Ewan Lebourdais’s photographs conjure up a whole world of cinematic references: One-Eyed Willy’s vessel in The Goonies; Titanic; Master and Commander; Pirates of the Caribbean; Nimitz in The Final Countdown; and Le Crabe-Tambour [The Drummer-Crab], and many other marine adventure and naval war films. A lover of the ocean, scuba diving, nautical culture, and maritime photography, Lebourdais has spent fifteen years capturing the many facets of the great mythical seafaring structures. His fifth book, Carènes Acte II, published by Éditions Odyssée, is an excellent introduction to his oeuvre.
The eye of the Iroise Sea
This forty-something Breton virtuoso, a Rennes native, now living in Brest, takes us on a voyage of discovery of this iodized universe of infinite diversity. “Carène,” or the “draft” of a ship’s hull, is a technical term, unfamiliar to the general public, and used only by initiates and enthusiasts. It describes the submerged part of a boat’s hull, from the waterline to the keel. In the technical jargon, it belongs to the “underworks,” i.e. those necessary for navigation, in contrast to “upper works” and superstructures located above the waterline.
Lebourdais invites us to contemplate the horizon from the perspective of the hull, magnifying the details of the naval architecture: “Carènes and Carènes Acte II are pretexts for opening onto the maritime world and showing the aesthetics of these boats from different angles and in a variety of fields,” he explains.
“When you’re within reach of a steel giant, it’s an incredible feeling, seeing those propellers freshly polished by technicians with a crazy know-how. It’s not just about being out in the open sea, it’s also about being at the bottom of a dock. I show anything that moves me.”
Structures, materials, shapes, sails, rust… everything is brought under the attentive lens of this image-maker who draws on cultural imagination at large. While Lebourdais has always thought of himself as a photographer, he has more heavily invested in digital technology, and embarks each year with an ever-growing battery of equipment.
Wind in the sails
Lebourdais looks at everything in terms of atmosphere, light, and object. Two flagship series exemplify this approach, starting with Periscopes, one of the most challenging projects. As he puts it, he had to go to “the most secret place in France,” and deployed his “part-air, part-water” shooting technique, developed thanks to a photographic accident:
“I had bought an airtight camera body with underwater flashes, with the idea of letting the sea come between the subject and myself. I then took the opposite approach, switching from 800mm to 14mm, to show what was happening below and above the surface, so as to give the impression of going under. I tried this out on the Abeille Bourbon, an emergency tow vessel.
As I was closing in, I had forgotten the stern clutch of my boat, which caused a ripple effect over the big bubble. I got an amazing image. I wanted to reproduce the process with a nuclear submarine. It took me a year and a half to convince the French Navy, and I went on to take a picture that created a bit of a sensation.”
The second series, Radoub, takes us into the dry docks, also known as refit forms, where ships enter for hull maintenance and repair. Seen through Lebourdais’s lens, they transform into studio stars. “I create my material as much as possible.
By setting up in these places, it leaves me very little post-production, because I use up to five powerful, autonomous studio flashes. I thus control the light. I often work in the middle of the night, to avoid artificial light pollution from construction sites or sunlight.”
Recognition was not long in coming. In 2015, one of his shots of the ballistic missile submarine Le Terrible was voted “Photo of the Month” by Nikon. “It was a great source of pride,” he continues, “but it was also quite complicated, because the image had not yet been authorized by, or made known to, the Navy. It allowed me to meet them. One thing led to another, and I became a reservist with the mission of promoting this world through artistic maritime photography.”
Official Painter of the Navy
Page after page, aided by Christophe Agnus’s poetic commentary, Carènes Acte II reveals its wonders across eight universes and over a hundred photographs taken from all angles, including by a drone and from a helicopter. The photographs testify to Lebourdais’s plural vision of these seafaring beauties: the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, the only nuclear-powered surface-combat vessel built in Western Europe; the transatlantic Queen Mary 2; the schooner La Recouvrance; the frigate Hermione, a replica of the famed eighteenth-century French warship; or the authentic Belem, one of the oldest three-masted ships in Europe. But one of Lebourdais’s masterpieces is undoubtedly the whale-like body of a submarine, which he captured from the bow at 400 meters with an 800 mm camera.
Giant size, opposing forces, relationships of scale, composition, alignment, and symmetry are key to Lebourdais’s work, allowing him to creatively evoke “dreams and fantasies.” The photographer exalts his passion for the sea, which translates into a life on the waves, including sailing and windsurfing.
“I have developed a strong body. I have stamina, and I know how to mobilize strength at the right moment. When I carry an 800mm handheld camera in a small boat that rocks at a 50 kmph wind with meter-tall surge, I mustn’t fail to get the shot. It’s a maritime adventure.”
Having long coveted the title of Official Painter of the Navy, Lebourdais reached his goal in 2021, joining Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Jean Gaumy in the category of photography. “It is a centuries-old, prestigious institution. Few are chosen, and it is the most wonderful recognition!”
Lebourdais’s pictures can be interpreted at several levels, playing with the effects of light, shades of white and gray, colors, ranging from pastel to watercolor. For example, the cutter Le Mutin, the oldest single-masted Royal Navy sail ship of the Royal Navy still in operation, which he shot with a 200 mm camera, desaturating only “the blues of the flag.” Or, again, the legendary Le Français, a three-masted barque, often featured in TV and film productions, which he captured in a moment of transient light.
Lebourdais draws inspiration from Turner’s skies and atmospheric seascapes and Rembrandt’s lighting. “I try to understand how some people managed to have this photographic intuition, like Theodore Gudin, who in 1830 painted with a 400mm effect. Or Roger Vercel, a great, early twentieth-century storyteller of the sea who never set foot aboard a ship. As a twenty-first century photographer, working with a telephoto lens, I am very interested in these artists.”
It is not surprising that Lebourdais’s images draw on a whole pictorial and cinematographic imaginary. Represented by four art galleries, the photographer has also collaborated with the world of cinema, which has featured his large maritime and even aeronautical formats as backdrops. For instance, the thriller Black Box with Pierre Niney and an upcoming feature starring Virginie Efira.
This lover of the sea has a busy schedule going forward. His forthcoming book, Neptune, will hit bookstores in March, tracing the journey on land, at sea, and in the air of the Hubert commando, an elite French Navy special operation forces corps, ahead of the Special Boat Service (SBS, U.K.) and Navy SEALs (U.S.). This yet another unfolding chapter in the expertise of this artist-photographer to keep an eye on.
Ewan Lebourdais, Carènes Acte II, text by Christophe Agnus, Éditions Odyssée, 2022, €39, 176 pp.