Turning Photography: Photography as a Writing System of the Perceived World

Lara Gasparotto

The points of convergence between text and image make up a field of study that is so vast1 that it we will not attempt to provide an overview of it here, but rather to underline in what way the notion of writing seems common to artists as different as Alexandre Christiaens, Lara Gasparotto, Anne De Gelas, Jean-François Spricigo and Sébastien Reuzé.

While Yves Bonnefoy claims that poetry is the power to photograph with language2, we can conversely argue in favour of a conception of photography as a form of fragmentary writing, on the basis of a common foundation: the perception of the world by an author and its singular expression through a creative act. Moreover, the very etymology of the term photo-graphy highlights the principle of a light writing, of a trace inscribing permanently on a photosensitive support the image of a referent that was necessarily present in front of the camera and its operator.

These affinities must not in themselves constitute an injunction for photography to narrate at any cost. The image is indeed at liberty to release itself from narrativisation when it frees itself from figuration, thereby escaping from the minimal narration constituted by the description of the reality that it depicts. The nature of the recorded image is then a matter of sensations more than of its narrativisation by the spectator. That is why it is important to analyse this relation between writing and photography on a case-by-case basis, evaluating the specificities of the artists according to their own project.

The specificities of the works that we have chosen to discuss appear through eminently singular approaches of the photographic medium: the narrativisation of images collected on journeys by Alexandre Christiaens; the recording of impressions tied to the feelings generated by things seen or experienced, in the practice of Lara Gasparotto; the association of graphic and photographic traces, generally in the form of notebooks, for Anne De Gelas; the referral to the fictionalising interpretation in the work of Jean-François Spricigo; lastly, for Sébastien Reuzé, inspiration drawn in science-fiction literature and its capacity to extrapolate an imaginary but plausible world on the basis of (pre-)existing situations.

Alexandre Christiaens: ‘the transitory perambulations of a traveller overflowing with the world’

Alexandre Christiaens (b. 1962) has established himself since the early 2000s as a wandering photographer, whose life journey is resolutely rooted in photography, perhaps as his one and only true home base, systematically associating travel with camera work. It is in 1999 that this practice, essentially self-taught, saw the day in the wake of a series of trips between the isle of Wight, Portsmouth, Ostend, Venice, Calais, Dover and the Côte d’Opale. These analogue black-and-white images, collected under the title Marines, appear in retrospect as programmatic. They would indeed be followed by many journeys in regions often related to the presence of water, maritime or oceanic, which would each time result in images.

The nature of the representations gleaned in this way is a matter of impression, in both the emotional and analogue sense of the term: a form of imprint of things seen, even contemplated, which the light, translated by the black-and-white, restores in contrasts but also in reliefs, in textures. The 2007 series Grotesques, concrétions et paysages thus sounds out crevices in the earth, underlining the quality of a photographic exploration that does not content itself with the surface, far from it, but pursues a form of mirrored introspection: starting out from what is seen to restore, to reflect the world beyond and within the self.

Moreover, Christiaens gladly relies on chance to assist him. First, in terms of his destinations, often determined on the basis of a possible residency, or chosen in response to a vague desire for travel (they have so far included Greece, India, Brazil, Russia, China, Chile, Romania, Estonia and Turkey). Second, as a precious ally for the photographer’s voluntarist work once he has launched himself into a project. ‘My main objective’, says Christiaens, ‘is to mix up my photographic harvest, which sometimes takes shape in a careful and reflected manner, sometimes rashly. It is then a matter of gathering my images and of writing a story with them. Not mine, because even though I don’t exclude myself from it, my work is in no way autobiographical; these are rather stories of the world, life stories, stories of territories, of forms, of horizons and of outlooks that the image relates’.3

Nevertheless, this traveller overflowing with the world does try to narrate it, in the form of the images that he perceives of it while travelling through it. We could mention here the long tradition of travel photographers, whose work composes a genre in its own right, comparable, in the field of literature, to travel writing. As Marta Caraion has shown4, both try to ‘bring to life’ foreign destinations for the spectator or reader, starting out from a description to trigger the imagination, on the basis of what has effectively been perceived by the author of the text – as of the images.

It is probably in this sense that the work of Alexandre Christiaens is more closely related to the account, the attestation, than to the autobiography. But this, for purposes that are as aesthetic and poetic as documentary, as suggested by the texts and titles of the books of photographs that he has composed: Mythologie 1 (2005); Réseau cristallin (2006); Grotesques, concrétions et paysages (2007); En Mer, voyages photographiques (2008); Eaux vives, peaux mortes (2012); Estonia (2016). Only the latter asserts the identity of a territory, while the previous ones withhold it, preferring a variety of photographic locations and, therefore, experiences, accumulated then freely associated by the artist. Note that this liberty extends in the literary dialogues that Christiaens has chosen for his publications: a text by Gérard de Sélys and an extract from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre (2005); a text by Eugène Savitzkaya (2006); a collaboration with Carl Havelange in 2007 and 2016. These literary echoes, which never comment on the images, relativise the photographic account through the voice of other authors, as a foil to the viewpoints provided by Alexandre Christiaens in his assemblages of photographs – from one geography to the next, one temporality to the next, one narrativisation to the next.

So much life, so many lives: the arrested literature of Anne De Gelas

It is Denis Roche who associated photography with a form of arrested literature5, identifying it as a suspended narration, determined by the pauses imposed by the discontinuity of the shooting process, in which lived time, incorporated time, occupies a central place.

This conception, which makes of photography an almost daily necessity, seems to us to find a direct echo in the work of Anne De Gelas . With this artist, the photographic image finds its place in the midst of private notebooks, travel diaries, artist books, and alongside texts, drawings and fragmentary archives.6 Beyond the autobiographical, this expression has always been envisaged by Anne De Gelas as a humanism, since this annotation of everyday life refers to a universal need in humankind to represent (for itself) the course of time and of one’s life, and to transmit it. ‘I am not the heroine of my work, there is neither a heroine, nor a hero’, she says. ‘The narrator? Let’s say that I unravel the thread. My body is my work tool, it is through my body that I manage to best express the feelings that traverse me or unsettle me. My material is made up of my life, or rather life. I sometimes recount it in fragments from a chosen angle according to themes that are dear to me. It is indeed not an autobiography’.7

This echo to a human condition restored through the prism of an individuality finds a particular repercussion since the artist was confronted with the premature death of her companion, who was also the father of their son. The year 2010 marked both a personal and artistic change, indicating the return of the self-portrait that the artist had practised less since the end of her photography studies, 20 years earlier. Filling the image with her presence, as we understand that she has been amputated of that of her loved one, De Gelas also welcomes that of her son, both castaways, following the disappearance of the lover and the father.

While universalism here assumes the features of the ordeal of mourning and absence, it is also that of human finiteness. Yet this undeniable realisation of finiteness and of temporariness – of the fragment – is precisely at the centre of the photographic ontology, which reminds us, tirelessly, of our condition through that of the image itself. As Anne-Lise Large observes, ‘photography in its entirety is steered by the question of the fragment, in terms of both photographic content and form: life becomes fragmented in the image, but the image itself is a fragment. (…) There is no trial. On the contrary, each time, it is a decisive, definitive shot – cutting out any return. The fragmentary imperative presents itself from the start as a constraint that is intrinsic to the medium itself. (…) And if photography defines itself more than ever as a practice of the fragmentary imperative, it is first and foremost because there is no end to the absence. We fragment to “distil” the absence, and immediately the whole fragments itself endlessly – everything is lost and everything becomes fragmented’.8

The feeling of loss clearly transpires in the collection published in 2013 under the title L’Amoureuse. Two years later, Mère et fils prolongs the absence by a series of images that chronicle the life afterwards, reconfigured, but also showing the rootedness of those who are still part of life. These two black-and-white editions, centred on the rigorously staged portrait and self-portrait, featuring many shadowy and blurred zones, remind us that the locus of the image is a locus of experience and that photography proves itself to be a tool that is particularly well suited to formulate feelings that are inexpressible verbally, in a form of arrested literature.

Lara Gasparotto: in praise of everyday freedom

Celebrating the life around her and freedom: this is how, in a nutshell, this photographer born in Liège in 1990 defines her artistic practice. What might seem like an obvious, even naive programme covers in fact a force of conviction, an élan vital and a desire to photograph whose rareness was rapidly saluted by the art scene.

In the wake of her photography studies, Lara Gasparotto followed that path that characterises her, consisting in taking her immediate surroundings as her subject. People, things or landscapes are thus shown without any complacency, but also with a sort of solidarity asserted by the photograph: that of the author of these pictures with those and that which she photographs, forged through life moments which she witnessed or which she even shared. Thus, Lara Gasparotto’s work aims to draw a portrait of her generation – which she believes has lost its bearings – asserting, like a credo: ‘There are fragments of wonder in everyday life’.9

Intuition and spontaneity do not, however, confine this young photographer to the compulsive: these are chosen moments, selected for their intensity, their incongruity, their poetry, sometimes their harshness. This art of the instantaneous composition, on which rests a photography that one could call ‘live’, continues subsequently in the mosaic displays that create ever-renewed dialogues among the images. These connections, also at work in the photographer’s publications10, trigger sensations, emotions that exceed the images in their singularity, in order to offer a specific reading of them. In that sense, it is a form that is distinct from the diary, which characterised by a daily writing, in the singular. Conversely, the plural, even the community, are already at play here in the subjects photographed, all the while continuing in a singular reinterpretation by each spectator. Moreover, the temporal and geographic discontinuity manages to impose itself as an organising element in its own right of these groups of images.

A writing of the je (I) thus makes way for a writing of the jeu (game), self-aware and delightful, in a form of lightness openly proclaimed by the artist. ‘Walking, sleeping, photographing, one loses oneself to better find oneself’, she says. ‘Waking up in places we don’t know, gazes we don’t forget, games in which we take part. Exaggerations, feelings of sickness in the morning, embraces that bring us back to life. Bruises on the skin whose origins are vague. Rolling around in carpets of flowers, sleeping on the concrete of train stations. Having a knot in one’s stomach when arriving at an unknown airport. Summer lightning, snow-covered nights, enveloping lights, running through the rain. I don’t aspire to carefreeness, but to freedom, to a lightness to be savoured, an innocence to be preserved.’11

This relation to the other, as well as to the elsewhere, supposes a great availability, authorising precisely the connection to the sensations rather than to the occupations. This vacancy can also turn lead to errantry, which Édouard Glissant defines poetically as the appetite for the world. An errantry as an appetite for the world that seems to us to relate to the images that Gasparotto delivers, presenting the same virtue associated by Glissant with errantry: that of preserving oneself from the systemic thoughts. ‘Errantry’, writes Glissant, ‘is what inclines the being to abandon the systemic thoughts for the thoughts, not of exploration, because that term has a colonialist connotation, but of investigation of reality, the thoughts of displacement, which are also thoughts of ambiguity and non-certitude that preserve us from the systemic thoughts, from their intolerance and their sectarianism’.12

It seems to us that this is fundamentally the narrative borne by the work of Gasparotto: the history of a free exploration of reality, emancipated from the systems of codes, including those of photography with an autobiographical character.

Imagine seeing: the fictional sonorities of the images of Jean-François Spricigo

If the artistic commitment of Jean-François Spricigo comes down to shaping his own emotions, it is with the humble awareness that it is the landscapes, the human beings or the animals he depicts that made him feel these emotions. As such, they could be seen as the co-authors of his images, to whom a tribute would thus be paid.

This artistic practice, which is resolutely relational, takes shape under various guises: literary, cinematographic or photographic, each one working towards re-presenting, re-formulating, inventing. In all cases, asserting fiction as an indispensable link to the world. ‘I too often find reality to be unjust’, he admits, ‘or inapt to represent the intensity of the moment as I experienced it. I can only explain it to myself through fiction.’

The stake of photography is therefore twofold: both to put experiences at a distance by representing them, emotionally intense experiences, but also to put them through a fictional filter, which alone makes it possible to understand them.

The marks of Spricigo’s fictional enunciation rest on the use of black-and-white that abstracts the image from the observed reality and recomposes it; dark prints, in which light is sometimes re-introduced by exposure to light; effects of waviness, bringing to mind the wavering of the referent – or that of the photographer; the constitution of groups of photographs within which the spectators will be free to weave their own narrative, their own itinerary, even if they are placed under a common title. Thus, under the title Romanza, the spectator will discover the images of a man as well as of cats, grass or a woman, which have suddenly become the actors of a possible fiction.

We find here a method characteristic of a certain literary practice, whereby an author draws inspiration from things seen to give shape to them, reinterpreting them through fiction. This similarity extends in a genuine editorial practice, which claims as its starting point the musicality of a word, as a source of inspiration for the selection of the works: silenzionotturnopréludeanimaen famillesettembre‘armonia’romanza, etc. Connoting the photographs that they relate to, these particular ‘sonorities’ invoke in turn the imagination of the spectators, invited to project their own interpretative universe. Note that this consideration for the position of the spectator, beyond the need to photograph felt by Spricigo, finds a counterpart in another dialogue, before the dissemination of the images: that entered into with Guillaume Fabiani (who is besides Sarah Moon’s assistant), in order to select the shots that will make up these series, thus composed by four hands, via a relation that brings to mind that between author and editor.

From observation to its transformation: the recomposed images of Sébastien Reuzé

From the start, the photographic work of Sébastien Reuzé played with the realism of its representational tool to transform it, aiming to confer to the data observed an imaginary depth, tinged in turn with strangeness, joy or mystery.

The intrusion of the imagination generally operates in the midst of everyday scenes or situations, by the intermediary of a series of interventions on the photographic material, or by a scripting, before the shooting. Added visual elements, photomontage, burning of the surfaces or reinterpreting the colours by the use of filters literally enable the artist to reinvent the everyday life observed through the camera lens in order to better transform it. He thereby manages to create a particular visual universe, governed by the codes that he himself has created, unwilling to be satisfied with a vision out of habit, in favour of a deliberate composition of his own reality.

A second path consists in Reuzé taking as his starting point situations which he has faced or that intrigued him, in order to then script them in images, within fictions that look like authentic situations. For him it is a matter of developing what he calls the ‘fictional quotient of the images, their capacity to steer the reading, the thought, the reaction, towards a story, a fiction, an intellectual transformation of the real’.13

The ‘Brooklands’ series is emblematic of this procedure and reveals moreover the importance of literature as a source of inspiration for the artist, notably science-fiction. It is the latter that led him to the suburbs of Brooklands, in Surrey, which is none other than the location invented by British writer J.G. Ballard in which to set the characters of his novel, Kingdom Come (2006). A former racing track converted into an economic area, associated with middle-class housing and dominated by a gigantic shopping centre, Brooklands became, in Ballard’s writing, the locus of social tensions expressed by violent nationalist demonstrations. Sébastien Reuzé created a climate with which he has associated portraits of people both enigmatic and identifiable by their clothes acting as social identifiers; these characters were cast beforehand and are playing a scripted role.

Like the British science-fiction writer, the photographer exacerbates the salient features of a capitalist society that is socially and culturally impoverishing, pointing out its flaws and dysfunctions, without any literal condemnation. Other stages continue to feed other series, which go beyond the observation by this use of imagination, all the while inviting the spectator, through these detours and manipulations, to return to reality. While science-fiction literature corresponded already to an identifiable genre, it here finds its visual equivalent, all the more realistic that in photography, the image is perceived as the trace of an existing referent. The style of Reuzé, that is precisely his marks of photographic enunciation, traps the spectators in their credulousness, like the reader of a novel that would have forgotten its fictional content, although extrapolated from things seen.

1 On this subject, see the proceedings of a conference held at Cerisy-la-Salle on the relation between literature and photography, which tackled a diverse range of issues: the narrative of the origins of photography, the presence of a photographic gaze in the novel, the image of the writer, illustrated books, the translation of the inexpressible, or the blending of literature and photography. See: Liliane Louvel, Danièle Méaux, Jean-Pierre Montier, Philippe Ortel (eds.), Littérature et photographie, Rennes, PUR, ser. Interférences, 2008.

2 See: Yves Bonnefoy, Poésie et photographie, Paris, Galilée, 2014.

3 Alexandre Christiaens, quoted in: Democratic Jungle: Belgium-based Photography Platform .

4 See: Marta Caraion, Pour fixer la trace : photographie, littérature et voyage au milieu du XIXème siècle, Genève, Librairie Droz, 2013.

5 Denis Roche, La disparition des lucioles (réflexions sur l’acte photographique), Paris, L’Étoile, 1982, p. 99.

6 Among this output, let’s mention the publication of the Carnets in 2003 by Galerie P.

7 Quoted in: ‘Paris: L’Amoureuse, d’Anne De Gelas, L’Œil de la photographie ’.

8 Anne-Lise Large, La Brûlure du visible. Photographie et écriture, Paris, L’Harmattan, ser. Eidos: Photographie, 2012, p. 39-40.

9 Lara Gasparotto, Sleepwalk, Liège, Yellow Now, 2012, n. p.

10 See: Lara Gasparotto, Sleepwalk, Liège, Yellow Now, 2012; Rivages, Brussels, Racine, 2014. Ask the Dusk, Antwerp, Ludion, 2016.

11 In: Lara Gasparotto, Sleepwalk, (…), n. p.

12 Édouard Glissant, L’imaginaire des langues. Entretiens avec Lise Gauvin, Paris, Gallimard, 2010, p. 37-38.

13 Sébastien Reuzé, ‘Intime et universel’ (letter to Jean-Louis Godefroid), in: contretype.org .

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