Etienne Clément Texts and Interviews

Ben Cranfield, Exhibition Catalogue, September 2007

Wendy’s Warning

When it comes to creative play there are two types of children. Those who build structures, be they complex towers in their minds or structures with Meccano, and those who build stories; not that the two are mutually exclusive but in play they often polarise. The child’s theatre, a cardboard interior often made in the form of a pop-up book, becomes the ultimate non-architectural space. It is all innards and no architectonic structure. It is all dress and no frame, whilst the Meccano tower is the essence of rationalised integrity with little space for humanity. This of course is an unacceptable dichotomy. Etienne Clément’s intensely alluring but deviously complex photographic works weave these two types of play together. The formal drama of architectural photography abuts the personal and political allegories of his play-mobile-esque narratives. They jar, when Clément wants them to and then merge in a tricksy fashion when he wants to entice the viewer into closer communion.

In the background of the works there is often a building, a landscape, a ruin, or more accurately a photographic image, which the artist has previously taken and then has used as a stage backdrop. In the foreground there are toy figures, miniature magazines, false-modelled landscapes that merge with the backdrop. The introduction of neglected objects, items of juvenilia, has the immediate effect of sharply undercutting the romanticism inherent in the art history, and biblical allegory referenced in the scene. What is presented is the inside out of architecture, with an artificial, parodying grandeur created by the seamless move from the macro to micro narrative. In his most recent series, Wendy’s World, he has added a third layer of complication to the story. In front of our focal point (the camera’s focal point) is a figure that stands with us, shadowy, blurred. This is Wendy.

Wendy is an artist, perhaps a cipher for the Artist; she is a viewer, a pervert and a voyeur. She is childish, plastic, sexy, naïve and unshockable. She is a ghostly presence on the photographic plane. She draws our attention to the surface of the photograph, to our own position, to questions surrounding the construction of that plane and what is beyond it, on it, behind it and…to the excitement and absurdity in voyeurism. Wendy is just one of the many miniature figures who inhabit Clément’s tableaux. Most are plastic, the sexiness of plastic mixing with its pathetic ephemerality. However, once the figures are enlarged and taken from their symbolic, generic meaningless and given their place at the centre of the melodrama, a change takes place. From their mass produced absurdity, via the depth of their surface, emerges a certain profundity. Acting as touchstones for contemporary desire, the figurines in Clément’s works invite you to question the hierarchy of truth that is placed on all narratives, objects and places.

In 1959 art critic and agent provocateur Lawrence Alloway issued forth a call to arms to all artists, he asked them to fight on the ‘Long Front of Culture’ against the anachronisms of high culture, the dead weight of the academy and the static notions of artistic value which were no longer applicable to a throw away economy. Clément is au-fait with art history, with biblical myth, with architectural beauty and yet he celebrates ruins – not the type that are preserved, that fall into sentimental contemplation, but those which are over looked. He rescues that which is discarded, even neglected to the point of invisibility, as in the stripped innards of a tower block, photographed in his celebrated series Gutted, which documented the last moments of a Hackney tower block just before demolition. Gutted reveals not only the unseen of architecture, but the flattened idiosyncrasies of personal taste, with each stripped room bearing the markings of bizarre personal flare. It is this ‘flare’ that the architect rarely considers, but which, under Clément’s glare, becomes an heroic artistic gesture. Similarly, things that have outlived their function, which have become separated from their cultural meaning, like faded stars of a once popular sit-com, he reanimates to perform in scenarios both personal and epic. The figures emerging from the dirty puddle in La Vierge de Miséricorde look just like the chaotic detritus of a boyish game played out in the backyard. However, on more careful inspection we realise we are witnessing a biblical drama, with the Virgin Mary saving the animals and children from drowning. All of this takes place in Battersea power station, that most glorious of industrial fragments, with Wendy looking on, showing us only her incongruous baby blue bow.

Wendy is learning, imbibing, imagining, creating, witnessing and re-mythologising place and history. She stands in her platinum blond arrogance in front of scenes out of her reach. Well, she is only plastic, but Clément’s suggestion seems to be that she holds in her as much meaning as the giant statues, which promise to concretise an entire history of the Cuban revolution, as pictured in the backdrop to The Fall of Santa Clara. She stares not seeing, only looking at her own reflection, just as we all tend to do in the face of icons from pop and political culture; the introduction in Santa Clara of the ubiquitous image of Che Guevara in amongst the toy abstractions of fallen soldiers illustrates this. Wendy is the artist, perhaps. Wendy is us, the observer, yes probably. Wendy is a warning, most definitely; Wendy’s world of absurd indifference does not need to be our world.

Ben Cranfield

Hugh Pearman, Crafts Magazine, January 2008

Doll Parts

Photographer Etienne Clement gave up a career teaching architectural photography to create bizarre and occasionally disturbing worlds with plastic dolls. He tells Hugh Pearman why. There’s this bloke, see, and he’s standing in a tiny room somewhere – a kitchen or bathroom with tiled walls. He looks quite pleased with himself. He wears a natty neckerchief, the effect of which is somewhat diluted by his also wearing what appears to be a large Greek loaf on his head. Is that meant to be a stetson? Is this America? I should explain that he is a crudely-painted toy figure, probably plastic. A poster for Kubrick’s film of Lolita can be made out on the wall. A wall that is splashed with blood. Because our man is wielding a comically large woodsaw, which, like his hands and forearms, is dripping with – well, red paint, actually. This is in a photograph. Its title is Humbert Jack. And I am alone in a room with the man who created it.

’He’s scary, isn’t he?’ says Etienne Clément, who appears to be harmless and amiable enough – he’s just made me a coffee and offered a pack of macaroons, and we’re standing in his Hackney studio looking at a selection of mounted prints. ‘He’s a weirdo. He’s scary because he looks the all-American boy, very clean. He looks a happy man. You know…’ And that’s as much as Etienne is going to say about psycho-cowboy. No need to say more. We know why Humbert Jack is looking so chipper. He’s just sawn a screaming teenage girl in half. Possibly.

Evidence of extreme violence is however mercifully rare in Clément’s oeuvre, though there’s the odd bit of kinky sex, too. What he does is make tableaux which tell stories. A commercial photographer turned artist, he uses his own large-plate images of landscapes, streetscapes and interiors as backdrops to actions performed by a cast of toy figures and props. They are just as crude as such cheap plastic figures daubed with modellers’ paint always are. They represent humans, and sometimes divine beings or classical mythologies. All the trappings of human life, including trains, planes and automobiles, are included. They are only approximately to scale. Clément sets up his scenes on a tiny stage at eye-level, much like a Victorian toy theatre, and uses the kind of huge bellows camera normally deployed by upscale architectural photographers. Which is exactly what he used to be: he arrived in London in the late 80s, aged 22, having studied history of art, got into architectural photography, and by the mid-90s, was teaching it at the Architectural Association: ‘After ten years, I thought it was time to move on, do more personal things.’

So he found he could make a living – just - working for himself and selling through galleries, rather than taking commissions to shoot the latest minimalist house or shiny office block. He is now represented by galleries in London, Paris and Madrid, and his work turns up in some very varied collections including that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

You get the impression that Clément, who divides his time between London and Paris in a ratio of two-thirds to one-third, is a methodical man. True, he’s only trying to get one image per scene – he’s not in the grindingly slow business of stop-motion animation – but you just know that the sourcing of props, the setting up and adjusting of each tableau, the two-stage photographic process, is something that’s going to take a while. Though when it comes down to it, he’s a bit like Andy Goldsworthy – a man who has successfully turned what small boys like to do into an art form. With Goldsworthy, it’s the den-making instinct. With Clément it’s playing around with toy soldiers and pantomime villains, basically. This is something he’s perfectly happy to admit. When he started his original Toy Stories series in 2004, he says, he went back to his parents’ house in France, looked out all his old childhood junk, and started imagining worlds all over again. These days, having quickly run out of his own stuff, he sources his figures and props on eBay mostly. Not that the sourcing is particularly important. This is just the raw material for an increasingly ambitious series of large-scale photographic artworks.

Several Toy Stories series were followed by the Wendy’s World sequence, in which the action is placed at one remove because there is an observer – the figure of Wendy, representing the artist – between you and the scene in question. As with The Second Coming, where the appearance of the Messiah is dispassionately witnessed by Wendy in a post-industrial backstreet strewn with junked cars. Then there’s Les Invalides, in which there’s something of a Napoleon-meets-Josephine thing going on. The Napoleon figure is on his high horse. Josephine, if that’s who she is, is a bimbo with a red sportscar. Who appears to have lost her trousers, as she’s naked from the waist down. What Wendy – a prim old-fashioned figure with a bow in her hair, slightly reminiscent of transvestite potter Grayson Perry’s alter ego Claire - thinks of this strange scene is not divulged. Wendy is always there, and always mute. We can’t even see her face, since she’s always looking at the action rather than at us.

Clément is happy enough explaining the mechanics of the process – which are very simple, if fiddly and time-consuming, and culminate in the making of large laser-exposed photographic prints mounted between Perspex and aluminium. They are relatively fragile and need to be handled and cleaned with care, he insists. He is less clear, however, about his motivation. This is just the art he makes, and it’s evolving. ’Something else is starting now,’ he says. ‘Wendy is the alter ego, she’s always there, witnessing these tableaux. I’ve completed two more Wendy series. Now – it’s not quite defined yet – but I’m moving to another alter ego. It’s this man.’ This man is a little figure in long Renaissance robes, perched ready for action in Clément’s mini-theatre. ‘He’s a painter. I’m not quite sure what his name is. He’s in a studio so we’ll be seeing partly what’s happening on the canvas here.’ Clément seems to be adding another distancing/interpretation device between us and the action. The painter-figurine is himself setting up tableaux in his fictive studio. This is in turn recorded by Clément, one click further back. It appears to be an exercise in Platonic dialogue on the nature of perception. As one might go to a real theatre, only to find a television on stage showing a production taking place elsewhere. It does your head in.

Clément has a particular reason for choosing this character. ‘I always wanted to be a painter. I’ve never done it. If I’m completely drunk, I think – why not, let’s play with colours. But I can’t draw for toffee.’ That oh-so English phrase sounds just excellent in Clément’s Arsène Wenger accent. But he means it. He can’t draw for toffee. ‘I’m dreadful. So maybe that painter is me. Wearing trainers. Asking people to pose.’ He giggles slightly at the thought, but his mind is set on this. The photographs are going to become yet more layered as he creates ever more complex worlds of perception in an open-ended box on an easel in a small studio in Hackney.

Perhaps, he muses, his artist alter ego might not stay in his own studio. Perhaps – becoming still more like Clément himself – he might go searching for different backgrounds, like the derelict interior of Battersea Power station, a favourite, which he’s using on the day I visit.

Whatever, in the end the worlds that Clément makes are curious places – sometimes dystopian, where terrible things can and do happen. The Fall of Santa Claus, for instance, is like the aftermath of a drive-by shooting. There is usually squalor, dereliction, menace – coupled with a curious innocence. These are toys, even if some of them point guns. At the same time, there are glimmerings of beauty, even lyricism, in other works from the series.

He stares at his Battersea Power station backdrop. ‘It’s religious, like a cathedral. It has all these little niches, where I thought you could have people, surrounded by gold… ’He’s off into his world-at-three-removes again. A man combining Victorian and 21st-century techniques in the pursuit of photography as art. He’s happy there. And increasing numbers of collectors are happy he’s there, too. As I leave, the thought strikes me: if you’re playing God, but one of your creations is meant to be yourself, isn’t that a bit, well, dangerous?

Hugh Pearman

Peter Chapman, The Independent, 2005

"Clément has managed to turn mass-produced figures and a series of scaled down ‘environments’ into something both comic and disturbing".

Peter Chapman

Michael Evamy, press release, 2005

Toy Stories

In Toy Stories, the photographs, set in vacant, dilapidated buildings, fasten their gaze on tangible but unexpected presences.

Reversing the conventional studio portrait format of placing the real-life subject against an idealized, fake background such as painted clouds or a rural idyll, Clément has used all-too-real, troubled environments as the backdrop for a series of very unconventional, mass produced figures.

The effect is darkly comic and, occasionally, disturbing. The subjects are tiny, secondhand toy figures, each of which must once have represented some kind of ideal for its young owner but have since gone astray. Close up, their flaws are revealed, in the approximation of their painted features and plastic physiologies.

They look like products of their neglected environment, emerging from darkened doorways like a travelling troupe of forgotten film characters, each apparently making a new bid for stardom: poorly painted geisha girls, blue cowboys and red indians, jumping G.I’s, and mad staring dolls... Against their abused institutional setting of white tiled walls, there’s a suggestion that these inmates have taken over the asylum, trashed the place and are individually taking their bow. Some leap, some punch the air, some simply return the stare of the viewer, challenging them to work out what on earth is going on.

By photographing children’s figurines in these empty and abandoned places, in these ‘imported’ film sets, and by combining both portraiture and architecture, Clément is staging imaginary untold stories. They are the very stories he once made up as a child, playing at home, his imagination released, having just returned from the forbidden derelict building nearby. The work is about regaining childhood, where imagination rules in a world without rules.

Whether seen just as toys with a story to tell or as something less innocent, Clément’s subjects take photographic portraiture into a bizarre new sphere.

Michael Evamy

Mark Bolland, Source Magazine, spring 2005

Realism, photographic or otherwise, traditionally associates itself with grubbiness. The dilapidated, the dirty and the downtrodden imply a certain weight the clean, shiny and new never can, it seems. In keeping with this tradition, those photographic practices that straddle both ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ intentions and destination, have tended to concentrate on the shabbier side of popular culture in the last forty years or so.

Cheap mass-produced nick-knacks, the gaudy and the kitsch are more commonly associated with commercial photography of the catalogue and shop window, but have all come under the gaze of the artist-photographer. Such pictures have their origins, not just in Pop Art’s preoccupation with the everyday ephemera of consumer capitalism, but also in the pioneering ‘new color’ work of American photographers in the 1970’s such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who combined vernacular and popular culture with a colourful, highly saturated aesthetic. Before Pop, Walker Evans had explored similar subjects, but without the super-saturated colour of the seventies.

Such work though, often tends towards sneering slightly at its subjects, whilst simultaneously conveying on it the importance implied by selecting and photographing it. Firstly it seems to say ‘Look at this’, before quietly adding, ‘Isn’t it naff?’

Martin Parr’s name is most commonly associated with this kind of depiction of various forms of plastic novelties, toys and trinkets. Indeed one could think he has a monopoly on such subject matter. But others have explored similar areas; we might recall Keith Arnatt’s Rubbish Tip pictures, for instance, or Laurie Simmons’scenes acted out by dolls.

Etienne Clément’s new pictures continue this tradition by exposing all the flaws and wear and tear of the tatty toy figurines they portray. However, by setting these plastic soldiers, cowboys, geishas girls and so on, in abandoned buildings Clément evokes something of the past lives of the toys and the dramas that they were once employed to enact.

The toys are photographed in such a way as to show all their imperfections, with the architecture receding behind them, creating the illusion that they are the same scale as their surroundings; as if they’d been photographed in rundown dolls houses. Closer inspection reveals this to be perspective trick and the toys return to their Lilliputian status. The title of this show; Toy Stories emphasises the history of the figurines, but also, implies a new, autonomous existence for the discarded toys.

The distorted and often demented looking figures pose in derelict apartment and graffiti-strewn institutional buildings as if they were posing for the fashion pages of a Sunday supplement or the cover of a music magazine. A bright yellow cowboy brandishing a drooping gun; a cartoon Native American – made entirely from red plastic, naturally – wields an enormous axe, whilst a highway patrolman zooms around a disused kitchen on a bottle top. Elsewhere, four toy soldiers are lined up as if they are performing a Village People number, whilst stern figures of Stalin and Putin look on. But there are no narratives or tableau here, just poses.

The shabby state of the figurines is in keeping with their surroundings, and together they allude to past experiences. Yet the presence of the figures prevents these spaces from resonating in the way that we might expect. So-called ‘late’ or ‘aftermath’ photography enables such spaces to resonate precisely because they are inhabited. In the ‘aftermath’ photo the slow, unrelenting gaze of the camera is able to accentuate every details, every trace of past actions but here, in order to perpetuate the perspective trick, the figures are so close to the camera that they turn the locations into mere backdrops, and the pictures into portraits.

Mark Bolland

Béatrice Rossetto,, November 2007

Dans ses images peuplées de figurines en plastique, il combine la photographie et la maquette pour inventer de nouvelles histoires imaginaires, qui placent les personnages dans des endroits souvent inattendus. Si certaines images semblent matérialiser le monde fantastique créé par l’enfant autour du jeu et soulignent la dimension héroïque du jouet, d’autres perdent ce côté naïf en suggérant une interprétation ironique de l’actualité et de l’histoire.

La mise en scène du portrait traditionnel, le sujet posé sur un arrière-plan artificiel, est inversée : le fond peint est substitué par une photographie, souvent d’un endroit vide et abandonné, et la personne disparaît, pour laisser sa place à des produits de masse auxquels l’artiste donne une nouvelle existence. Le titre des trois premières séries, « Toy Stories », suggère en effet une vie parallèle et autonome à celle que le marché a donné à ces figurines. La composition se joue ici sur deux niveaux : celui du fond et celui du personnage. Dans sa dernière série, « Wendy’s World », Etienne Clément travaille avec des espaces plus ouverts, combine plusieurs personnages et introduit un observateur externe : Wendy, alter ego de l’artiste.

La carrière artistique d’Etienne Clément commence en 1996, avec sa première exposition personnelle à « The Architectural Association » à Londres. Depuis, il a été régulièrement exposé dans différentes galeries et musées en Europe. Ses œuvres font partie de différentes collections publiques. Wendy’s World a été exposé du 7 septembre au 19 octobre 2007 à la Forster Gallery, à Londres.

D’où vous est venue l’idée de ce travail?

Je viens de l’architecture, ma photo était essentiellement sur l’environnement bâti, mais j’ai eu la sensation après un certain temps de me répéter et j’avais le désir de passer à autre chose, notamment de raconter des histoires. C’est ça qui m’a poussé à chercher une voie plus personnelle, alors qu’en fait mon travail d’architecture était pour des galeries ou pour des professionnels ; maintenant le travail s’identifie à moi et il est distribué par les galeries, sans contrat avec qui que ce soit.

Comment êtes-vous arrivé à la photographie, après votre formation à l’Ecole du Louvre?

Je n’ai jamais été vraiment académique, je suis plus concret. Je suis parti très rapidement à Londres, à 22 ans, et tout s’est fait là-bas.

Au début j’ai dû un peu me chercher. J’ai fait d’abord de la photo de théâtre, ce qui est marrant d’ailleurs, parce que ça rejoint ce que je fais maintenant.

En 1995 j’ai commencé à faire de la photographie d’architecture, mais pour des travaux personnels, notamment sur ce qui m’avait impressionné en arrivant à Londres au début des années 90 : ce côté glauque, noir et blanc, sinistre. Le travail était marqué aussi par une solitude assez importante, parce que je n’avais plus de famille là, tout était à refaire. Puis j’ai montré mes photos à des amis architectes, qui m’ont encouragé, parce que c’était un travail très différent de ce que la photographie d’architecture « commerciale » proposait. C’était une interprétation de l’architecture plutôt qu’une description. J’ai fait ça quelques années, et puis j’ai eu envie de passer à autre chose. Dans ce que je fais maintenant il y a un retour à l’enfance, vers le jeu qui m’attirait.

Quelles sont les influences que vous considérez les plus importantes dans votre travail?

Martin Parr est certainement une source indirecte. J’aime beaucoup son travail, même si chez lui il y a un aspect plus ironique et le rapprochement se fait davantage par les couleurs. Ce que je fais avec les figurines c’est vraiment de la production de masse, c’est mal foutu, c’est grotesque, quand on agrandit c’est vraiment cheap, et Parr aussi s’est intéressé un peu au trash (ce qu’on vend dans les stations balnéaires par exemple). Mais mes références ne sont pas uniquement dans la photographie, je dirais même qu’elle sont davantage dans la peinture, notamment les primitifs et les classiques.

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi la photographie et pas la peinture ou le dessin?

Je n’ai jamais été formé à ça, même si j’ai toujours envie de le faire. Toutefois, j’ai l’intention de l’inclure, c’est en effet déjà dans une partie de mon travail, dans « Toy Stories Two » et « Toy Stories Three » il y a une référence systématique à la peinture, un petit clin d’œil à des artistes que j’apprécie beaucoup. Je pense notamment à Ensor, au Greco, ou même à une culture plus contemporaine des années cinquante, à la cinématographie ou à la littérature.

Comment créez-vous une image?

Je pars du fond. Notamment pour la série de « Wendy’s world », je crée d’abord le contexte, je crée toute une scène derrière et ensuite mon idée évolue au fur et à mesure que je crée. Ce n’est pas quelque chose d’arrêté. Tout est très libre. Il peut y avoir plusieurs variantes pour un thème ; parfois je peux utiliser un tel personnage pour un sujet précis et après l’utiliser pour un thème complètement différent parce que ça se prête plus au contexte que j’ai créé derrière. Le point de départ pour le décor est une photographie. Après, dans certaines images, je rajoute des éléments. En ce qui concerne le choix du décor, il s’agit de choses qui m’attirent. C’est comme pour l’architecture : j’étais toujours attiré par le côté glauque, j’aime beaucoup le terrain vague, la ruine, la décrépitude. Je crois que c’est une histoire d’enfance, parce que, petit, ce terrain vague était idéal, on n’était pas supposé être là, on pouvait faire des rencontres intéressantes, il y avait ce côté voyeur, de voir ce qui reste, le papier peint, les traces ... Ça nourrissait mon imaginaire. Quand je rentrais, dans un univers plus cocon, je recréais cet univers. Même trente ans après, il y a la recherche de ce côté dérangeant et dangereux aussi.

Parfois les décors s’adaptent très bien au personnage (le voleur par exemple), d’autres fois l’association est surprenante (Tom). Est-ce délibéré?

Je ne trouve pas que l’association cloche, parce qu’il y a aussi un travail de couleur. Je soigne le côté esthétique, même si on montre des personnages qui parfois sont grotesques, pas agréables à voir. Ce n’est pas pour tromper le spectateur, mais parfois le choix est dicté par l’association des couleurs, par le fait qu’elles marchent bien ensemble. Effectivement, quand on voit Tom, il se marie parfaitement avec les gris et en grand format il est totalement décalé par rapport à l’endroit où il se retrouve (il s’agit d’un squat à Berlin avant sa démolition). Il se réinvente lui-même, comme beaucoup de ces personnages, on a l’impression qu’il s’agit du grand retour d’une star. Ce que je montre c’est leur vie parallèle. Notamment dans « Toy Stories Three », il y a souvent un jeu de double vie.

Les personnages sont à la fois des personnages historiques (Poutine, Staline) ou religieux (la Sainte Vierge, l’ange) et parfois des personnages de bandes dessinées ou de dessins animés. Comment les associez-vous?

Certaines associations sont voulues. Il m’arrive de les voir et d’avoir envie de les transformer. Si j’ai déjà choisi un cadre, si j’ai une histoire, je cherche un personnage qui va bien avec. Après je le customise, je le repeins, voilà le lien avec la peinture. Dans la première série ils étaient bruts, mais maintenant je les repeins.

Pourquoi dans votre dernière série avez-vous voulu introduire un personnage observateur et pourquoi Wendy?

Wendy est mon alter ego. C’est elle qui observe. Elle crée le monde à sa manière, ça permet de présenter ma scène, il y a toujours ce personnage de dos qui présente la scène, toujours avec ce côté frais et un peu naïf, alors qu’en fait, ce n’est pas toujours très beau ce qu’elle montre.

Quel est le rapport entre les différentes séries et comment imaginez-vous l’évolution de votre travail?

J’ai commencé avec « Toy Stories One », il y a eu une exposition ensuite. Les autres ont eu également des expositions et je pense que la division se tient. Il y a une évolution aussi. Dans la première série j’avais un ou deux cadres, il y a un peu le côté répétition, qui se voit aussi dans la série « Toy Stories Two» et il y a le côté « graffiti » bien souvent avec un fond plat. Il n’y avait pas de retour ou très peu, avec toujours une porte. Alors que dans « Toy Stories Three » j’ai travaillé sur une série de salles de bains. « Wendy’s world » c’est où je suis maintenant. Actuellement je travaille en combinant un fonds photographique, une maquette et une situation devant. Il y a toujours des personnages. Je travaille en macrophotographie, en très très petit. J’aime beaucoup le côté maquette. La prochaine évolution sera l’introduction des « plans », je voudrais qu’on puisse voir à travers leur étagement.

Béatrice Rossetto

Jonathan Glancey, The Independent Magazine, October 1996

Night Scrapes

London looks its best when animated by electric lights

Take a visitor on a stroll through your native city and you are made all too aware of how we take the familiar for granted, even when the familiar consists of buildings as extraordinary as some of those pictured here: the Post Office Tower (since renamed in honour of the privatised British Telecom), Centre Point, Lloyd's and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras.

Etienne Clement is a Parisian photographer, settled recently in London, who prowls the capital at night. He sees London as few indigenous nighthawks do. His shot of the central shaft of the Telecom Tower is at once familiar yet oddly unsettling. The viewer blinks twice at this curiously-angled image before recognising the steel and glass outline of the famous 620-ft radio, telephone and TV transmitter.

Clement's chiaroscuro approach is not perverse: it is both very beautiful (the quality of his highly crafted photographic prints is a joy) and reminds us that this is a building most of us know only as an abstract. If you walk past, you will surely miss it. Shooting up from a concrete base in the middle of an anonymous block of Government buildings, the tower, as thin as Trish Goff, shoots obscurely into the West End sky. The only way to see it in all its elongated glory is from unlikely, neck-straining angles and from miles away.

Or at night; for it is at night that many overlooked buildings come to life and josh lazy eyes into focus. There is little doubt that the London skyline, or the skyscape of most modernised cities, looks best when the sun has dropped over the concrete horizon and electric light animates streets and embankments, rivers, domes and towers. In recent weeks, Londoners have been rewarded with peerless views of St Paul's Cathedral, the River Thames and the City from the glamorous new restaurant crowning the reinvigorated Oxo Building on the South Bank, between the National Theatre and Blackfriars Bridge (see p50). It is worth the price of a chic cocktail for this view alone; we gawp like schoolchildren on our first trip to the Tower of London.

Night works a special magic, igniting mysterious windows secreted amongst the upper storeys of abandoned warehouses, seedy hotels and offices well past their rental date. Who could possibly be working this late at night in that sad early Sixties office block? Which budding poet or breadline hack is scribbling in that attic above a cornice line defaced by flea- ridden feral pigeons?

Doorways that by day seem innocuous when closed to Soho streets, spell guilt and furtiveness by night as they spill lurid light from bare 60-watt red bulbs onto narrow pavements. Night illuminates the city in ways that render beautiful battered buildings and worn faces - even the deregulated, smoke-spewing double- deckers that foul London streets. In Clement's lens, St Pancras (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott) becomes the stuff of bat-winged Gothic horror, whilst the Lloyd's building in Leadenhall Street, by Richard Rogers, could be a set-design from Metropolis, and Centre Point, a megalomaniacal concrete bee-hive.

There are photographers employed to flatter architects' new glass buildings by photographing them at night. But Etienne Clement does not give the night-time city a romantic gloss; he gets under its worn and familiar skin and takes us on a film-noirish adventure.

Jonathan Glancey