Her photos stand out. Far from the usual sports photos, the French photographer Corinne Dubreuil has invented a new language to translate into images her passion for sports, tennis in particular. For 30 years, she has followed the great events such as Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. Under her lens, we have seen revealed the heart and spirit of champions such as the Swiss Roger Federer, the American Serena Williams, and the Spanish Rafael Nadal. By adopting shifted points of view, playing with shadows and highlighting color, she transforms athletes into works of art.
Did sports come naturally to you in your photographs?
I played tennis from the age of 6 until I was 20. I loved hanging out at the club. My father is passionate about sports and I have always appreciated the emotions he transmits. This passion led me to photograph him.
I took my first pictures at 11 years old thanks to my uncle, an amateur photographer, who lent me his camera. It was great to be able to change the lenses…to touch the buttons…and I quickly affirmed that one day I would be a tennis photographer!
I got my first camera, a Minolta X-300, when I was 13. I joined a photo club that allowed me to go on photo outings of all kinds, to develop in a lab, etc. And as soon as I could, I started to take pictures. And the first thing I photographed was tennis.
In 1987, I was 16 years old, and I bought a general admission ticket for Roland Garros. On court No. 1, in the shape of an arena, I saw Chris Evert and I was immediately captivated. With a friend who is a tennis fan, we tried to get her autograph by finding out which hotel she was staying in Paris. She thought we were nice and when she lost in the semifinals, she offered me her shoes and gave me her phone number in case I wanted tickets to other tournaments.
And I called her! Thanks to her, I got tickets for the US open, Wimbledon…. To finance my travels, I sold my photos for 10 francs via the classified ads of Tennis de France. As time went by, I met people in the business and, in 1988, I saw my first photos published in the “Bruits de couloir” section of Tennis Magazine, and I fulfilled my dream of the time by joining the magazine in September 1990. I stayed there for 13 years.
What is photogenic in sports for you?
In a conventional way, I could answer, “The movement.” It is beautiful to photograph, but I prefer the emotion that sports brings. Whether it is joy or frustration.
The light is another determining component of my photos. Since tennis is mostly played outside, I am lucky enough to follow the sun all year round!
I don’t like to take expected pictures, like showing the ball hitting the racket. I try to have a different perspective.
“Mouvement is beautiful to photograph but I prefer the emotion that sports brings. Whether it is joy or frustration.”
Shadows, details of the court, frozen moments. You bring art, poetry and surprise to the field of sports. Did you have to impose this look or did your photos immediately charm the newspapers?
That’s what I liked right away: to be able to make different pictures. As soon as possible, I went up to capture the shadows, the colors. Being at ground level is less interesting to me, except for the emotions. I quickly adopted this off-beat style, and it is today this “artistic” side that one notices in my work.
In your personal work you capture the "blue hour" on the beaches of Biarritz, that moment when the sun is down but the night is not yet established. What's different about photographing the light gliding over the sea and high level sports?
These are really photos taken for pleasure, without imperatives, without stress. Just the adrenaline of capturing that ephemeral light, that moment when a surfer stands out in shadow. In these images, as in sports, I try to show something with a different point of view. It is rare that I think I have just made a good photo. If necessary, I will look for this different point of view.
For example, when I photographed the twins Mike and Bob Bryan’s final at the 2014 US Open, I wanted to photograph the chest bump they did at the end of each match. I went up to the top of the stadium, but there were already plenty of photographers there. So I shifted my position. They threw their rackets on the ground and raised their hands in victory: I took their two identical victorious shadows with the dropped rackets. An image that we are not used to seeing. This photo won the grand prize at the Sportfolio photojournalism festival.
Black and white or vibrant colors, you use one or the other with the same ease. How do you make the choice of black and white or color?
I decide after the shoot. I rarely use black and white for the action. I save it for behind the scenes, portraits or emotion. Black and white is almost easy. Color is more difficult because the subject must be strong. You have to pay attention to the harmony, the colors, the light.
I try to be faithful to the colors I see, not too hot or too cold.
“Color is more difficult because the subject must be strong. You have to pay attention to the harmony, the colors, the light.”
You make portraits of athletes and photos taken in the middle of a game. Do you have a preference for one or the other?
I love portraits. I worked for L’Équipe and L’Équipe Mag as a freelancer, which allowed me to do a lot of portraits and to meet a lot of athletes. We all have a preconceived idea before meeting someone. By doing a portrait, we can show a facet that we don’t know but that we must succeed in catching in 10 minutes, the time of the shooting…
Do you like Corinne's interview?
You have followed Rafael Nadal's career since his debut. Do you keep your objectivity when you follow a champion from the beginning? Or, on the contrary, is it a privilege to have this background ?
I was lucky: when I started, I knew Sampras, Agassi… but I didn’t have enough experience. But then, in the 2000s, came Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and all their victories. I had the privilege to live this fantastic era. I know them by heart: I can anticipate their reactions, their gestures. I know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.
You get attached. I was afraid that after Federer, Serena and Rafa’s imminent retirement, I would miss them. But we are lucky to have new faces, like Alcaraz, Tsitsipas and Coco Gauff, who are very photogenic and who allow us to start again at 0. Even if I would not have the same vibe.
We must not forget to mention Amélie Mauresmo! I photographed her the first time when she was 11 years old and I was only a few years older. I was lucky enough to follow her entire career, and today we often see each other outside of tennis: my job is my life; it’s a privilege!
What camera and equipment do you use?
I started with Canon. At the end of 1999, with the arrival of digital, the editorial staff of Tennis Mag switched to Nikon D1, and I never left the brand. It is very reliable and the pro service is great. They are always there when I need a lens loan or if I have a technical problem. I have a Z9 hybrid for sports, a Z6 with a larger file plus the ambiences and sides. I will never go back. I love the idea of seeing through the camera the photo that will come out and not having to test. I’m glad I knew film, manual focus, slide, which force you to master the shot. I like well-framed and well-exposed photos to spend less time on the editing software afterwards.
For a very long time, I had a 200-400mm zoom lens, which is very useful for tennis where versatility is important. But I recently gave it up for another little-known Nikon zoom that is a real “rock” as we say back home, a gem: a 120-300mm that opens to 2.8 instead of 4 and offers great latitude for the background. I work with a constant aperture – 2.8 – because I like to eliminate the background and make the character stand out. I have three other lenses: a 50mm f/1.4, a 105mm f/1.4, and a 24-120mm that opens to 4 for ambience. I gave up the 70-200mm because the 120-300mm has enough latitude.
On big events, the brands are there and lend us lenses. I sometimes borrow a 500 / 600 but I don’t need it every day.
“I’m glad I knew film, manual focus, slide, which force you to master the shot. I like well-framed and well-exposed photos to spend less time on the editing software afterwards.”
Do you have a routine for the post-processing of your photos? What software do you use?
It can double the work time, but I spend as little time as possible. I do the editing in Photo Mechanic by selecting the photos I keep with colors. I caption and send to my clients if they have FTP via Photo Mechanic. If I need to crop or if the image is underexposed, I use Photoshop. For black and white or desaturation sometimes I use Lightroom.
Serge Philippot, who followed the history of tennis, especially the Federer years, was your mentor. What did you learn from him?
He was passionate about what he did, rigorous in everything, organized, hard-working. He would finish what he started without wasting time. He taught me to be rigorous when shooting, and to make choices when sorting. I am happy to have had him by my side for 13 years, especially when I was starting out.
What advice would you give to a young photographer?
When I started 30 years ago, it was different. It was probably easier to make a place for yourself. Today, even if you are bad, you can still produce something. There are many candidates, but few places. And with covid, there are fewer accredited people at certain events. I’m not dissuading anyone, but I’m saying that it’s not easy. I would advise to start with small events: in a tennis club, and then maybe approach agencies that can accept to take your pictures. Sometimes they sell them for $1 and you get 20 cents…. You also learn a lot by watching other people shooting or by going to exhibitions.
Does this interview inspire you?
You give conferences to young photographers and during exhibitions. Is teaching an important part of your work?
I have done some at the Nikon photo show–in schools as well–and in pro stores like Images Photo Bastille in Paris. I like to share and explain how it happens in real life. ct quote in English, but a translation, this would be clearer: Often people only see that I have the chance to attend games and to meet the players… but it is a job. I have to work from 10am to 4-5pm with 15kg of equipment. I’m not complaining, but it’s the reality.
You have created an online gallery, L'heure Bleue, where you sell your pictures. Why did you create this business?
It is a simple virtual gallery. You can find my photos at Jean Denis Walter who represents me, organizes exhibitions and sells my photos. I strongly recommend him.
I created L’Heure Bleue for my landscape photos taken in the Basque Country where I spend half of my time: I thought it was a shame to keep them on my computer, and people in the region were interested in having a print.
One of my dreams is to open a photo gallery in Biarritz, but I don’t know if it’s viable. In Sydney, where I often stay, I discovered not far from Bondi beach the Aquabumps gallery: a long corridor covered with photos of the beach taken throughout the year, in many different formats. That’s what I want to do!
You are very active on Instagram, present on Twitter. Social networks have become a big part of photographers' exposure. Is this an opportunity, in your opinion, or a double-edged tool?
It’s an opportunity, and it’s essential to be present. I love Instagram. At the beginning of lockdown I had about 10,000 followers, but I got my account hacked. I started over and today I’m at 14,000 followers. The likes aren’t important, but it’s still nice. And it brings work, contrary to what I thought. It’s an essential showcase to use without abusing it.
When I’m at a tournament, at the end of the day, I take some time for myself. I’ll look at my photos and make a selection for Instagram. It’s a fun time. When you work for clients, you have a wide selection of images to choose from, but you don’t always agree with the ones that make the cut. Posting them on Instagram calms my frustration.