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A detail from Citrons, SantulussurgiuPatrick Faigenbaum

Photographer Patrick Faigenbaum made a splash in the mid-1980s with his restrained, almost sculptural portraits of Italian aristocracy in the palatial surroundings of their ancestral homes. These tableaus are marvels of precision that brought international acclaim to Faigenbaum, whose work is steeped in art history and often very painterly, recalling at times the work of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cézanne.

On Saturday, the first North American survey of Faigenbaum's work opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery, co-curated by gallery director Kathleen Bartels and celebrated Vancouver photographer Jeff Wall.

Faigenbaum, who is Parisian, has made photos throughout Europe, including Prague, a city that is important to him for several reasons, in particular his devotion to Kafka. He first took photos there in 1983 and returned in 1994, to a country much changed.

His 1994 Prague work includes a remarkable portrait of Dr. Karel Cerny, seated on a sofa in his home. Faigenbaum had spent two hours photographing his subject, and was crouched on the ground packing up his equipment, when he looked up and saw that the light had shifted onto the elderly man's deeply veined hands (which Bartels compares to tree branches).

"He was looking at me and I see him and I say 'oh please don't move,'" says Faigenbaum, 58. "So I took my camera back and I took a picture of him and it was this picture."

Also during that trip, Faigenbaum encountered a young mother with a baby carriage on the street. In a flash, he picked up on the many black and white contrasts of the scene: her white skirt and black sweater; her white shopping bag and black purse; the white frame around the blackboard sidewalk advertisement. With her flirty skirt and shoulder-padded cardigan, her obvious youth and new motherhood, she seems to represent a transition and rebirth in the country, in the post-Berlin Wall period. Her face looks suspicious as she protects her sleeping baby, but her feet – in white pumps – look like they might be ready to dance.

A couple of years later, during a six-month residency in Bremen, Germany, Faigenbaum began working with larger negatives and for the first time taking photographs in colour.

Then after years of taking photos of people in their natural environments – in their homes, on the street – Faigenbaum suffered a crisis.

"I couldn't do portraits any more and I didn't know why at that time," he says. "I had to find a way to isolate the figure from the setting. ... I wanted to see if it was possible to represent somebody who doesn't do anything. Who is just sitting on a chair."

A work that was fundamental in that transition is a portrait of his own family: his son Raphael, then 4 or 5, standing next to his elderly grandmother, who is seated in her home in Sardinia. It is carefully composed: the legs of the chair, the legs of the subjects, all lined up, precisely spaced. His little hand on her fleshy arm. The light on one side – where the young boy stands – and the shadows on the other, next to the old woman. They are both positioned to look in the same direction, but while the boy appears to be looking at something in front of him, her gaze strongly suggests she is off somewhere else.

After this photo, Faigenbaum began making portraits for the first time in his studio. He experimented: with portraits, self-portraits, still lifes, nudes. Among the remarkable works from this period is the portrait of Fatou Mata Niakate, whom Faigenbaum spotted in the Metro. "I saw that she was so strong," says Faigenbaum, who invited her to his studio, where he was able to capture that strength. But he didn't know it for some time. For a year and a half, he took portraits like this one in the studio, but never developed the film, never saw the results. When he finally did, he was satisfied with the outcome, and felt a kind of permission to go back out and shoot again.

There are many photos from this next period from Tulle, France and from his wife's native Sardinia. One still life, taken in his Santu Lussurgiu apartment, makes a sort of landscape from seven lemons, meticulously organized on a little table and shot over five painstaking hours. You could swear the photograph is a painting.

Beyond the studio and family portraits, there are few photos taken in Paris. Faigenbaum says he prefers the suburbs, where he feels like a stranger. "It's so difficult to make pictures for me in Paris because I'm born here; it's so banal," he says. "I like to be lost, you know. Not to know where I'm going; not to know what's going on. I like to discover like this."

Patrick Faigenbaum is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from March 9 to June 2.