Our focus on Paris gives us an opportunity to question contemporary French photography. Today, it seems at its best when it deals with the notions of the document and the alleged veracity of what the image repre- sents. Dominique Bacqué leads us through a reflexive, perhaps typically French trend.
The question of truthfulness and falsehood seems coextensive to the photographic medium. Soon after its invention, the documentary and authenticating qualities of this new form of image that would contrib- ute to advances in science, medicine, justice or even archaeology was praised by the critics, and Arago delivered a eulogistic report about the daguerreotype at the Chamber of Deputies in 1839; Baudelaire, on the contrary, casted anathema on the bourgeois “obscen- ity” of the photographic image in his famous 1859 Salon, while Hippolyte Bayard, well and alive but lacking recognition, was making a Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840) – probably the very first auto-fiction in the history of photography. More recently, the pioneers of this complex, highly intellectualized (and also very “French”) game subtly staged real-fake stories that continually disturb cogni- tive certainties, namely Christian Boltanski and Sophie Calle. And what about the scandal sparked during the 2006 edition of the festival in Perpignan – indeed, a bastion of the most orthodox, even the most rigid form of photo- journalism – by Éric Baudelaire’s The Dreadful Details, an apparently true recreation of a combat scene in the Middle East orchestrated with troubling exactness, though undermined by few minor hidden details. The purpose of the artist was actually to stage an attack against one the most entrenched beliefs about report- ing, recently reactivated in Erik Poppe’s film A Thousand Times Good Night: the idea that the image taken on the spot, at the heart of the conflict – so close to the battles, the massacres, the casualties of war and the tortured – engages the ethical responsibility of an individual, the photo reporter, as an authentic witness of what they observe, charging them with the responsibility of inscribing it in history. Though now considered an “archaic” figure, notably as a result of the military use of drones and especially the exponential circulation of images through the internet, some are still firmly opposed to calling into question the hero-like model of the war reporter who reveals everything, even at the risk of their own life, and who tells the truth; while the sly and deleterious threat of photographic forgery, sadly often murderous and used and abused by totalitarian regimes, resurfaces in people’s imagination and memory. The questioning re-emerges today, often in the realm of humour and derision, or even melancholic solemnity, with photographs that could often be labelled “philo- sophical tales” and that foster a new form of intellec- tual jubilation, a kind of implicit contract between the photographer and the viewer: “I’ll show you the fake, but you can believe that it’s real”, or conversely, “I’ll show you the real, but you can believe that it’s fake.” It is thus possible to associate the work of Kader Attia about Le Corbusier’s Modulor theory with Mathieu Pernot’s “Le Meilleur des Mondes” [“The Best of all Worlds”] (2006) and “Implosions” (2001–2008): while the former weaves reflections on social housing, show- ing how “one man’s utopia was perverted by hundreds of real estate promoters who built open-sky prisons”, the latter masterfully stages implosions of social housing blocks to the sound of crashing concrete and screaming former residents, where reality seems to overwhelm fiction in a dramatic effect that is also apparent, though taken to its limits, in Mohamed Bourouissa’s work. With “Périphérique” (2005–2009), Bourouissa borrows TV reporting protocols, notably those applied to the evening news – secure attention, fascinate, manipulate and dramatizes them to the extreme, to the point where the tension between the revolted bodies reaches its climax, casting doubt on what is occurring before our eyes: what if these men beset by violence were but comedians, and the crisis situations very elaborate staging, of which the exponent figures would be Philip- Lorca diCorcia and Jeff Wall, along with Caravaggio, Delacroix and Géricault?
Violence being suspended between an un-decidable before and after, anything can happen – or nothing: it is up to the viewers of these “true-fake” news to change, or not, their mind.
Here, the “contract” with the viewers deals in part with their ethical and political beliefs. Altogether more stressful and more playful, bathed in paradoxical confusion, Édouard Levé very skilfully toys with the shift in nominative and perceptive certainties. With Amérique (2006), a 10,000 km long journey by car through 15 American cities selected for their homonymy with foreign, often distant cities (Amsterdam, Bagdad, Berlin, Calcutta, Mexico, Paris, Rome, etc.), Levé raises doubt, even astonishment. It takes a closer look to understand that the road unfolding through the greenery leading to an apparently quiet town entitled Entrée de Calcutta [Entrance to Calcutta] is not located in India.
Here, Levé explores the entire documentary, or even indexical, referentialist value of the photograph, compelling an in-depth questioning of what is a name and what is the real, reshuffling connections between truthfulness and falsehood.
With Gone Fishing (2012), Thomas Mailaender deliber- ately opted for a comical auto-fiction, deconstructing a certain mythology of paternity and virility through romantic correspondence: to the exemplary “new father figure” praised in women’s magazines, the mischievous artist opposes an “adulescent”, keener on beer, guy-get- aways and deep-sea fishing than on the alleged joys of paternity.
Fish is at the heart of this hilarious fiction: in each letter addressed to Marion (the abandoned wife and mother), the guilty man cites miracle catches as his only excuse. Photomontages made by the artist from amateur shots collected on the internet, the images associated to the piteous letters are quite amusing, and yet also tinged with a quiet melancholy that stems from the pathetic 40-year-old Peter Pan figure and his flagrant failure at fatherhood. With Mailaender, the dialectic of truthfulness and false- hood plays upon the comical feature of fake evidence and mocks romantic correspondence, a major literary motif.
However, dialectics can also operate on a different register, with apocalyptic tones, as with Nicolas Moulin and his “Vider Paris” [”Emptying Paris”] (2001): work- ing methodically with Photoshop, the artist removed any trace of life from the capital, dismantling the urban furniture and erasing signage and billboards, to the point where only a dead city remains, as if bombarded – though nothing hints at any trace of conflict. Altogether perfect in its exposed architecture and over- whelmingly terrifying, Paris becomes a powerful projec- tion space for the viewer, providing a “fiction without narrative”; a piece reminiscent of Thibault Brunet’s “Vice City” (2012) and its foggy, ghostly, undeniably seductive and melancholic images, the nature of which is quite impossible to grasp without knowing their production process.
These urban views are in fact hidden, secret residues of virtual worlds from video games such as GTA, Mario or Battlefield: at his own slow pace, the “gamer-artist” journeys through spaces forgotten by gamers – spaces evoking both Japanese etching and the most contem- porary art in their aesthetics.
Floating photographs, like the umbrageous, Stieglitz- like Covariances (2015) by Raphaël Dallaporta, seem- ingly moving in the skies when they are but the product of mathematical algorithms…
Dallaporta thus paved the way to what could be the ultimate image: Just an Illusion (After Ed Ruscha) by Isabelle Le Minh (2008), the photograph of an ephem- eral sculpture made with unexposed processed film strips, a reference to Word Paintings and the series of words, including the mythical “Hollywood”, painted or silkscreened by Ed Ruscha. No more illusions after Hollywood: the non-work by Le Minh de facto conse- crates the crumbling of meaning.
Hence, “Illusion” would be the last word, the last message registered on strips of bare films to tell us that nothing is decidedly real or fake in the world, a simple space of projection of our desires, fears, and illusions.