Brooklyn-based photographer Victoria Dearing’s fascination with high wire artist Philippe Petit began midway through a viewing of the Oscar-winning documentary, Man On Wire. Moved by his unusual life philosophies, the 29-year-old Dearing resolved to meet the man who walked between the tops of the Twin Towers back in 1974. She couldn’t have guessed that over the next few months, through a series of coincidences, improbable encounters, and the beauty of a classic Leica M6 camera, she would be given a privileged peek into Petit’s cloistered domain. In an exhibition called “LINE UP – Rigging Knots + Glimpses of a Master Class,” which opened last week, Dearing’s photographs of Petit’s first Action Maverick Master Class (TIGHTROPE! An Exploration into the Theater of Balance) hang alongside drawings of rigging knots executed by Petit himself. The set of slightly blurred, black and white photographs surreally depict Petit as he floats above a cluster of onlooking students. They’re contrasted by the intricate drawings, each of which contains a hand-written poetic explanation of the type of knot portrayed. The Clic Gallery will host a holiday reception for LINE UP on December 16th, from 6-8pm, and the exhibit will remain on display at their new space in SoHo until January 16th.
Dearing first encountered Petit at a Q&A following a screening of Man on Wire. A few months later, they met again at Pravda. Over time, she charmed Petit and his partner/producer Kathy O’Donnell, and was eventually invited to observe him as he taught his first class at Elizabeth Streb’s SLAM in Williamsburg. We interviewed the artists to learn why Dearing came to photograph Petit, and how she became an exception to his rule.
What did you know about Philippe Petit before all of this? Victoria Dearing: I had known about him just from growing up in New York and hearing about him walk across the towers. When Man On Wire came out, I literally was halfway through the film and I said to myself, ‘I must meet this man.’
What about him inspired you? VD: When you finish watching the film, you are reminded that all of our society is based on the word No. Everything that Philippe Petit does is the opposite of that. He defies all laws, all rules, and regulations. He breaks laws! He says Yes to everything. So for me, that’s the biggest fascination. He’s a dreamer. He wanted to be a dancer on the wire, a poet of the sky. He makes you think: What am I doing? Who am I? Where am I going?
How did you end up taking photos during the Class? VD: I went and I had two cameras in my bag and I knew that Philippe didn’t want to be photographed at all. I slowly took them out and one of them is this beautiful panoramic Widelux camera, and Kathy was like, ‘Ooh what’s that?’ People act like children around this camera. So I said, may I take one or two? And she said, ‘Yes, as long as you don’t move, and stay out of his way, don’t make a flash.’
Was it difficult to photograph him under those conditions? VD: I never felt comfortable doing it, because I was really far away. On the last day of the last class I went by myself and I said, ‘Philippe, I didn’t even ask you, can I take photos?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, as long as if you sell them, you give me the money,’ he said jokingly. So I got a little bit closer, but I had no plan, no intention, it was just for me because I just adore him, you know?
When the idea to do an exhibit came up, did you think he would agree to it? VD: [I thought], he’ll probably say No, because I once asked him three questions: One. Where do you live? He said, ‘New York, I don’t know why everybody asks me that, I’ve lived here 35 years.’ Two, I said, who is going to take over for you when you’re gone? There’s nobody like you. And he said, ‘There’s nobody, because nobody teaches; nobody is like me. I made up my own life, my own story. I don’t work for the circus, nobody.’ And three: Can I photograph you? And he said, ‘No, no, no, I say no to almost everybody for the past 35 years, I’m not going to start to say yes now.’ So having said all of that, a lot of these elements lined up. In the end, when I sat down and we made the show happen, I said, Okay, now that it’s happening, I can think: Why me?
You’re not big on being photographed, why is that? Philippe Petit: Well, it’s a strange thing. The result is never to my artistic satisfaction. Normally I would not let anybody take pictures of me at random because on the wire I do certain moves and those moves have to be photographed right, so the photographer has to know what the move is. Like when I salute, the hand doesn’t touch here, it goes there or maybe the thumb goes up, so I have to explain and I didn’t want to; I was working on my Master Class.
Why were things different with Victoria? PP: I am challenged by artistic challenge. I like to do things that are even against my nature. So when I make rules for something, immediately there is a set of exceptions to that rule. So in my first Master Class, I said, ‘Absolutely no photographs!’ Of course the New York Times was there and that was an exception. And then I invited a couple of friends to be a fly on the wall, but she came with a few cameras, she’s a photographer; she’s an artist. So I said, Okay, for the first time in my life I’m going to say do what you want and we’ll see. Instead of saying, ‘Get out of here’ I said, ‘Okay, but I cannot help you in any way; you will have no freedom. You cannot move around, you have to be invisible.’ So she was an exception, and I like that challenge.
So what do you think of the show? Are you happy with the results? PP: Well the funny thing is, I was so preoccupied with so many things, I have books, and a one-man show, and a feature film, and lectures going on – I didn’t even look! I didn’t look at those photographs, Kathy saw them, but me, I didn’t really see them until 2 hours before. I went very calm, I had nothing to do and for the first time, I look at the exhibit and I was flabbergasted! And I told her the truth, I said, ‘This is great.’ I was very impressed. How the hell did this young woman here manage? Besides organizing the whole exhibit, which she did 24 hours a day for the past few months. I was very impressed. So it was an exception and it worked very well. I invited her to look at something, but she didn’t have really good conditions to work in and yet it’s amazing what she managed to do!