Apr 12th, 2018, 08:59 PM

"La Photographie Française Existe...Je l'ai Rencontrée" Review

By Alice Preat
Pierre Gilles, Les amants de Paris, 2018
A photographer's review of the current photography exhibit at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie.

This wonderful exhibit was curated by Jean-Luc Monterosso, co-founder of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) based in Paris. It was inspired by the peers and photographers of his time - mainly the '80s and '90s - in France: those who he knew, worked with, admired, and respected, and those who - in his view - shaped 'French photography' to become what it is today. In his introduction to the exhibit, he explains his motivations for the exhibit:  

"At the very beginning of the '80s, shortly after the creation of Paris' Photography Month, I met with John Szarkowski, infamous MoMa curator, during a trip to New York. [...] After a lovely meeting, I worked up the courage to ask him what he thought of young French photography. His answer, "It doesn't exist", stuck with Monterosso for years. Thirty years later, as Paris has become one of the capitals for photography once more, Monterosso decides this is as good a time as any to finally prove Szarkowski wrong."

The exhibit, spread out over two floors and four rooms of the beautiful Maison de la Photographie, encompasses many photographers-- both French and foreign-- who worked in France from the '80s until present-day. Like most exhibits at this legendary space for photography in Paris, it is well-curated and displayed, and truly allows the visitor to get a real sense of what is meant by 'French photography.' Though most of the photographers exhibited are household names, which is always a little frustrating for a photographer like myself who would appreciate being exposed to lesser-known and perhaps a tad more 'underground' photographers, the works themselves are rather avant-garde. It's important to keep in mind that through this exhibit, Montoresso wanted to make a personal curation that showcased the peers and photographers he knew, admired, and loved. 

Image Credit: Bernard Faucon/"La chambre qui brûle"

As you first walk into the exhibit, you are presented with a little introduction for what is to come at the top of the beautiful staircase: two photos by Charles Matton, who was a French multidisciplinary artist. The photos are of a beautiful piano and a pianist, and are accompanied by an optical illusion box, one of his infamous enclosures of illusions. There is a classical tune playing on a piano, and as you come closer to the box, you can see a projection of a pianist, playing on a miniature piano sculpture.

In the first room, on the first floor, some of the most widely-known names of photography are showcased: Pierre et Gilles, Sebastião Salgado, and Bernard Faucon. I was struck by the scenography of the exhibit: everything was curated and arranged perfectly, and the works were organized in a way that made the overall exhibition particularly fluid. These photographers' styles were clearly different, but worked in symbiosis: Pierre et Gilles' series, "Les naufragés" and "Les pleureuses." dating back to the '80s, are esoteric, colorful, and provocative, but also kitsch. Meanwhile, Faucon's series "Évolution probable du temps," is eerie and rather dark. Both photographers use props and stage their shots, which made me feel that these were more artistic than documentary works. The feeling that you get while admiring Salgado's work, however, is an entirely different one. The works showcased were taken from his work in the Gulf of Kuwait ("Kuwait: a Desert on Fire"), and are some of his most impressive. They depict laborers working to tame giant oil fires, tired and covered in black oil, and are breathtaking. 

Image Credit: Sebastião Salgado/"Kuwait: a Desert on Fire"

As you walk into the second room, you are faced with big, blown-up black and white portraits by Bettina Rheims. The series, called "Modern lovers," dating back to the '90s, is already more similar to current fashion photography: the models are posing, looking right into the lens, and are against neutral backgrounds. For her time, this was quite avant-garde; her photos depict gender-fluid and androgynous adolescents, 20 years in advance, acting as a demonstration of sexual awakening.

In the third room is one of my favorite parts of the exhibit: Raymond Depardon. Acclaimed French photographer from the '80s, Depardon did an assignment for the French paper Libération in '81 in New York: he was to publish one photo per day, accompanied by a short 'diary entry' style caption. What is particularly interesting about this series is that he reproduced the same assignment in 2017, but this time in color. Both of the series are displayed facing each other. The 2017 series was printed in much larger formats and quality, but somehow was much less visually appealing (at least mine). Indeed, the series seemed much less personal to me, and much less 'from the heart.' The captions, this time around, were mostly about the last French elections and their representation in New York and American media, accompanied by blown up and colorful shots of the city. The 1981 series, however, really touched me. All in black and white, the much smaller prints captured very personal moments of Depardon's experience in New York, and the captions were extremely personal, and touching: much more like diary entries. I thought the contrast was interesting, and they made the 1981 series stand out, but I would have been happy if it was the only one showcased. Here's my favorite photo of the series:


Image Credit: Raymond Depardon/"Corréspondances New-Yorkaises", 1981. 

"J’ai envie de rentrer en France, de tout laisser tomber. Je me force à faire une photo. Je me demande ce que je fais ici.”

Apart from Depardon, the only other photographer displayed in this room is Bruno Barbey, an equally critically-acclaimed French photographer. The works shown here are from 1971 in Japan. What is surprising here is his use of color. As you carry on to the corridor leading to the second part of the exhibit, you will see works from Christine Spengler and Marie-Laure de Decker, who are both from photojournalism agencies based in Paris. What I liked about these two being displayed together was that they are very different. The latter shows self-portraits of her back then, and her now, while the first shows us a staged and manually modified photo of an opera house. 

As you continue on, more works of Salgado's are displayed: his series on immigration, which is very politically charged and depicts the conditions and lives of immigrants in Paris, but also his "Autres Amériques" series, which is equally powerful. These series are followed by works by Gérard Rondeau, and Raphaël Dallaporta, of which the latter was quite intriguing. It depicts a series of strange, tiny objects on a black background, with explanations as to what they are and what their function is. Close by, you can admire Laurent Van Set Stockt's shocking and beautifully displayed series: shots taken out of military vehicle window, which is not only extremely powerful and politically meaningful, but also a very interesting exploration of framing and depth of field.

There are a few architecture photography series-- which are much less appealing to me, but nonetheless interesting-- by Ballot, Pernot and Couturier. As the exhibition continues, photographers such as Mechain, Cohen, Gormezano and Gaumy are displayed, who all have very interesting and poetic works. Many involve water: a series that plays with glass and other materials to depict the ocean and its waves, and Gaumy's wonderful "Pleine mer" series, representing his time spent on a sailing boat at sea.  

Image Credit: Laurent Van Der Stockt/Irak

As you walk up the stairs to reach the last part of the exhibit, you walk into a smaller room filled with amazing female photographers: Françoise Huguier, and Sarah Moon. Moon uses very specific and impressive techniques that give an eerie, dream-like feeling to her work, which is an exploration of femininity. As you continue, Philippe Bordas takes you to '80s Africa through beautiful black and white shots that are, again, beautifully arranged.

The very last room of the exhibit features more current works: JR, ORLAN, Philippe Ramette, Philippe Perrin, and Martial Cherrier. It's almost as if the exhibition had been organized chronologically, from oldest to most recent, while keeping in mind the varying techniques, messages, styles and approaches of all of these household names in the scenography. This room pops with color; Denis Darzacq's wonderfully touching portraits of people with disabilities in nature, JR's (over-rated, in my view) murals, Ramette's surrealist "Balcon II" shot, and Belin's series of Michael Jackson doppelgangers bring a lighter touch to an otherwise quite heavy and dense exhibition. 

Image Credit: Denis Darzacq/"Act", 2001.

In terms of criticism, I would say that although I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibit, both as a photographer and as an observer, I did feel it was a shame to have it only be the household names that Monterosso knew personally and worked alongside with, as there are so many more -- perhaps a little less known -- amazing photographers that would have fit into this exhibit. Apart from that, it was one of the best and most well-arranged photography exhibitions I have ever seen, and I advise all photo-amateurs to go!