An interview with Elisabeth Blanchet

In light of our current exhibition by photographer Elisabeth Blanchet, Prefabs: Palaces for the people, our intern Mari Boman sat down to find out more about how Elisabeth first got in to photography and the stories behind her projects…

Elisabeth Blanchet has been photographing ever since she was around 10 years old. She tells me that she was (and still is) obsessed with fixing a moment in time. This was when she received her first camera, as a gift. It was a Polaroid camera, rather expensive back then. Today she owns an impressive collection of between 40 and 50 cameras and to date Elisabeth has only sold one – because she needed some money. She likes second hand shops and sometimes buys stuff just for the joy of trying it out, to see how it works.

Her favourite camera in her collection is a Leica M3 from 1956. Elisabeth finds it very beautiful and loves the sound of it, and likes the viewfinder type camera. She also used to use a Lomo camera a lot, before they became fashionable. Today the camera which is always in her bag is an old Olympus [mju]-1 which she loads with a specific type of slide film. The slide film is then cross-processed which gives the images a very saturated look she likes. Elisabeth tells me that she even shot a series of portraits for the French magazine Marie Claire this way.

© Jack inside his Redditch prefab, 2002. The prefabs’ residents were fighting to save their prefabs and managed to win

Before working as a photographer full time Elisabeth used to be a maths teacher, and also followed her ex-husband to various countries working as a teacher. Back then she had some free time and kept busy through photographing and printing in darkrooms. After Nicolae Ceaușescu’s fall in 1989 Romania had many orphanages and in the 1990s Elisabeth and her partner started a sponsorship programme for people to adopt and sponsor a child. She visited Romania 3-4 times per year and photographed the orphans, mainly for the charity. This lead to a huge archive of photographs from the orphanage. She later used these for a photography project revisiting the children 20 years later.

For Elisabeth, photography is much about memory and nostalgia. It is about capturing a moment in time and freezing this for the future. She is interested in what people keep in their memories and why. Photographs can this way be used for triggering memories – memories otherwise maybe forgotten. She likes long term projects as she likes to find out how things evolve in time. This is why the orphanage project meant a lot to her – she tells me that it was very emotional to see some of the children, now adults, again.

The Prefabs – Palaces for the people project is another of Elisabeth’s long term projects. For around 10 years she researched, visited and photographed post-World War II prefabricated homes in the United Kingdom. Built as a temporary solution for a housing shortage, these houses were not meant to be permanent homes for people – yet some are still inhabited. For some reason, she tells me, people who still live in ‘prefabs’ are very attached to them and fight to save them from demolition. This is something Elisabeth says fascinated her and made her curious about why people like these houses so much.

© Abandoned Prefabs in Newport, Wales, waiting for demolition

The exhibition at Photofusion is a multimedia project – something Elisabeth has learnt to appreciate through the years. She does miss some aspects of photography from her early years, such as the darkroom, but thinks that embracing multimedia can be helpful. In a documentary project like this one, Elisabeth is of the opinion that it is possible to explain better, to show more and in different ways and in that way enriching the project. Through her long term commitment and working with multimedia, Elisabeth thinks that she has come closer to understanding why people are so fond of their prefabricated homes built in the postwar period.

The exhibition runs until the 2 August 2013.

Upcoming exhibition events…

Elisabeth Blanchet In-Conversation

With David Kendall (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Thursday 4 July, 18:30 – 20:30 | Photofusion Gallery

Elisabeth Blanchet In-Conversation

With Architect Ian Abley & Historian Julian Holder

Saturday 13 July, 14:00 | Photofusion Gallery

Catford Prefab Estate Tour

Saturday 20 July, 14:00 | Catford Estate

To book a place email [email protected] or call on 020 7738 5774