Interview with Romain Thiery
TIFA 2020 Winner, 1st Place, Architecture category – “Requiem Pour Pianos”
Romain Thiery’s main mission is to combine two of his great passions in life: music and photography, and set out to find abandoned mansions throughout Europe where old pianos are left to decay. The series resulting from this work is entitled “Requiem for pianos”. Since 2014, he has discovered more than a hundred pianos in Europe, in as many places of stunning beauty. Scenes from which he never changes anything, leaving the place just as it is. His modus operandi is to capture the image of this instrument lying there, forgotten there, and thickening even more the mystery of the place.
Q: Any specific city where you would like to have a studio? Why?
I live in the south of France where I already have my studio gallery in the town of Pézenas. City of Molière, it is a city of art and history in which I decided to settle to make discover my artistic work.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle as a photographer?
Until now, I had no big obstacles in my life as a photographer. But, for more than a year, with the crisis we all know, it is impossible for me to move to continue my artistic work. Moreover, it is also impossible for me to travel to exhibitions abroad and to meet people interested in my art. So, I take advantage of this time to look for new places to explore, contact heritage associations, piano associations in order to get new addresses that I will visit as soon as it will be possible again.
Q: Any photographs that have changed your life?
In 2017, I had the chance to visit a palace in Poland where an old piano had been forgotten. This photograph “Requiem pour pianos 33” was quickly spotted by galleries, journalists etc… I would say that it is this photograph which made take off my notoriety and made known my work on the pianos to the International.
Q: As a pianist, what did you feel when you photographed the abandoned pianos for your “Requiem pour Pianos” project?
I’ll explain how it all started: After a long trip to Asia, my mother asked me to accompany her to discover an abandoned town house. I didn’t hesitate.
We take a small road; we park and continue by walking. The vegetation is lush. We make a small path near the river below. I see the house, it is at least ten meters above us. Stairs take us up a cliff. Step by step, slowly, making sure that nothing is going to give way. We laugh a lot, take advantage of this experience and this incredible moment of sharing. Once in front, I am amazed by the beauty of the place and stunned to see the door wide open.
We may not be the first.
We enter slowly, anxiety taking over us. I go up the internal staircase. Everything is empty and in bad shape. Well, I thought so at the time. I force the swollen door to open. The parquet creaks under my feet. What a discovery! There is a piano! I cannot believe my eyes, my instrument is there, forgotten, subject to the wear of time. I immediately feel reassured, it is an incredible emotion to find a piano. But how can you leave your piano behind?
But he lies there, in front of me, in this room where the fireplace and the noble materials have already been looted, but not the piano. Could the idea of sacrilege be present even among destructive minds? A lot of questions cross my mind. I move around, look for the best shot. Even covered in its thick dust, it is still endearing. This moment, etched in my memory, was the beginning of a long quest that will take me to travel all over Europe.
Since then, I have found more than 100 pianos and the emotion is always the same. The piano is a powerful instrument embedded in our cultures. I always play on the keyboards, to make these pianos resonate one last time before they disappear.
Q: If you could go back to the past, what historical event would you portray and why?
During the Second World War, thousands of pianos and scores were confiscated by the Nazi regime in order to keep Jewish artists out of the music business.
A huge looting operation began in 1940 by the Sonderstab Music, a department specialized in the theft of musical instruments: first in the large collections of renowned musicians, then in 1942 in nearly 40,000 Parisian apartments. Among the instruments stolen during the war, some were returned at the Liberation, others never. Their location remains a mystery. In all, about 40,000 apartments were looted in the Paris region, and 8,000 pianos were shipped.
I have found old archival photographs of photographers who photographed this looting: trucks transporting pianos, rooms filled with pianos, abandoned pianos … I would have liked to do a photographic report on this often-unknown subject.
Q: Any photographer that you would have liked to learn from?
There are two very different photographers that I particularly like and would like to learn from: Sophie Calle and Martin Stranka.
Q: What is your next big project? Do you have anything exciting in the pipeline?
My series is not finished. I know I can always find new pianos forgotten in Europe. This year, if the conditions allow it, I will continue this project on the USA. I have already counted more than 20 abandoned pianos.
I’m working since a few months with an association that deals with the spoliation of musical instruments: the instruments looted during the Second World War by the Nazis. I collect the serial numbers of the pianos I photograph and transmit them. Thanks to the archives, they can potentially find an owner. I know I can’t save the buildings I photographed but I can maybe participate to save the pianos.
I’m working on a project that will link the sounds and my photographs. Indeed, I wish to record all the sounds of the pianos I photograph and to create musical compositions to bring them to life through sound and image. This project is under construction, it is going to take me a lot of time.