Paris in the Fall
By Dave Crossley and Lynn McLanahan
In which two seekers of new truths and lasting beauty find instead elaborate shuck and jive but are satisfied after all by total immersion in photography.
(The following is a collection of notes on the monster event, Le Mois de la Photo a Paris, it is followed on page 8 by a discussion of the work of Bernard Faucon. whose exhibit was a high point of that event. A number short reviews of many of the other exhibitions may be found on page 9.)
Two hours after we got off the plane on a cool crisp late afternoon in November, we stood nearly breathless at the edge of the River Seine, watching the log swirl up through the lights bathing Notre Dame. As we stared, we wondered what causes goosebumps. What has Notre Dame been infused with that brings up emotions? Is there something in the idea of universal mind that carries across centuries, bringing to new generations the love and commitment of the past? The main question in our minds was what could go into art, into photographs, to pluck the same strings?
Unwittingly, we were setting criteria for our evaluation of the thousands of photographs we would begin looking at the next day. We were In Pans to see as many as possible of the ninety-nine exhibitions that made up Le Mois de la Photo — The Month of the Photo, a biennial event that is, among other things, a model for a similar event to be held in Houston in March. 1986. Called Foto Fest, it will be the first such spectacle in the United States. As staff members of the Houston Center for Photography (which supports but is not connected to Foto Fest), we wore curious about what might be in store for that month, and we were equally interested to get some notion of what was going on in European photography. And so to Paris.
The first night, right off the plane, we walked aimlessly for five or six hours. There was lots of evidence of Le Mois de la Photo everywhere; posters and lighted signs were abundant. Bookstores and galleries had posters in their windows about photography exhibitions, many of them not related to the official event. It was difficult to imagine such photographic saturation in an American City.
The following day, a Monday, the galleries were closed, so we visited the incredible Centre Pompidou, or Beaubourg. The program for the Mois listed nothing at Beaubourg, so we were puzzled to find four photography shows there.
There were no goosebumps that day. Beaubourg was chaotic and the photography uninspiring. Looking in the windows of nearby galleries, we first encountered Pete Dines photographs of dogs and cats. In the official catalog, we looked at the fashion pictures and the plethora of portraits of old movie stars, and began to wonder about Le Mois. We struggled to find an exhibition about 30 years of Japanese advertising photography, only to see a terrible exhibition, containing one interesting image: the one that had been reproduced in the catalog.
By Tuesday night, the grimness of what we were seeing had inspired us to dream of better things. We sat in the salon in the grand ruins of the borrowed apartment, talking energetically about the Great Pictures and constructing in our minds a temple to photography. We designed little rooms, each just large enough for one picture and a chair and a spotlight and otherwise darkness and silence. We made lists of the great photographs, rejoiced in the rightness of the establishment of the temple at the site of the Houston Center for Photography (100 yards from the Rothko Chapel), embarked on a scheme for expansion of the Center, and so forth. We stayed up until 5:30 talking about Foto Fest and wanting it to be a wonderful spiritual effort, positive and inspiring to photographers and viewers. It was unrelentingly revisionist and grand.
As if to reward us for our expansiveness, the next day was clear and crisp and sunny, and began to yield a few treasures. We visited the Galerie Sequier and saw the work of Philippe Chauveau and were pleased that the gallery, which had just opened, was showing photography and would probably continue to do so.
In the afternoon we went in search of the Galerie Daguerre, to pay homage. We found the Rue Daguerre and the Hotel Daguerre and the little side street the gallery should have been on. Poking our heads in what we thought was the right door, we found a nasty little man who appeared to be managing a 1950s-style Communist cell. As he mimeographed, surrounded by piles of propaganda, he brusquely told us ihe Galerie was out on the street, so we looked around for another twenty minutes, then went back and asked him again. This time he said that this space was the Galerie Daguerre. Sure enough, behind the door were a few small free-standing walls covered with photographs - terrible Cibachromes of bees and flowers. We bowed, thanked him and left. For some reason it was funny that the Galerie Daguerre was showing bees and flowers.
By Thursday the exhibitions were getting slicker. In the enormous complex of buildings that make up the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, we saw the work of several Mexican photographers as a small part of a wonderful multimedia exhibition about Mexico's celebration of the Day of the Dead, as well as major shows by Lucien Clergue and Bruce Davidson, and smaller exhibits of the photographers Jane Evelyn Atwood. Mary Ann Parkinson, and Quentin Bertoux.
The Bruce Davidson exhibition — a major retrospective centered on his subway photographs — was the biggest surprise of the week. Mounted by the National Photography Center, it was a great installation of work by a powerful photographer. In the center of the installation was a slide show of the work of Leonard Freed, with music that was absolutely perfect for looking at the Davidson subway photos. This raised questions about why photographs hung on walls are always viewed in silence, but photographs in slide shows often have music accompanying them.
The other question raised that day was why the Davidson, Bertoux, Parkinson, and Atwood exhibitions — and everything at Beaubourg — weren't mentioned in any of the hype about Le Mois. The answer turned out to be politics. Le Mois de la Photo is funded by the City of Paris, the others are funded by France. France and Paris are, politically, two different states these days, the country being run by the Socialists and the city being run by the opposition. We were amazed to discover that some people associated with Le Mois were unaware of the Davidson exhibition and that none we met had seen it - yet it was without question the most spectacular photography show in town.
Bringing photography to the people means exhibiting in some pretty unusual places. There were museums and galleries, of course, but there were also photos to be found in subway stations, department stores, business offices. bookstores, embassies, cultural centers, town halls, atop skyscrapers, and underneath camera stores. Some of these more innovative spaces worked brilliantly, others were offensive flops. The Leica exhibition in the Saint Augustin subway station was one of those rare moments in subterranean art, beautifully installed on a train platform
On the other hand, in a FNAC department store the photographs were in a low ceilinged room with the tops of the photographs up against the ceiling, which was covered with mirrored tiles so you had to look at the bad photographs twice.
Fortunately, FNAC redeemed itself with its Photography Book Forum, a giant room filled with photography books, old exhibition catalogues, and magazines from all over the world. It became painfully apparent that Europe publishes a great deal about photography that never seems to cross the Atlantic: the full range, from heady criticism to lighter picture books. And the selection of magazines dealing seriously with artistic issues, in photography is immense when compared to American efforts.
The openings at some of these affairs were quite different from what we are accustomed to in America. The art is examined as little there as here, however reading is encouraged and smoking is required. Everyone who has homework, a good book, or a full pack of cigarettes comes, so the crowds are immense, especially in the smaller spaces such as La Chambre Claire. The ground floor has a wonderfully comprehensive photography bookstore and down the spiral staircase is an ancient cellar turned gallery space. Below were people reading and talking in a den of smoke and flesh, and not much air. An oxygen tank would have extended our stay.
Friday was a frantic day of trying to see as much as possible, because time was running out. It was also the day to visit the headquarters of Paris Audio Visual, the organization that sponsors Le Mois de la Photo. The small offices were a madhouse of people trying to cope with something that was just too big. Mounds of paper, catalogs, books, and posters threatened to engulf them all. Their eyes were glazed over and their mouths hung open as they greeted each newcomer and waited for yet another excessive demand. Ours was a good one. We wanted a copy of every photograph they had, copies of all artist's statements and other information about exhibitions, as well as catalogs and books and posters and anything else that might be interesting. A staff member, Alexandre Zare, accepted our request without emotion and took us to a room where we began to plow through what was actually a very well organized collection of photographs and statements, kept in boxes on the floor. It was a long job, but he got us what we wanted.
That evening, we attended the the Nicholas Nixon/Frederich Cantor opening at The American Center, where we finally found the director of this whole thing, Jean-Luc Monterosso and arranged to spend some time talking about Foto Fest
The founders of Foto Fest, photographer and teacher Fred Baldwin and gallery owner Petra Benteler have worked feverishly to establish a relationship between Paris and Houston. Some of the Houston exhibitions will travel to Paris in 1986, and Monterosso's group will send exhibits to Houston. The mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, has given the wedding his blessing, as has Houston mayor Kathy Whitmire. There are business interests to be served by the cultural enlightenment of Houston.
Is that good or bad? The Paris event was a great experience, but the number of truly interesting exhibitions couldn't have numbered more than five, and some of them had nothing to do with the event. Is Le Mois de la Photo about photography, or is it about boosterism, chamber of commerce cultural gloss? We suspect that if an event similar in quality to the Paris one were held in Houston, it would only be held once. If we expect people to come from all over America to revel in the wonders of photography, it had better be good stuff. We left Paris fearing we really hadn't seen the work of the main group of innovative French photographers, let alone the creative ones from other European countries. It is not a cream-of-global-photography event, and that is what we all want. There is only one world, and there is no serious reason why a large number of its greatest practicing photographers and their work couldn't be gathered together in one place every other year for a shot in the arm and a reappraisal of what photography and art and life are all about.