Julien Martinez Leclerc is a self-described perfectionist, he always has been. Son of an art dealer, Julien was always creative, but he first picked up a camera aged 13 on a trip with his parents. “I was playing around with my mum’s [camera]. It felt really natural. I’d tried sculpture which just didn’t come easily, and I didn’t have the patience for painting, but this just felt easy” the Paris-born, London-based photographer tells It’s Nice that. It happened to be his birthday a few days later and when a generous godfather asked him what present he’d like, he knew exactly what to ask for – a camera of his own, “I think I still have it, in a drawer somewhere” he tells us.
Whilst his perfectionism had always been present to some extent, picking up a camera Julien became more aware of what he describes as his “geometrical eye”. Composition and careful cropping were immediately integral to his work, or “putting stuff in a harmonious way, if that doesn’t sound pretentious” as he phrases it, but he’s quick to admit that it was “sometimes a bit of a burden, trying to let go.” Despite this, the London College of Communication graduate says it’s his more spontaneous images he’s happiest with: “what I really love is when I go to a place and I don’t know what to expect and it’s a real surprise picture. I get attached to them much more, I can look at them without getting bored because there are magical elements.”
After initially taking portraits of his friends in the park, he turned his hand to self-portraits; “They were quite violent, I had tape on my mouth and I was laced in wires and putting makeup on. It was a way to express myself.” He shot them in his bedroom, using only a desk lamp, but quickly realised he needed to invest in some equipment if he was to take his practice seriously. “I realised from researching and reading photographer’s interviews that if I would like to achieve pictures which have my signature, I needed to do more work beforehand, more production work,” he explains, “a lot of elements were important – the clothes, the environment, the lighting, especially if I wanted to craft a story and have a direction.”
At first, Julien shot in both colour and black and white but, buoyed by the feeling he was finally developing the signature he’d always sought after, the latter slowly became his main focus. “I think that’s always a bit exciting, when someone tells you that you have a typical lighting style or they recognise your picture. So I got really excited about working in black and white. It’s really hard to have a voice so I really developed it.” Not one to rest on his laurels, Julien was keen to push it stylistically, playing around with different techniques, referencing lots of different photographers who shot predominantly in black and white. Including Bill Brandt, who Julien cites as a big inspiration, especially when it comes to perspective (“Brandt finds a way to challenge reality by using wide angles”), something he experiments with in his own work, and Josef Koudelka who taught him the importance of the colour grey (“Brandt is pure white and dark black, but Koudelka is a big spectrum of colours in between”).
These photographers, along with Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, also introduced Julien to a motif now recurrent in his own work – toeing the line between real and staged, a kind of curated truth. Cartier-Bresson, for instance, would “stand for a day in front of a particular wall he liked, just waiting for the right person to walk in front of it. It’s real life but they have a vision, they’re looking for something specific in the world, so that makes their work staged in a way. It’s selective and curative.”
Despite only graduating last year, Julien already has an impressive list of editorials and collaborations with industry heavy-hitters under his belt, including POP magazine, Marie-Amélie Sauvé’s Mastermind, and a joint endeavour with Prize Editions. He was also picked as one of the best 50 entrants in the recent JW Anderson photography competition, out of thousands of promising entries. However, it’s his personal work that shines – intimate portraits of his grandparents at home; graphic, Meisel-inspired close-ups of street-cast sisters and surreal, stuffed birds that lead us to believe he’s definitely one to keep an eye on.