10CC said that “one night in Paris was like a year in any other place” and certainly the three days we spent there – as a kind of semi official OCA study trip – seemed to cover a great deal of ground (physically and metaphorically):-
As such I wanted time to assimilate and ponder all that we had seen.
The first exhibition was Henri Cartier-Bresson. Arranged chronologically, with not only his photographs but also his films, collages and drawings, the exhibition gave a wonderful insight into the man. Before the exhibition I was unaware of his political beliefs but on discovering this aspect of him could see how this translated into his work (e.g. his photos of the coronation of King George VI concentrates on the crowd and that, in order to view the event through periscopes, it had turned its back on the actual event) showing the poorer elements of society. Similarly I was unaware of the influence of surrealism on him (the exhibition describes him as “one of the most authentically Surrealist photographers of his generation” and by reference to his photos of sleeper or more relevantly, dreamers (usually with some slightly out place object in the shot) this can be seen to be the case. These were just a couple of the aspects of an exhibition that I found truly fascinating and which highlighted my lack of awareness of both his influences and areas of his work (the trips to Russia and Cuba and the aftermath of the Second World War). I came away determined to find out more about Mr Cartier-Bresson so in that respect, along with many others, the exhibition was a success.
Later that day we went on a well researched tour by OCA student Amano Samarpan , following in the footsteps of Eugène Atget around Montmartre. Atget spent his photographic career chronicling the city and it was fascinating to see the changes (or lack of changes in some cases)in the city since he took his photos. Amano had clearly done his homework and it made for a very enjoyable stroll through history.
Next day we went to Le Bal to see an exhibition entitled Pointe City (http://en.le-bal.com/) a very interesting project on what was going to be a flagship tower block development in Johannesburg for white Afrikaans but now decaying following its effective abandonment in the 90s. The exhibition traces its history, including the adverts for the then new building but is primarily focused on the photographs of the current inhabitants and the building as it now is with shots of every door in the building.
However, alongside the photos are items retrieved from the rooms and detritus in the building including photographs taken within the building – one display shows the latter in the context of the same place as it now is:-
As an aside its also interesting to see how other galleries have presented this work using a circular motif and layers (see: www.subotzkystudio.com/ponte-installation-4/
Later that afternoon we went to see the Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Grand Palais.
Once again an exhibition highlighted my lack of knowledge (a continuing theme of this trip!), as my only awareness of Mapplethorpe was through the controversy some of his photos had caused in the past and I was unaware of the scope of his portraits; his sculpture work and his exquisite flower shots. I am not sure how the layout of the exhibition was meant to work in some respects as I felt the display of portraits was somewhat overpowering, in that it was hard to single out individual photos:-
The sculpture/nude shots had much more space and effectively demonstrated the relationship between the two in respect of Mapplethorpe’s treatment of the subjects:-
There was of course Mapplethorpe’s more controversial work on display here – discreetly tucked away in a separate viewing area behind curtained doors. I’m not sure if these images are now as shocking as they were at the time they were first displayed, but they were nonetheless powerful in their imagery.
On leaving the exhibition through the gift shop I was struck by how the images had been subjugated by commerciality with magnets, pottery and bags bearing Mapplethorpe’s images (though not all of them!).
From the Grand Palais we went south of the river to the Cartier-Bresson Foundation which was showing a selection of work by Guido Guidi over his career which was radically different experience from the previous exhibition. Possibly it was a result of what had gone before that I struggled with the work but, on reflection, have come to realise that he shots show a quiet beauty in what are, in a lot of cases, fairly banal settings. Even his portraits are unglamorous everyday candid shots but with an air of resignation in his subjects, derived possibly from where they live, which is very affecting:-
The next day was, for me., a mixed bag, we started with Martin Parr’s specially commissioned views of Paris by the venue, La maison Européenne de la Photographie. These are, as I understand it (not knowing much of Parr’s work) typical in the almost garish use of colour and, in terms of the brief, a witty, glossy (both in terms of the photos and in some of the shots the subjects as well) and varied take on the city. The Parr exhibition was on the top floor while the next floor down had Luciano Castelli Self-portraits, 1973-1986 and I was unsure just what was being said here. Having delved a bit deeper I discovered that it had been said by Jean-Michel Ribettes that:-
“The masks of the transformer are opposed by the thousand masks of censorship. Convulsions, tension, humiliation, convictions. These days, the power and arrogance of Puritanism has never been so powerful and fragile. The expressive theatricality of Castelli is there to protest against the confusion of a prude mercantile period vilely gregarious”
I have to say, I did not see what was on show as any form of protest any more than Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona (also blurring the gender lines and predating the earliest of these photos by a year or so) was. However I am prepared to concede that maybe I was missing something here?
The next floor down had an showing of Bruno Mouron and Pascal Rostain’s Famous. The images on display predate the current Paparazzi method of cathing the subject unaware . in these shots the subject is aware of, and often complicit with, the photographer. As such it could be argued that the exhibit shows the golden age of this type of photography – where it was mutually beneficial – as opposed to the current more confrontational methods used by photographers of the famous (and I use that term loosely) now. There were some striking images and I particularly liked the shot of Orson Welles almost imprisoned in his car by the crowds outside:-
The next floor housed an installation by Fouad Elkoury of several (three as I recall) video slideshows inspired by Lebanese artist Etel Adnan‘s poem entitled To Be in a Time of War. Several of the shots related to the boat evacuation of Yasser Arafat and was, as far as I could determine, a revised showing of previous work (similar in some ways to Dayanita Singh’s rearrangement/re-evaluation of her work). I thought this statement by the artist was particularly relevant not just to his exhibit, but to photographers generally.
In the basement, a perfect setting, were the slightly weird and wonderful images of Jean-Michel Fauquet. Looking more like paintings than photos, the objects photographed including some vaguely familiar tools are apparently made out of cardboard. You are left with a feeling that the shots have a kind of medieval look about them but are wonderful to look at even if you have no idea of what these objects, or who these individuals, are.
In the afternoon we wondered round a few smaller galleries dipping in and out as we came across them. These included the Bendana Pinel Gallery showing a few pieces by Pedro Motta. I say pieces as these were an intriguing combination of photographs and, in some cases, drawing and in others materials where the frame was a form of tank holding, below a stark image of a tree, what appeared to be charcoal.
This was followed by the Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire showing “As It Happens” by Ellen Kooi whose images, both in terms of their clarity, “punch” and contrivance (all of the shots appeared to be staged to a significant degree) reminded me very much of the Hipgnosis album covers. While accepting the contrivance there were several shots which I thought were very effective. A young girl with clawed hands (reminiscent of the Arbus boy with the hand grenade) apparently shouting (screaming?) at a beachside village. I thought it showed a good visualisation of alienation:-
At the same Gallery was work by Noemie Goudal “Haven Her Body Was” with some stunning shots of objects surrounded by water including what appeared to be an old gun emplacement and an iceberg which on closer inspection proves to be sheets of polystyrene (so there was, as a result, an additional question of reality in the shots. This latter aspect is also present in her work with a display of a vista (made up of several images with the joints showing – so there is no question that it is a fabrication) in some underground location a cave or cellar for instance:-
The question then arises as to what is the real view (is there one?) and what if any is the connection between the two places. I liked the fact that there was no attempt to precisely join the images forming the image within the image as a single piece hence my comment above, but saying that you had to consider the overall image carefully to realise this was a fabricated image.
The final morning was spent looking at Robert Adams’ exhibition at the Jeu De Paume. His images showing the impact of man on the landscape were, to me anyway, only made effective by the accompanying text. For instance there is a shot of some trees by a pond which is a fine shot. but then you learn from the accompanying text that the trees were cut down the next day adding a whole new dimension to the photo. I enjoyed (probably appreciated is a better word) Adams work but have to concede this may arise from my views on the environment which would appear to coincide with those of Mr Adams. Having said that I found his style of shooting, somewhat austere in my view, did not hold my interest but, again, this may have been a different situation had this been the first exhibition I saw on the trip?
It occurred to me that ones reaction to the exhibitions is determined by so many different factors;- previous knowledge (or lack of it); your mental state (On thinking about when is the best time of day to view an exhibition, I concluded, that for me, I am at my most receptive at late morning) preconceptions (e.g. Mapplethorpe), bias and/or personal taste.
For me the trip was like a sampler or taster menu at an early closing restaurant, lots of courses to get in, and a limited time to do so. Like a good taster menu, it left me wanting more of most of what I had sampled.
*thanks to Stephanie for the links.