Spatial Introspection

Since its invention, the documentary impulse has been one of the key modes of photography; the desire to record an experience of the places we live and the people we live amongst. The photograph, as a manifestation of the meeting point between internalised experience and external world, has been a locus for some of the most interesting work produced in this terrain. The Experience of Territory strand at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles festival looks at the impulse across a wide range of French and international photographers, posing questions about how our experiences of place, landscape and territory intersect with geopolitical and cultural concerns of borders, displacement and the environmental crisis.

In 1983 Bernard Latarjet and François Hers announced a new photographic “mission”, to “record France’s 1980s landscape”, under the guise of the Land Development and Regional Action Delegation, better known by its French acronym, DATAR. Initially projected to last just a year, the project swelled into one of the most significant undertakings in modern photography, involving 29 practitioners in different styles, some already recognised and others still emergent at the time. The list of participants is impressive, and DATAR gave them great artistic and creative freedom in their personal interpretation of the brief. Artists included Dominique Auerbacher (b. 1955), Gabriele Basilico (1944-2013), Alain Ceccaroli (b. 1945), Despatin (b. 1949) & Gobeli (b. 1949), Robert Doisneau (1912-1994), Tom Drahos (b. 1947), Pierre de Fenoÿl (1945-1987), Jean-Louis Garnell (b. 1954), Albert Giordan (b. 1943), François Hers (b. 1943), Josef Koudelka (b. 1938), Christian Milovanoff (b. 1948), Sophie Ristelhueber (b. 1949) and Holger Trülzsch (b. 1939).

In the Studio of DATAR’S Photography Mission, which is co-produced by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Les Rencontres d’Arles, retraces this ambitious project, and surveys its impact on the careers of both individual artists and the broader framework of photography in France. The exhibition is curated by Raphaële Bertho, and Héloïse Conésa, who comments: “It is an exhibition of discovery and reflection. It explores how the project changed the path of photography in France in general.” Conceptually this retrospective surveys the central notions of time, place, history and memory.

The mission drew inspiration from the major 19th century Missions Héliographiques, which documented monuments and structures around France in order to repair and restore them, and this sense of renewal, of taking stock at a moment of rapid change, adds contemporary and historic resonance to the works. Many of them seem to ask as many questions as they do to solidify a sense of an external reality. The images engage with a sense of tradition, inheritance and the past, whilst also exploring industrialisation, globalisation, the legacy of colonialism and conflict, and emerging environmental consciousness. An experience of the landscape is a prism in which these factors converge. For Conésa, the DATAR mission offers a vantage point through which to think about contemporary geopolitical concerns, and, as she puts it, “a particular way of being in the territory.”

An example of this oblique, questioning aesthetic is Alain Ceccaroli’s Paysages de la route des Alpes aux Pyrénées (1985), a mysterious composition, which is like it’s a still plucked from a horror film. The skeletal forms of trees are starkly illuminated by car headlights, approaching a bend, on a hillside road, with the view ahead pitch black. Similarly, a work by Pierre de Fenoÿl, from Dans la campagne du Sud-Ouest (1984), seems as if a set of different framing devices has been laid onto a country church, a geometric play of shadows, light and architecture. In the foreground, there’s the profile of iron window bars, suggesting a prison.

Gabriele Basilico’s Le Tréport, from the Bord de Mer (1985), takes a wide-scale approach, showing a port from a hilltop, and yet the clay-like rolling water, the fence, sign and benches have a flattening effect, making the landscape look artificial. Another artist whose work makes use of panorama is Josef Koudelka, whose Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Nord. Dunkerque (1987) shows half gloomy wasteland, half industry in action, a jagged pile of discarded sheet iron in front of an operational industrial plant, with steam rising from its chimneys.

Rencontres D’Arles director Sam Stourdzé notes: “The more we think a country closed, stuck in political and economic crises, the more we find photographers there. They reveal, describe, demonstrate, invent, repair, build, in their own language, the image. They decipher the preliminary signs of societies in upheaval.” If the artists who documented France as part of the DATAR project felt a moment of profound change taking place, the same could be said of the present-day work of Michael Wolf, whose weighted depictions of globalisation and growth come into question in Life in Cities, another exhibition that makes up The Experience of Territory strand, curated by Wim van Sinderen.

Just as France emerged as a topography for movement, renaissance and rejuvenation, Wolf’s work is preoccupied with  modern metropolises like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Chicago. In the same way, his photographs pulse with the intensity and multiplicity of life in contemporary urban environments but investigate how these landscapes now, in turn, shape the ways we form communities. His explorations of perspective, from the claustrophobia of the tokyo compression series featuring bodies squeezed onto public transport, looking as if they are physically being moulded, to The Real Toy Story (2004), an installation featuring over 20,000 plastic “Made in China” toys found by the artist in junk markets and second-hand shops in the United States. Situated between the packed walls of plastic are portraits of the factory workers who manufacture these products for the global market. Something that distinguishes Wolf’s practice is its ability to highlight both global and local points of view.

Chicago: A Transparent City (2005-2008) is a series of works by Wolf that also explore the way contemporary city living impacts on an experience of borders, but this time on a personal level. These photographs explore the skyscraper, using the perspective one tall building has on another. One piece in the series gives a clear view of office workers on multiple levels of a high-rise, going about their work, and seeming to alternately reflect each other’s poses; another shows a figure in a candid moment eating. The compositions have an illicit voyeuristic thrill but they speak most fundamentally to ideas of privacy and personal autonomy.

Like Michael Wolf, the work of the renowned American colour photographer Joel Meyerowitz is also characterised by its employment of surprising, unexpected and penetrating perspectives. Meyerowitz is a giant in photography, whose work has seen him awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Award. This exhibition, Early Works, also in the Experience of Territory strand features 40 original prints by Meyerowitz, and focuses on his practice as a street photographer from the 1960s in New York. There is great wit and sparkle in many of his compositions, such as Guichet de salle de cinéma, Times Square, New York (1963), where a ticket sales person has their face completely obliterated by the window mouthpiece. In Broadway and 46th Street New York City (1976), a group of people are depicted at a cross-roads amidst a collage of signs for cigarettes, books, phoneboxes; the word “Embassy”; the “NY” of ‘SONY’; and Hot Dogs. It’s a lively, energetic throng, but at its heart there is some kind of transaction, a figure passing a roll of papers.

Meyerowitz takes delight in the vibrant community that 1970s New York represents, but there is also a wry distance too, since a number of the figures seem to stare-down the camera, a gloved hand is just visible at the edge of the phonebox frame. This is a recurring device in his aesthetic, the partial obfuscation of his subjects in the architecture of the urban environment. In Camel Coat Couple in Street Steam (1975), an elegantly dressed couple seem to be dissolved in the rising moisture, their individuality coming unstuck.

If Meyerowitz’s works are a necessary reminder of socially progressive, experimental, playful values, other exhibitions in the strand seem to speak more directly of contemporary concerns. For the photo series Cтансы (Stances), contemporary photographer Marie Bovo looks at the journey across vast distances in Europe, with movement, transition and expedition characterising her photographs. She documents long-distance train journeys across Eastern Europe and Russia, which sometimes last several days. The artist describes her process in the following terms: “At each stop, before seeing the landscape, the architecture, or the light that the doors will open upon, I set up the camera in the narrow entryway of the car. Before the doors can close again, like a camera shutter, the silver film has made an imprint of the place. The image is the junction between the train and what’s beyond its doors in a stationary cut of several seconds that sketches another Europe.” The landscape that emerges is a Europe marked by the pre- and post-communist era, and in which this transitional phase is very much still present.

Territory, in the sense of autonomy, democracy, global conflict and debates around border control and migration, is one of the most contested and live political issues and challenges today. However, by shedding light on the local experience of territory through the lenses of individual artists, the show locates these concerns in the human and local. As Stourdzé comments: “The world is moving. Nothing new in this, but it’s moving ever faster. Nowadays, images circulate at the speed of light.” By projecting back and forth between the past and the present, and taking documentary and reportage as its focus, The Experience of Territory gives a sense of this shifting terrain, and asks: “Have we entered into the age of the war of images, in which each person chooses to make themselves, alternately, the one who disseminates or the one who collects truth or fallacy?” Ultimately, Wolf’s sprawling, unprecedented and globalised metropolis, Meyerowitz’s street journalism, and indeed all other series within this exhibition reflect DATAR’s motives to encourage reform and reflection, with photography enduring as a map of the contemporary condition – a circuit of dialogues, emotions and lifestyles sewn into a larger tapestry.

Colin Herd

The Experience of Territory. 3 July – 24 September