Motorstudies: On the road with François Bellabas

Currently in residency at the Centre Photographique d’Ile de France (CPIF), the young photographer François Bellabas is working on a project titled Motorstudies, which he started three years ago. We take a closer look at his study of cars, halfway between science fiction and the traditional American road-trip.

The page devoted to the artist on the CPIF website features a single image: the metallic teal of a pristine, antique hood stands out against the unblemished white of a retractable scoop which reveals a partial glimpse of the race-car engine beneath it. Although the tightly-framed shot turns the hood into abstraction, there is no doubt we are dealing with the formal vocabulary of cars. Jalopies, junkers, clunkers, and hot rods, François Bellabas’s Motorstudies project explores all the facets of this iconic machine.

An irony of fate

It was during a hairdresser’s appointment that the young photographer, still a student, first hit upon the idea of the project. His stylist confided in him that his life’s passion was not scissors but cars, and more specifically drifting. This driving technique consists in leaving controlled skid marks on the racetrack. This was a (lucky) coincidence since, prior to becoming an art student, François Bellabas had been compelled to study auto mechanics. Either as an exorcism or out of an obsession, the photographer shadowed this unusual hairdresser for two years, and launched into a sprawling project involving photographs, videos, theoretical research, and images found on the internet. The project soon took him to Los Angeles, fulfilling a childhood dream—a dream which had been nourished by Mad Max’s road rage and sparks of the Fast & Furious.

On the road

However, there is nothing aggressive about François Bellabas’s images. Meticulously composed, his pictures seem to be the work of a motorized flâneur, attuned to the smallest aesthetic detail, to the visual element that might fuel his “desire to try and see what it might look like in a photograph.” A curbside photograph, as he is fond of saying, functions as an agglomerate of different bodies: of an urban landscape, of the street motif, of skid marks, or the “powerful shapes” characteristic of race-car aerodynamics.

And yet the car is not the true subject of François Bellabas’s images. Nor is it ever shown in its entirety (except in videos). As the artist explains, the car functions as a tool: “a research tool, for measurement and sociology.” The car allows him to glean fragments of the world around him that he finds fascinating. It is a way for him to examine photography itself: “what is photography in 2019?”

One giant puzzle

Every photographer knows that the joy of shooting must give way to the time needed to process the images: the time to sort, classify, select, enhance, and organize; the time to build a narrative thread which would justify a trans-Atlantic journey. But François Bellabas prefers not to. In his travels, he has amassed some 11,000 images which he views as a unified database from which he can pick and choose when designing an exhibition, a portfolio, or (soon?) a book. Every association of images he curates tells a fragment of the story which is Motorstudies, since each is built independently of the others. “All I need is the pieces and I can put together, just like a car, a different machine.”

This unusual project sounds like an invitation to embark on a road trip across California, sitting in the passenger seat of François Bellabas’s car while philosophizing about photography.


Motorstudies © François Bellabas. 

13 Feb 2019 by Coline Olsina

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