meet people. And travelling is actually part of the process. “Hopping on a plane for a long journey, just to spend a few days out there, isn’t natural to the human body, the mind and the planet! I like to get out on my own, walking or biking. Slow travelling brings the human scale back into the picture.” 250km North of Fairbanks Stéphane and his guide – wearing gas masks to be able to breath – were stopped by fire-fighters.The couple could continue to Wiseman. Normally the last stop for petrol and coffee. This time the fire-fighter troops stopped them definitely.
It was clear that the initial reportage could not be accomplished. After a two-days crash course Stéphane was allowed to join the troops. The new plan: A series of portraits of the fire-fighters, young people coming from all over the USA. Fire-fighting in Alaska is actually a summer job, like being a waiter or working on the beach. The brigades were named after the states the members originated from. Stéphane sticked with the Oregon Brigade most of the time.
May 2020 the result will be exhibited at ‘Le Collatéral’ in Arles. All the work has been shot with a Cambo Actus-GFX, using Mamiya RZ lenses and a portable Elinchrom strobe.
The Actus suits Stéphane’s way of working perfectly. He’s a photographer who prefers to come home with just a few photographs over shooting endlessly. Rather the picture he already had in his mind than a dozen that are nearly right. When working in New York in the 1990’s, he bought a 1952 Linhof Technika from an assistant. Stéphane immediately loved the more contemplative way of working it required. And its compact size made it a good travel companion. The Actus brought these qualities to the digital age. And Stéphane still uses the Mamiya RZ lenses on it that he’s been using since his younger days as a NYC based fashion photographer.
Over time shooting with a view camera has become Stéphane’s natural way of working. It’s not limited to travel photography. This picture is from a recent Thierry Colson fashion shoot.
Biography of Stéphane Gautronneau by Clara Lefort
Wild at heart, Stéphane Gautronneau is a photographer like no other. An autodidact, he started his career by assisting a roaster of great fashion photographers like Patrick Demarchelier, Justine Parson, David Sawyer and Riccardo Tinelli. Sensitive and precise, Stéphane soon devoted time to mastering large format cameras – which require extra care and attention during pre and post-production phases.
Ready to apply his skills to extreme conditions – under a tent or a motorbike, on a glacier or in a desert – Stéphane works marvels with this 4×5, admitting that the “probability that an image is untouched and perfect is rare. A rare exception.”
A regular contributor for major lifestyle magazines and periodicals, his work has been featured in French Vogue, Glamour US, Paris Match, Air France Magazine & Madame (Conde Nast), Figaro Madame, Le Monde, Libération, The New York Times, Vanity Fair US, Harpers Bazaar UK, Stern, The Guardian or The Independent to name a few. Stéphane also shoots many travel stories and portraits, including Gregory David Roberts, Zaha Hadid, Pharell Williams, Nicolas Hulot, amongst others.
Working with and for brands, Stéphane produces images for Nike, BMW, Benetti yachts, Virgin and Richard Branson’s submarine (Necker Nymph)
A BMW ambassador, Stéphane travelled the world to open expedition roads: these long solitary journeys included Perth-Sydney; Paris-Goa; Istanbul-Kathmandu; Buenos Aires-Atacama; Paris-Vladivostok-Lisbon.
Since 2014 Stéphane Gautronneau has been been collaborating with BMW Motorrad. His work has been used for bill boards and commercials. Being a rider himself, he documented over-land motorbike trips for the Make Life a Ride campaign. For a French-German co-production by Commune Image and Connaissances du Monde he was asked to follow a season at the Motodrome, a group of travelling wall of death riders. The resulting movie The Wall will be released in 2020. Here’s a short showreel.
More work by Stéphane Gautronneau