REVIEW: A portrait of a local photographer

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 11:57 AM

In filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman’s documentary, “Monsieur Contraste,” Durham photographer Jean-Christian Rostagni discusses his work as an attempt to balance realism and expression. Rostagni also struggles to balance artistic integrity with the need to pay the bills, and the art world’s commercial demand for product.

In “Monsieur Contraste,” Dorfman, whose films include “Generation Exile” and “One Night in Kernersville,” portrays Rostagni as a gentle soul with a strong do-it-yourself streak of independence. Born in France, Rostagni has been a photographer for more than 40 years. He came to the South about 20 years ago and settled in Durham, where he operates his Church of Photography gallery and shop out of his home.
His body of work includes photographs of the Moral Monday protests, the old Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and most recently “Of, By, For,” his photograph of President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration that was recently given to the White House. 
In “Monsieur Contraste,” his wife gives him an ultimatum – to make a certain amount of money in a year or start bagging groceries at Whole Foods. (Whole Foods also is a sponsor of the exhibit and documentary screening.) Dorfman follows Rostagni as he prepares several large-scale black and white photographs for a gallery sale in Raleigh. His perfectionism causes him to fall a month behind schedule, and we hear the exhibit organizer on the phone trying oh so diplomatically to cajole him to make the deadline for the opening. Rostagni’s agent also visits his house, and there’s a discussion of which of his photos will and will not sell on the current art market.
Rostagni emerges as thoroughly likable, even quixotic. He despises the elitism of the art world, refusing to create “limited editions” that he believes artificially inflate the value of a work of art. He has a wonderful sense of humor: Listen to his story of how he talked the French government out of conscripting him into the military (it would have been in no one’s interest, he argued), and try not to laugh and admire his persistence. He’s a painstaking craftsman. He makes his own frames, and he prefers the old dark room method of creating images.
Rostagni does make the deadline, and Dorfman leaves any conclusions about the photographer’s future employment to the viewer’s imagination in this delightful, charming, only-in-America, only-in-Durham story.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Screening of “Monsieur Contraste” and exhibit of Jean-Christian Rostagni’s photographs

WHERE: The Carrack Modern Art, 111 W. Parrish St., Durham
WHEN: Screenings and the exhibit begin Wednesday and continue through March 1. Doors open at 6:30, with screening at 7:30, followed by a reception.
ADMISSION: Tickets are $5 and may be purchased at monsieurcontraste.com/screenings/carrack