Indulgence in some ‘pretty’ photography – why not? This is the second of three, maybe four, write-ups from my visit to Paris last week. Here, I’m focusing on two more contemporary exhibitions – in terms of subjects, artists and presentation.
As well as the Robert Adams (blogged here), Jeu de Paume also had a sizeable exhibition of works by French photographer, Mathieu Pernot. New to me, Pernot, the exhibition notes tell me, “… specialises in documentary work, but offers a new take on the codes of this photographic genre …”, exploring “… alternative paths …” to develop a “… multi-voiced narrative …”. The reference to genre leads me to link his work with Part One of this module. He uses archive, found images and elements of psychogeography, which, apart from the fact that I found the work genuinely interesting and stimulating, makes him particularly apt for this blog. The exhibition presented works from around 10 or 11 different series that he has produced over the last twenty or so years, with a common – though not exclusive – theme of nomadic and precarious characters e.g. gypsies and migrants. In other hands, images of such subject matter can seem separate – the ‘other’ – but I got much less of that sensation from Pernot’s work. In some cases, I think, this was because it felt more genuinely ‘involved’ and collaborative e.g. Giovanni 1995-2012, where he has photographed the same subject, a Roma Gypsy, over an eighteen year period. In others, oddly, it was an element of abstraction and detachment that avoided the sense of exploitation that can sometimes go with ‘other’ photography. The series below, called Migrants, is a case in point.
Pernot has photographed Afghan migrants, in a Paris square where they gather, early in the morning before they are moved on by the police. Recording them under their blankets, sleeping bags etc may, as the the exhibition notes say, reduce them “… to the condition of simple forms …” but it also seems to make it possible for me to look at them and speculate about their situation without the sense of exploitation that I can feel when the face is looking back. I’m not sure how rational that is or whether it is something other viewers feel but I got more out of these images than the hundreds of photographs of migrants that I’ve seen in newspapers or other exhibitions of documentary work. It might simply be that these are ‘different’ or it might be because they are more like still-life images. Also, just the day before, I’d been at the Rodin Museum where one line of comparison between him and Robert Mapplethorpe (coming up in Episode Three) was the use of drapery. Whilst coming nowhere near the aesthetic qualities of a Rodin sculpture or a Mapplethorpe print, there is something directly comparable about these, to which is added the dimension that these are ‘real’ (dangerous word!). There is someone under there with a real story (one of which, by the way, was recorded on the opposite wall in The Afghan Notebooks).
This image is from another part of the Pernot exhibition, which brings together two of his series – The Best of All Worlds and Witnesses. Both are based on a collection of sixty postcards, published between 1950 and 1980, showing high-rise housing estates in French suburbs, considered to be symbols of progress, at the time. (Not unlike parts of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards, but used in a somewhat different way). In The Best of All Worlds, Pernot has simply reproduced and enlarged the postcards to ‘gallery-size’ prints, a process that obviously raises their profile but also emphasises the artificiality of the colours – and of the whole environment and the way it was being presented in the cards; as though the enlargement takes us through the veil. In Witnesses, he goes a stage further, homing on on the tiny figures of people, accidentally caught up in the photograph (and the narrative, too, of course), and enlarging them even further so that they are no longer anonymous incidentals but the main subject of the image. This process takes me right back to Arles, last summer, and the work of John Stezaker (blogged here), who created tiny exhibition images of figures cut from larger photographic prints).
I have been truly impressed by Pernot’s work and his “… multi-voiced narrative …”. Rather in the way that I have thought about using studio-based work to respond to events, he has created ‘documentary’ work that moves beyond the (mere) taking of photographs, and is all the more powerful and effective for that. There were other series worthy of note that I’m not covering here that do appear on the website – A Bohemian Camp, for example, which starts from an archive of images and documents from a camp for nomadic people created by the French Vichy government on 1942. I would rate this one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a while.
I had visit Le Bal before and this smallish gallery in Montmartre lived up to the promise of that last visit. Quite apart from the exhibition, to which I’ll come in a moment, the space is excellent, the culture is very much contemporary photography, and the welcome & service are both excellent. The staff at the super little cafe went out of their way to accommodate eight hungry OCA students and so ‘full marks’ for that. This time, the exhibition was of work by two artists of whom, like Pernot, I had never heard before – Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. The former is South African and the latter British; and this was their collaboration on Ponte City. I must admit that I had done little preparation for this particular exhibition (much of the background on Le Bal’s site being – perfectly reasonably – in French), but subsequent reading further informs me about Ponte City itself – a circular tower-block building in Johannesburg that seems to have as many stories as it has storeys (54)! It was built during apartheid, in 1976, targeted at white middle-class couples, but has gone through various phases – sometimes seeming to epitomise the hope for a brighter South African future and sometimes seeming to represent (and house) the least positive aspects of the reality of the country’s struggles with itself, its past, and economic reality. The exhibition seeks to explore that history – partly through new photography, some of it portrait, some documentary, some almost more typology – but also through a variety of other sources such as promotional material, architects’ drawings, found objects, old photographs, magazines, letters/communications, handwritten accounts, tear-sheets, and so on. And it works – not especially on the level of photography itself, though that is clearly a crucial element and, to an extent, a subject of the work, but as documentary art representing social history in a varied, interesting and stimulating manner.
This image gives a flavour of how it uses and presents the mixed media – in this case, mainly found material though there is a glimpse of a large-scale image on the right. It also demonstrates a phenomenon that was common in this show, but also present in Pernot’s exhibition (and others on the Paris trip) – the impossibly high exhibits. Short of taking a ladder, it is physically impossible to look at several of the images and items that are placed high on the wall. The only conclusion is that it is meant to be viewed as a whole, as in this image, and/or that we are meant to feel a sense that however long we look we will only ever know part of the story. Sometimes, it was intended to relate to the height of the building, as in the presentation on the far wall below.
There was no shortage of accessible material to look at, so I’m not suggesting this approach detracted from the effectiveness, but it was certainly unusual (albeit, as I say, a characteristic of more than one of the Paris shows). As with Pernot, there is much to learn from the use of varied materials, beyond the purely photographic. And, as fellow student Stephanie identified for us, this work has been exhibited in different ways at different locations – see here. There was also some creative and interesting detail to reward the closer look. Look at the combination of newly-created photograph, found image, and document in this specific exhibit.
So, two contemporary exhibitions, both operating broadly in the documentary field, which have demonstrated the effectiveness of taking a flexible and multi-faceted approach to the presentation of photographic material. They have also introduced me to some new names to follow – especially Mathieu Pernot.