Signs on the Skin

It is telling that one of the first photographs that François-Marie Banier chose to write on (Saint-Pétersbourg, 1991) struck him as “insignificant”: “Nothing looks more like a snow-covered landscape than another snow-covered landscape.” Writing in order to give the white expanses and spaces a different form. The text begins with a reflection on the motif in the picture: three poles in the snow, tied to one another. Quite unexpectedly the writer’s thoughts move on to a triangular relationship from his past, a brief period of happiness which he only hints at. The inscription brings about a fundamental change in the subject of the photograph: writing that drifts off across the snow and interrupts its uniformity with strident rhythms. The content of the text gives a significance to the poles which could be interpreted as an allegory of the very act of artistic creation: the inanimate is brought to life, the imagination impregnates the “insignificant” object with meaning and turns it into a metaphor. Writing in order to reinvent the photograph.

But Banier is already a veritable storyteller as a photographer, one who is able to tease out the secrets of apparently quite ordinary things as soon as his camera alights on them. Viewed in this way, the story behind the three poles must have etched itself long beforehand into the author’s subconscious. It remains conspicuous, however, that time and again the motifs which Banier picks to write over are fairly insignificant in photographic terms: what do we actually learn from the picture of the plump woman with the plait who crossed the photographer’s path in Londres, 1990, giving him just enough time to catch her fleeting profile; or what from the picture of a wash basin in Un lavabo chez les Noailles à Fontainebleau, 2002? Wasn’t it on just such pictures that he inscribed the texts telling of his girlfriend Barbara Drake, of the fat and the thin Americans, or of Charles de Noailles, with whom the author had shared his affections for the self-same woman – stories that seem to end up all the more opulent and prolix the less the actual photographs tell us. Indeed none of these photographs, and an appreciable number of others, exists without these inscription – which indicates that the photographer views the motifs solely as a springboard for his imaginings and his roaming memory. For him their artistic quality is first attained in the act of inscription.

At the same time, with his extremely “eloquent” photograph of pianist Vladimir Horowitz – which captured the whole of the man’s vitality in a flash – Banier does not hesitate to fill it with all the snatches of memories that crossed his mind one frosty January night in 1992. Here we have the photograph and the story, which augment one another and mutually heighten their intensity in a double homage to the brilliant musician. And his portrait of Aragon has been adopted as a foil to take the poet and long-time communist to task – with an affection matched only by his lack of respect – with the result that the writing itself is balanced here between construction and deconstruction. Or let us look at Les jumelles, ca. 1990, at that striking pair of twins whose habitus and expression fills us with unbridled curiosity. Banier followed them for over a month, whenever he caught sight of them, until one day they simply vanished from his world. The photo inscription becomes a memento to their loss, in which he implores the sisters to return: “I beg of you: get in touch. Let’s make friends. For a photo session. This time I’ll talk to you…”

In every instance the writing revolves almost magically around the protagonists, even taking possession of their clothes; just their faces, as spiritual centres, are generally left untouched. The memory that was tied to the exposure is captured one more time before it, too, vanishes like the moment in which the photograph was wrested from life. “To write or photograph”, as François-Marie Banier says, “is always to say: this will never be again.” And herein lies the point in common between homo pictor and homo narrator: Holding on to and envisaging things that are liable to submerge in the devouring maelstrom of time. Viewed in this light the inscription seems like a tattoo, as signs on the gelatinous skin of the photograph that cannot be erased so long as the latter remains intact.

 

Mimesis versus Poiesis

However much the writing stimulates and complements the visual image, there can be no doubt that Banier’s written photos subvert an ancient hierarchy: the subordination of image or text. When the two appear together the rule has always been that either the text elucidates the image, or the image exemplifies the text. That is the order in the emblem, which flowed into that of both painted images and photographs and their titles. Apart from those words that appear here and there in Cubist collages in order to allow at least a little of the outside world into the self-contained artefact, René Magritte was the first who systematically dismantled the division between depiction and denomination in his word pictures, and ushered in a perennial discourse on the constitution and perception of images.

Precisely because the photograph, unlike a painting, is an image “without matter” (Hubert Damisch) and merges completely with what it depicts, writing on it is an iconoclastic act; and this iconoclasm becomes especially evident when Banier covers the image almost completely with text. This act is tantamount to erasing the objects in the image; but in that same moment an imagination arises that runs counter to the perception of the image, and that is produced by words and sentences. Mimesis is replaced by poiesis without the former being totally annulled. The written photographs are hybrids of the genres because they confuse the way the viewer sees, so that what he or she sees while reading is modulated by inner images that come largely from them. Or to put it differently, with the inscription the beholder gains a far greater freedom for interpretation than is given by the photograph alone.

 

Writing, drawing, gesture

Banier is certainly not floored by the tension that is engendered by the hiatus between the genres. In fact he responds in highly differing ways to what is seen – depending on the nature of the motif. In his landscape picture of Tuscany (Toscane, Hommage à Harold Acton, 2004), whose sublime monotony is interrupted solely by three towering poplars, he writes his texts in long ribbons that reflect the ribbon-like forms of the blossoming grass. In Jardin du Luxembourg, 2005, he places his text between the side of the path and the lawn, so that the writing produces a pattern which can be read as a pattern of tiny flowers. Things are slightly different though with Houghton Hall, 2004, for the writing has been erected like epitaphs in the dark sections of the sprawling grounds and, by contrast, emphasise the epitaph-like quality of the black rectangles that have been left open. Not by chance does the text tell of the bygone, lordly past of this country manor, of its builder William Kent, and of the aristocracy that stayed there and came in contact with the author during his youth. And different yet again in Place Saint-Marc, 2002, where the writing assumes the place of the people who normally occupy the café chairs and tables on St Mark’s Square. The text is peopled by a proliferation of drawn figures that have taken over the furniture. The artist has used the existing lines and worked them to produce “secondary faces” (Ernst H. Gombrich) and grotesque visages, a method rooted in Surrealist drawing.

While the written text has been fitted here to the visual forms of the photograph, in Letters or people?, 2002, we find a text done as a calligram. Banier intervenes in and plays about the photographic elements by means of large, drawn letters: the “a” in “imagine” frames a boat on the water, while the “l” in “like” and the “M” in “March” are formed by the people there on the beach. Words and figures are linked together in such a way that it is now the figures that appear to have been drawn, striking a happy balance between the categorically different levels of writing and picture. Here the writing is already halfway to becoming gesture (and in this recalls Cy Twombly); it conveys not so much the message “Imagine live like this March for almost nothing” as the atmosphere of this unique afternoon on the bay at Bahia. Already in an early work, La femme aux perroquets, ca. 1990, the written letters danced among the parrots and formed liaisons with these winged creatures by copying them and fluttering through the circus rings…

 

Writing alla prima

As we can see, Banier has a whole host of writing styles at his fingertips, which change according to the subject of the picture not only in their content but also their form. These are texts that float freely between memoria (the remembrance of people one was close to), recollection, literary fiction, and capricious fantasy, all demonstrating his astonishing versatility at playing with different styles. Writing that can mount up in one moment to create monumental memorial plaques, and in the next skip across the photographic paper on fleet figurative feet, open up in combination with the drawn or photographic figures their gestural and calligraphic qualities. And just as the traces of objects in the real world are inscribed into the gelatine of the photograph, in his written words the artist leaves the traces of his own personal thoughts and experiences. At times this is done at the cost of almost obliterating the first traces, but at other times they combine to form an amalgam.

It is remarkable that none of these texts, as extensive as they are, exists independent of its carrier material. They come about – and here Banier’s twin talents as photographer and author reveal themselves – directly on the photo paper, without ever being sketched out beforehand. As such, when Banier writes on his photos he is in a similar situation to a watercolorist (or any painter who works alla prima): the work cannot be corrected, just as watercolours allow no pentimenti. Committed to photo paper, every letter, every word has an undeniable existence, like the stroke applied in a watercolour, unless of course the artist discards the work as a whole. And here one must remember that the largest formats that Banier has written on are up to three metres long! This is an indication of the discipline that he can muster up when writing and drawing, however spontaneous these activities might seem.

 

Declared belief in ‘impurity’

It speaks for the irrepressible artistic spirit in Banier’s work that a photographer who had already presented the world with a very substantial and highly thought-of œuvre in the field of straight photography (in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész), ventured in the late 1980s to take the enormous step posed by his written photographs. It is a step that goes against the perfect and homogeneous image that the photograph creates through its physical and chemical constitution. The written photos are a statement of belief in the ‘imperfect’ and ‘impure’, and comparable to the avowal made – in the opposite direction – in his day by an artist as famous as Philip Guston, which saw him abandon abstract painting in order to produce those crude and violent paintings that distinguish his later years. Here as there it is a matter of questioning orders that have been imposed on or insinuated into the medium involved. Guston turned to representational painting as he felt that the constraints involved in non-representational painting were nothing more than academic. Banier, on the other hand, expanded his œuvre by bringing in written and drawn-over photographs when he sensed that the homogeneous image of the photograph lacked something that absolutely had to be said – here and now, on the photo itself.

 

Translation by Malcolm Green

Homo pictor – homo narrator

by Martin Hentschel


This text was written by Martin Hentschel, published on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog Written photos which took place at Villa Oppenheim in Berlin from the 28th of september until the 25th of november 2007.