Maternal Instincts: Martine Fougeron Pictures a World with Two Sons


It has been said that all our knowledge begins with the senses. This is certainly the case for Martine Fougeron, who gave up a burgeoning fragrance-industry career as "the nose to the noses" to return to her roots—photography and family. What began as a personal challenge to reconnect with her creative life by photographing the inner world of her two sons and their teen tribe has blossomed into a long-term documentation of the in-between moments of daily life, from adolescence into adulthood.

Born in France, and brought up between Paris and New York, Fougeron says, "My parents came to the States when I was five, and we went back to Paris when I was 12, so my life has always been between those two Alma Maters." Her curious use of the term for a place of learning as a geographic reference takes on added significance given its direct translation from Latin: Nourishing Mother.

Realm of the Senses

Growing up in a family of avid image makers, Fougeron calls up a childhood portrait of herself aiming a tiny camera as evidence of her early interest in the medium. "My grandfather was a filmmaker, so he was always with his movie camera, and my father had a Leica and was always taking pictures," she says. "So, I was initiated by them. They would show us all the films and photos on big screens, which was rare at the time."

Photographs © Martine Fougeron

Fougeron as a child with her Brownie Twin camera
Fougeron as a child with her Brownie Twin camera

Another formative creative influence was to be found in the kitchen. "My mother and my grandmothers were fantastic cooks," she says. "They saw that I had a keen sense of taste, and they would always ask me, 'What's missing from this Boeuf Bourguignon compared to the recipe I made two months ago?' I would tell them, and when I didn't know, I would describe the spice. So, they taught me how to name the spices, the foods, and the ingredients."

Fougeron views this matrilineal transmission of sensory knowledge as an essential part of her being. "You know, I love to eat, and I love to cook, and I think that really helped me to memorize all these scents, and these different ingredients. I would see them as names, but I would see them as colors and textures, too."

Her early immersion in such ephemeral skills provided Fougeron with a solid foundation on which to build. "When you're a child, you can learn so many things," she points out. "You can learn ten languages, you can learn music, you can learn how to smell, and dissect the different odors, and all that. But it's so hard to learn these things after you're grown, because your brain is wired to be rational, and not as receptive."

Creativity with a Corporate Spin

Returning to the States for college, Fougeron purchased a camera and enrolled in a black-and-white photography class. "That was my first investment in any major object," she says. After graduation, she went back to Paris and put her keen sensory awareness to work, first as a strategic planner for an advertising agency, contemplating what a brand could be. "I was dealing with metaphors, and always using my visual sense, working with brands and envisioning what they could look like, what visual ambience they could have."

Adrien by L'Adour, from Teen Tribe, 2010
Adrien by L'Adour, from Teen Tribe, 2010

Before long, the deep-rooted synergy between Fougeron's visual and olfactory senses landed her in the fragrance industry. "I basically worked behind the scenes with the noses of all the famous designers, trying to figure out how the visual sense of a brand could translate into fragrances," she explains. "It was like translating the visual vocabulary of geometry, and structure, and tonalities of color into a fragrance, but it was always based on the visual sense, the visual aesthetic."

As Fougeron explains it, training in perfumery revolves around being able to name different smells, a discipline that took her back to the maternal kitchens of her childhood. "What's different between an orange and a clementine, a clementine and a lemon, a lemon and a lime," she suggests. "Putting names to these scents helps you train your vocabulary."

Such a memory for scents is a rare gift, and Fougeron's acute sense of smell resulted in her nomination for a creative director role in New York, where she was to oversee a staff of 20 world-class perfumers and 80 assistants. "I had in my staff a Picasso style, a Vermeer style, and a Caravaggio style," she explains. "Each would have their individual ways of looking at the world, and making their perfumes, and I would respect that. I think that's why I got along with them very well. It wasn't like managing a sales team, with strict objectives. You know, it's not a cookie-cutter kind of approach," she adds, "it's an individual approach."

Managing Motherhood

In tandem with directing such a complex creative team, Fougeron also set her sights on starting a family, giving birth to two sons in the early 1990s, which she juggled with her flourishing career. Yet, working in fragrances required a huge commitment, entailing 12-hour days, two to three dinners a week and trips to Paris nearly twice a month. Over time, the challenge of two growing sons and her high corporate life began to take a toll. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was the ultimate wake-up call that convinced Fougeron to leave her job in fragrances and put family life first. "I decided that I wasn't spending enough time with my sons, who were leaving childhood and entering adolescence," she says. "I realized, being a single mother, I was just not going to be able to educate my sons through the difficult adolescent years."

Nicolas' No, from Teen Tribe, 2006
Nicolas' No, from Teen Tribe, 2006

In 2005, Fougeron went back to school, enrolling in the one-year general studies program at the International Center of Photography (ICP). As the oldest student in her class, she initially resisted the idea of making pictures of her personal environment. "I thought, 'I don't want to be classified as the mom just doing snapshots of her kids.' But little by little it became obvious," she admits.

Rather than snapshots, Fougeron chose to work with a 4x5 Linhof view camera, on loan from ICP. "The material was so heavy, between the camera itself, my Manfrotto tripod, and the CAME-TV lights I needed for a decent shutter speed," she explains. "So, I just began photographing my sons at home, and I liked what I saw. My professors also thought the pictures were very interesting, so they encouraged me."

Picturing Resistance

Her sons, however, were less than thrilled by the idea of Fougeron's creative focus. "When I started the project, my elder son Nicholas was in full revolt," she says. "He hated me, so he would always resist and it showed in the pictures."

As a filmmaker in his own right from the tender age of eight, "Nicholas knew exactly how the camera worked," she notes. "He knew when my 4 x 5 would be ready, how I would shoot behind the ground glass, and all the time it took to make a picture. So, I basically had to trick him into the pictures without him realizing it."

Adrien and Nicolas Dining, from Teen Tribe, 2005
Adrien and Nicolas Dining, from Teen Tribe, 2005

Her first success was the result of careful planning. Fougeron prepared her camera in advance, measuring the light with a handheld Sekonic light meter, and focusing the lens by using a cushion where her son's head would appear. She then fixed a tempting burger dinner, and called her sons to the table. As they sat down and started to eat, she stepped behind the ground glass, "but everything was already set," she recounts. "So, I just called his name, and clicked."

Another photo is called Nicholas Resisting. Says Fougeron, "We live in a townhouse and my studio is beneath his bedroom, so I could hear his footsteps because the wood would creak. I really wanted him in front of his computer watching the video games he was obsessed with, which just drove me crazy as a mother. So, after six or seven unsuccessful attempts, I positioned the camera in front of his door with everything preset, knowing it would probably be one stop brighter than my studio."

After knocking and quickly opening the door, Fougeron snapped a picture of her son, "Saying no to the camera," as she terms it. "I have several shots like that," she notes. "I just sort of embraced it."

Photographing the Teen Tribe

Since the two boys were very close in age, and attended the same school, New York's Lycee Française, throughout their secondary studies, they amassed a tight circle of common friends, which Fougeron fondly refers to as their Tribe. "They would always hang out at our house. It was kind of a haven for them," she says.

She included this entourage in her picture making from the start, and they soon became unforeseen advocates. "I would always have prints in my studio, and the other kids liked the photos," she says. "They thought the pictures represented who they were, and they really convinced my two sons to let me take pictures, thinking it would be a great document on their life."

Adrien on Drums with Band, from Teen Tribe, 2007
Adrien on Drums with Band, from Teen Tribe, 2007

According to Fougeron, photographing the other kids was a lot easier than making pictures of her sons. "There's less emotional baggage, so there's less resistance," she says. "There's less attitude. And I think when the friends saw the photos on my wall, they felt moved by them." She describes her role with the group as somewhat like that of an aunt. "They couldn't go to bars, they couldn't go out in the streets, so they would hang out at our place," she explains. "They would sleep over, wake up, and have breakfast."

Switching Formats

While Fougeron's earliest photos were taken exclusively with a 4 x 5, one of her professors suggested she switch to a Canon 5D after learning she would continue the series beyond ICP. This switch proved to be particularly helpful when traveling and shooting outside during summer vacations in France.

"I've since worked with the 5D all the time, and it's really been revolutionary as one of the first full frame DSLRs," says Fougeron. "I know its intricacies, and I immediately know exactly what I can do with it. Believe it or not, I tend to still work with the 5D, although I also have a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 5D Mark IV," she adds. "I primarily use those as back-up cameras, in case my 5D doesn't work. I think it's important to know your camera very well, and using the same camera also gives me a consistency of look."

Paul S. and Yamee, Les Crepes, from Teen Tribe, 2008
Paul S. and Yamee, Les Crepes, from Teen Tribe, 2008

Fougeron lights most of her pictures using an off-camera flash, currently the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT with a Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord. "I basically try to make it discrete," she says. "So, I'll expose for the background, but use a flash for the expressions of the subjects. I use flash only to show what the eye sees, but what the camera doesn't."

To keep the lighting natural, she often sets her exposure compensation dial at -1.3 EV and bounces the flash off a white wall, a ceiling, or even the floor, so the flash, "acts like a little sun," as she describes it. "Here it's a question of how you angle the flash, and the angle is very important," she continues. "I don't know why, but I love figuring out the angles. It's like playing pool."

Since she often photographs group situations in relatively small rooms, Fougeron relies on a Canon 24-105 mm f/4 lens, which allows her to immediately adapt to a changing scene. She describes her shooting style as, "Very pragmatic," adding, "Program mode generally works for me, and I just set the ISO, usually at around 320. And if that doesn't work. I'll go manual, and readjust the flash settings."

After taking a test shot, she checks the histogram, "This has always been a savior," she notes. "I don't want to eat up the blacks, and I don't want to eat up the whites. Especially with skin tones, and dealing with people. If you've got an overexposed face, forget it," she cautions. "That's just the kiss of death."

Rules of Engagement

Over the course of her documentation, Fougeron has achieved a level of intimacy with her sons and their friends that allows her to reveal their inner emotional states. "In most of the photos, they are in their world interacting with themselves and/or with other people," she says. "And that's the way I like it."

To allow for this to happen, she established set practices and rules early on, which gives her direction, while also helping to build trust with her subjects.

Nicolas Tired from SAT's, from Teen Tribe, 2008
Nicolas Tired from SAT's, from Teen Tribe, 2008
  1. First and foremost, Fougeron asks permission to photograph her sons and their friends, and generally respects their prerogative to say no.
  2. Since her pictures are steeped in the reality of daily life, she keeps a notebook of shoot ideas that allows her to anticipate scenes she is interested to capture. "I predetermine situations I want to photograph—my son resisting, my son reading, my son giving a kiss to a girlfriend," she says. "I jot down the situations, and the day when it feels the time is right, I photograph it."
  3. When photographing her sons with their tribe, she initially engages in some level of banter with the group. "When there were like seven kids in the house and they would jam out, they were usually in a dark room, with candles and things like that," she notes. "And I would just come in, and discuss things with them, hear what they had done, what was happening in school. Then I would say I'm going to take some pictures."
  4. Fougeron limits her shoots to 20-minute timeframes. "I'll take five or six shots, and then wait for something else I like," she explains. "Perhaps five minutes later, I'll take another five to 10 frames. Then I'll wait another five minutes, discuss with them and redo the process. If I don't have the shot after 20 minutes, I just disappear, and put the camera away. I don't overdo the shooting, just because I know that if I did, I would have fatigued them, I wouldn't have won the war of being able to shoot them over time."
  5. She always holds what she sees or hears during her photo sessions in strict confidence. "We went through hard times, and I never told the parents," Fougeron asserts. "But I did tell the tribe, we've got to get this kid out of this. So, we figured things out with the other kids. If there had been something life threatening, I would have had to call the parents. Thank goodness it never got there. So, I think that built a trust, too.
Nicolas's Kiss, from Teen Tribe, 2007
Nicolas's Kiss, from Teen Tribe, 2007
  1. Fougeron allows her subjects to veto any picture they don't like. "Meaning if they felt very uncomfortable with a photo, I just wouldn't show it," she explains. "They knew that, but it hardly ever happened."
  2. A final practice she follows to appeal to her subjects is to always have good food handy. "Adolescents like to eat, and you have to offer something, you can't just always be asking. If you always have good food around, they'll want to hang out. But don't expect them to eat at 7:00 p.m. when you're ready to eat, they might eat at 11:00 p.m. They're nocturnal birds at that age. It's proven that they live at night, and you have to respect that."

Matters of Trust and Openness

Part of the motivation for Fougeron's project comes from her adolescent experiences with her own parents, who were "Very traditional, French, and thought that anything dealing with being an adolescent was unacceptable, and kind of dangerous," she explains. "They took it very personally, so, they basically cut off communication with me. I was determined not to have the same relationship with my children that my parents had with me. And photographing my sons actually helped me to be objective about them."

For others seeking to photograph their kids, Fougeron considers the best place to start is with building trust. "I think the child should perceive that you're considering him or her as a muse," she counsels. "It shouldn't be considered an obligation or imposition from the parent to the child."

Paul G. and Ada, from Teen Tribe, 2009
Paul G. and Ada, from Teen Tribe, 2009

When it comes to the tenuous state of adolescence, she views the biggest issue parents face to be their negativity. Borrowing from her own adolescence, Fougeron states, "I think parents tend to take this stage too personally, and are resentful of it. As if this child is hating me, this child is against me. They are having tantrums, their nocturnal life is impossible, their craziness is dangerous and insulting."

"No," she asserts. "The child has to break the umbilical cord from the parents at that age. That's the phase they must go through to reach their own identity."

Rather than fighting this stage, Fougeron advocates for embracing it. She says, "The beauty of that separation is what makes for the kind of healthy relationship that shows in my photos. And if you embrace their questionings, their discoveries, if you embrace the openness that they have at that age, and all the beautiful, metaphysical questionings they have, you're not going to have that negative judgmental attitude. It's going to make for better picture making, and better relationships with them."

She encourages parents to open both their minds and their homes—to invite friends over and get to know who their children are hanging out with. "Their tribe is their family at that point," she says. "They'd rather not deal with their birth family. They're ashamed of their parents. They're questioning who their parents are, and it's normal. That's how they reach their own individual emancipation," she sums up. "This is key for any photographer to envision, if they want to take better photographs, but also to have better relationships with their children."

Enter Emerging Adulthood

The year 2010 marked a shift in Fougeron's Teen Tribe project as her sons transitioned to college life. "It meant getting out of our normal home for pictures," she says. "I had to go to their environment. Now, of course, this has changed again," she adds, "because after college they both came back home."

Not surprisingly, instead of complaining about her sons' return home, like many parents, Fougeron has embraced it. "I love having a relationship with my sons, which is almost adult-to-adult," she says. "They're teaching me things, and I'm teaching them things."

Nicolas and Adrien at Bennington, from Twenties Tribe, 2014
Nicolas and Adrien at Bennington, from Twenties Tribe, 2014

While she continues to make pictures, Fougeron now considers her project to be like a novel in different volumes, a segmented coming-of-age story with a working title of A World with Two Sons. "For the time being, it has two volumes," she explains, "the teens, and the 20s. Hopefully, there will be the 30s as well."

To aid in her exploration of this new life stage, she has also been reading studies about human development. Says Fougeron, "There's a theory about a new period in the life of young people in advanced industrial societies, which has been coined Emerging Adulthood. Kids are no longer getting married at 21, no longer having children at 21, no longer having full time, permanent jobs at 21."

She says, "This is really something I've lived with my sons. They're not married, they are not yet done with their education, they're not settling down to long-term jobs. They're not adolescents anymore, but they're not adults either. And this gives them an incredible sense of freedom, but also fears."

When photographing these transitions, she speaks of the importance of accepting her subjects without judgment. "If you want to be a fly on the wall, you can't have a judgment on the person, whether you like the person or not," she says. "You just have to love them when you're photographing them, and accept them for who they are. It's not about my agenda. It's about who the person is, and how to portray that. Of course it's about how I see them," she admits. "But if I don't have a judgment, and really just try to enter their inner world, I'll take a photo of that inner world."

A Photography Master Retreat

Looking beyond the photographs, there is a remarkable continuity to be found between Fougeron's talents in mining the inner worlds of her sons and their tribe for pictures, and her past experiences as a creative director, working with individual artists to bridge the visual with the realm of fragrances.

She forged another bridge between these two creative facets in 2013, when she embarked on a new project aimed at photographers seeking meaningful discourse about their work.

Using her family home in the south of France and the surrounding hamlet as a base, Fougeron invited two noted educators and photo industry professionals—visuals editor, curator and writer Elisabeth Biondi, and curator and critic Lyle Rexer—to join her in offering the week-long Photography Master Retreat. Held annually during the second week in July, and capped at 14 attendees, this is a chance for a small group, "To be able to rethink their work, re-orchestrate it, and get it to another level in a very communal and informed manner," she explains.

Vigorous Nature, from Teen Tribe, 2008
Vigorous Nature, from Teen Tribe, 2008

Fougeron views this program as distinct from how-to photography workshops with a single instructor who tells you to do this and that. "This is not about how-to, it's about why," she notes. "Why you're doing this, what's important about it, what's especially you about it."

Program participants include a mix of documentary, fine art, and conceptual photographers, as well as other types of artists who have come to photography. Also essential to the mix are attendees of different ages, and different career stages. "The more perspectives the students have, and the more diversified they are, the more they learn from each other," explains Fougeron. "It's a big and changing world of photography out there, and in a lot of cases photographers don't realize where they stand, and where they're positioned within that bigger world. So, allowing them to have that epiphany about their work is really important, within a more global context."

Beyond this primary goal of offering photographers fresh insights about their work, the retreat serves a dual purpose for Fougeron: Creating a meaningful alliance between the United States and France and giving back to the photographic community she discovered after her corporate career. "When I was a creative director in the fragrance industry, I basically mentored artists, so I'm applying those skills to mentoring photographers," she explains. "I was so used to mentoring individuals in the artistic process. I thought it would be a great way to give back and link my past life in fragrances with my new life as a photographer."

Thus, by linking her two Alma Maters, as she puts it, with the opportunity for photographers to experience creative reflection, plus intensive and informed critique, Fougeron takes on the role of a nourishing mother indeed.

A book of Fougeron's photographs, titled Nicolas & Adrien: A World with Two Sons, was published by Steidl in 2019. This May, her book will be on view during the International Center of Photography’s Photobook Fest (May 21-22, 2022), and in 2023 her work will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Bronx Museum. To learn more about Martine Fougeron and her project, A World with Two Sons, as well as the Photography Master Retreat, click these links for her website and her Instagram accounts: @martinefougeron and @photomasterretreat.