The life of photography - François-Marie Banier

Who is a photographer? Any high-wire artist without a wire, any conductor without an orchestra, any realistic dreamer with a bit of persistence who, whether confusedly or not, has the feeling, the courage – it only takes a slight movement of the index finger – to stop the world. He blocks it, wedges it, lays it out. For good. Makes it solid. That is where the work of art begins: when it’s over. When the photo has been taken, printed, chosen. Sold, I might say.

 

Photography: an escape.

Photography? Probably because, as a young boy, all the deceit, the conventions, the systems of living whose only foundation was the habit of acting on the axiom of “the done thing”, led to attitudes and reflexes that were equivalent to paralysis – ah, the memory of all those absurd, long and deadly boring hours. The falseness of it all disgusted me. I was obsessed with escape. I wanted life. The camera was my window. A machine for gathering and revealing, for making my sources gush forth on the paper: those people, those men, those women in the street that I couldn’t always follow, hear or see again. But that I loved. Instinctively. At first glance. Mountains of life that rose up suddenly from the cobblestones of this stilted Paris where I learned to walk.

To catch those faces, catch up with those lifelines. Novels, wilful ways, crafty, cunning and resolute. Profound silhouettes. Leaning, hunchbacked or simply bent over their own shadows, they had more weight to them than the solemn, powdered, made-up figures who thoughtlessly repeated phrases just to keep up appearances.

This art of the passenger who, inadvertently, stumbles into the middle of an argument, a family, a country, and whose gaze gets sets things straight. Contrary to what people believe, nothing is blinder than a camera. They all stare straight ahead.

Photography is primarily psychic work that calls for profundity, rigour and, above all, intuition. Its knuckles get rapped as soon as it takes its intuitions for granted. Yes, those ways of appearing in the world are cries.

I take them on the brink of the precipice. In that very brief moment when, by the grace of inattention, they reveal themselves. Nomadic or sedentary, the moment when their faces and silhouettes signal the path of their ideas is a precious one.

Charles de Noailles, a magnolia in his hand, hesitates: does one have the right to withhold oneself from a someone who is taking one’s photograph, or is that too self-important? Should one drop the flower and take off one’s spectacles? The acute sensitivity that made him both a remarkable letter writer and an exemplary gardener, was enough. Why show more than that?

When the click alerts them and I sense a hint of the desire to look different – or, even worse, to connive, I stop. Or I keep going until they forget the camera.

We all tend towards one particular expression. This is the face that the photographer has to catch, through the multitude of smiles and looks that are laid out before him like so many dead ends.

Find the design, the complexity, the scale, the key to this unique face that we all keep our whole life long, like those greedy, miserly, indifferent, spendthrift reflexes and expressions that sum up the individual and, when you mention them to others, prompt the response: “Typical!”

Photograph this precious précis: a smile, a nonchalant or resolute air, a gesture, a face – the axiom and motto of which each individual is the more or less willing puppet.

In spite of the pink and blue periods, Cubism and Orphism, in spite of Olga, “our first wife”, as Jacqueline Picasso used to say, in spite of the Dora Maar years, in spite of Guernica and the musketeers at the end, Picasso, like Callas, like the concierge reluctant to hand over your keys at this late hour, has only one look, one face. Those whose expression has abandoned them have a mask. The photographer’s task is to see through it. For old age, that summit for the portraitist, I would go as far as two faces.

It took real courage for her to walk all the way along the Rue d’Antibes in Cannes, a string bag hiding more than half her face. She reminds me of Van Gogh when he cut off his ear. We are more likely to forgive that mad genius than this poignant nobody, but in this photograph, this trace, has not she too, with that detachment and those boots, left us something like a work of art?

The power of what we call a face. Represented a billion times, and inevitably, always in the style of the artist, Christ, despite all those “approximations”, those “transfigurations”, will always have the same look of goodness, that strong nose, the same hair framing the somewhat fleshy, tapering lips. Even when painted differently, with a round chin, or, mockingly, with a crew cut, or his hair hidden by a wig, some detail, something, reminds you that this is Him and, all of sudden, in spite of the vandals, “the true Face”, the one that we have attributed to him over the years, reappears.

Photograph because it will never be like this again.

Whenever you come back to it, to that photo, the life and emotions of the past come flooding back, with patches of colour, their perspectives and their omissions, with all the power of memory and dream.

With only one exception, one that I don’t regret, I have never asked anyone to pose. Let them give me, or withhold, what they want. I mentioned love. Well, you rarely get a “good” photo without exchange. What Madeleine Castaing calls “the collaboration of the model.” Most of my photographs were unexpected. And for me too.

I wasn’t expecting those black, black eyes, nor those open arms – let’s stay decent here – nor that modesty, that pain. You cannot direct a photograph. Let’s be clear about this: I sound as if I am championing the snapshot, as if staging, framing, lighting, focusing and blurring were not things you choose, were not all about patience – because culture is that, too – but also diabolical reflexes, unsayable references. They are crucial.

Aesthetics. The sinews of war of empty conversation. Bourgeois conversation. “I like it… I don’t like it… I rather like that one.” As if photography, painting or writing were like choosing the colour of a jumper, something to go with the wall. To hell with you!

The world and its tumult are so accessible that we forget photography as we do the air we breathe. We flip through these pages – sorry, photos – and yet they embody the understanding, the conspiracy between reality and dream, the moment and the spirit of the moment. Photographs are not images. They are theatre, happenings, thoughts, suffering, heartaches, appeals, apples, worlds, fingers snapping – or else they are nothing.

Whatever the charms of the prey, its virtues are revealed only by the camera.

Is photography an art?

It all depends when you press the trigger, and why. Otherwise, any finger-snapping or explosion is music, any printed paper literature and any disfigurement photography. No. Barring a miracle! And that is just about what we are looking for: the human – so as not to waste time.

Photography means power. One of the greatest powers is that of writing History. This is dangerous ground for the honest practitioner. Now I come to a word I would have preferred never to use: responsibility. This time, the witness is the verdict. The penalty is severe: it defies time, gong well beyond those involved in the tragedy and affecting us and our children’s children.

What have I shown? On that particular day, this superbly beautiful, legendary woman, kneeling, veiled, beside an empty chair in a hotel suite in a foreign country, there for a pastellist who allowed me in turn to make a portrait, was not, but really not, this sad, fate-scarred woman. That day the death of her son Federico, ten years earlier, was a long way away. We… well, thinking about it…

When the scene comes back and I see Silvana Mangano in that room in the Hôtel Raphaël, the mood was one of gaiety. She laughed at her blue veil fluttering over her hair, laughed at her noisy Italian friends, sitting there like in a theatre behind the patient and mysterious Lila de Nobili, as she drew the colours to paint the Madonna from her mysterious wicker basket. In the atmosphere of that room, full of the heady perfume of tuberose that wafted from this heroine of Visconti, whose ghost was already beginning to haunt some of us, my softly murmuring Leica made ready to catch, catch up with the tragedy. I did not ask Silvana to bow her head, or to lean on the chair. I hadn’t done or said anything. I don’t ask for poses. Did I notice that empty chair? No. That she was hugging it. Even less. She only held it once, like a long sob.

Pleased with the peace that she was presenting the painter, I was about to take a radiant photograph, and, in spite of myself, what I caught, captured, immobilised, singled out and recovered was a mother at the pitch of grief.

What happened? The veil slipped slightly. Trying to put it back on her head, she lost her balance. The chair was in reach. She held on to it, straightened up, returned to her pose. Too late! In the meantime, in just a click, the camera had recorded it all, from the long fingers of the hand tensed on the edge of that terribly empty chair, to the depths on the face of this woman who, ten years earlier, had to give in to a horrible fate. Thanks to this corporeal Freudian slip, this hiatus, because of this sudden but short-lived moment of weakness, the impossible grieving for the son reappeared. By lying, the photograph tells the truth. The photographer was not looking for this wounded virgin, and yet this truth surpasses all the others. It is no surprise that this photograph should later have become Silvana’s great favourite.

Quite simply, it points up the misunderstanding between the photographer and his model, Art and Truth.

Whether he likes it or not, the photographer forces humanity because he compels it. It is because of this obligation to be brief, this form of transformation, of transgression, that he needs to think. Hence the writing which appears sometimes on these photos, not to decorate them, to ennoble them, but to prolong them, and the way we later see them.

My photographs bring forth stories which I spontaneously write – that is, if they do not write themselves.

To choke passing time. To take time by the throat, time that knows nothing of our sorrows, of our desires, or of its own flight. To take, fish out profiles and shadows from the crowd, this resistance to time moving on, these trees, which walk before they can support themselves, arches that, in this moment are standing, only because I say so. These old flames, still strong and searing, never alone any more, and forever erect.

The difference between photographing and doing photography.

The photographer is any nostalgic person, any storyteller, anyone who cheats death, who comes out of reality as he would the cinema of his dreams, in order to bring back proof.

Photographers are all those for whom memory is thought, to be studied, to be relived.

Do not take photographs so as to be there without seeing, like those falsely recorded holiday memories that flow over memory like water on the hands. Those traces without consciousness. An aberration!

This brings me to that very young photographer whom I would visit from time to time. Oddly enough, his camera caught only what we never see, what consciousness avoids because otherwise it would go mad. For example, that young girl at her window in front of a school yard. Instead of focusing downwards on the yard behind, with the curve of her shoulder, her arm, her hand, seemingly holding three roughly aligned dead trees like a bunch of irises, his gaze goes to the windowsill. What is left on the paper is the corner of the wall. As if the lens always turned away from what was “objectively” there to photograph. A deliberate choice? No. He pressed at the wrong moment. There was a time when one would have called that a language. Say, “I wanted to emphasise clumsiness, to praise it.” If only it were the clumsiness of the short-sighted! (Later, the young man became a painter – a very interesting painter, too.  And, twelve years on, as I reread these lines, he is a photographer. Now he knows what he wants to show.)

The subject must explode, slip out of your hands, pop up like the white rabbit in the magician’s scarf when everyone was expecting the 7 of hearts.

What counts most of all is density. The density of sadness, for example. I could also have mentioned wonder. Density is just as important here as feeling. When talking about precious stones, we speak of their water. Well coming back to photography, like handsome stones, some photographs actually tremble. Roland Barthes would have spoken of shimmering.

With my “models”, apparently, power doesn’t come into the relationship. That is where I give of all my gentleness. The effort, the work – they go before. Sometimes, while still continuing to take photographs of a person, I have waited fifteen years for the exchange to happen. A thousand “approximations” and, finally, there it is! The photo, the person.

Images command the camera, as words do the sentence and as line does the portrait. The maybug flying past and Beckett like a giant spider on the beach at Tangier – they loomed up in the middle of my life. They came to me like signs, like words I noted in a dictation.

My “crossers” are courageous. Survivors of love, of who knows what wars, what solitude, they press on. There is a lot of walking in this book. Walking everywhere. Putting one foot forward and starting again. There is something unique about the street for the lover of faces, for anyone who seeks a certain constancy in truth, for whoever has the shamelessness – or the courage – to look at it, to pursue it. As one walks so the mask slips. Sleepwalkers, or eyes wide open, half-closed, their treasure is offered for anyone who knows how to look.

Indifferent to your laughter, to your love that is gone for ever, to your kind heart, to your suicide attempt, to your unpaid bills, to wretchedness, to their wretchedness, they walk.

The hardest part is when they love the lens. There was no way I could get Aragon to forget it, not even for a sixtieth of a second.

Charming, generous, for me he was unphotographable. Or maybe I knew him too late. Without Elsa who was vital to him, I saw only half the man. Others, I am sure, will have managed some very fine photographs of the poet. But I have just found one (it is March 2002) on a contact sheet. This was the way he saw the world just after Elsa: doubting.

In front of those ties that he lines up on the dining room table, I see him as absorbed to the point of obsession in everything and nothing. In this photo, this application, there is something of that delirious quality that he put to such skilled use in words on the page, or when talking aloud during our long, night-time walks in this Paris that he reinvented for the shades of Breton, of Picasso, of Apollinaire, whose strangeness he headily retraced.

I have another photograph of him, but it is too sad, much too sad. You would hardly recognise him. He is wearing a white cap, wrapped in a grey cloud, and turning away. This photo reminds me of what Degas said about Eugène Carrière’s beige paintings: “Look, someone has been smoking in the baby’s room.” Aragon knew too much, had given too much to let that truncated vision pass. And, without his name, the photo is a failure.

Opening up secret worlds, that and nothing else is the purpose behind my pursuit of those twins. When I saw them, one hanging onto the other, all I could think of doing was telling people about this duo that so fascinated me. Faced with the lens, they turned tail, tried to avoid my gaze. The twins in the Rue de Rivoli had the same reflex. You would think that these pairs are afraid of a mirror – their double, a disturbing rival.

Survive. To let a little truth survive. Dali, after all his extravagances, his follies, his voice, Gala, his courtiers, is shown in the photograph sitting calmly in his chair. He was talking about Leibniz, Ledoux. So, those famous teas of his weren’t always such a madhouse.

On the 18th of each month, Jacqueline Picasso would go to Vauvenargues, to her husband’s tomb, and tell him about everything that had happened since her previous visit: the call paid by René Char, his daughter on the phone, the current exhibitions. She gave him the news of Notre-Dame-de-Vie, of the poets who came to see her. That day, before going down to the terre-plein to pay her respects to the statue behind a window, in the first room next to the stairs giving on to the tomb where the man with the flame is, Jacqueline, her lips pursed, went over her week for Picasso, “the man who invented me”. Asking him if that evening, in his name, she could steal a few more canvases. She loved his painting so much. She would give them back later.

I said I was sorry about the click at that precise moment.

“Why? I wanted you to remember this day.”

It was as if she herself had pressed the trigger. As later she would do – which, alas, is already evident here.

People always talk about the last words of the dying – or rather the living, it depends how you look at “it”. Jean Cocteau, who was indeed famed for his bons mots, had been thinking about his final exit all his life. His plan was to say, flippantly, “I want my money back, I didn’t understand a thing!” But what came out was “Mummy”.

In the most important moments of our lives – separations, marriage, when that smile is slow in coming to the lips of a loved one, when the earth crumbles or we are suddenly reborn, the first thing that strikes us, holds us, is not a word but an image, one that is often ridiculous or absurd, but certainly strange and nearly always still: the leg of an office table, a stranger’s cloche hat, the strap of a handbag trailed along in a park.

I should have photographed only objects, but what came to me were faces. Starting with my own. For a franc, which I slipped into the photo booth in one of the rare passages on the Avenue Victor-Hugo. What I got was four times my face. As stupid as could be. Grimacing. Incomplete. To give the photo some value, I asked people passing by to come and sit next to me in the booth. In this way I photographed all my classmates and a lot of other people: the parish arch-priest with his round eyes, a tightrope walker without his rope, the man from the local toy shop (he had a pervert’s laugh, and you can see his perversion in the photo) and a friend of my mother’s with a soft spot for clever little boys in short trousers.

As soon as I got a camera, I disappeared from the photos, which was all to the good.

Take them so you can look later, ask questions. See that it was a good thing you were there.

Distress or joy, captured – the possession of that moment is already a work of art because it brings back a certain day and makes us look at it anew, in a totally different light.

Each gaze augments the work and makes you – once again or in turn – a photographer, since, at that moment, the only vision that counts is your own.

Everything you see when you look at a photo belongs only to you. Time is stopped, described. The facts are there and, in a slight hesitation, the photo suddenly overflows. We add all the things we didn’t know about the person, about ourselves. In the meantime we have been doing more living. The photo lives, nourished by that extra life that it suggests to us, and that we superimpose on it.

Paul Morand developing a photograph that he had taken of Marcel Proust on his deathbed. “The negative has burned. Proust’s eyes are all black.” Didn’t he mean “open”?

Did you know that photography also gives objects a voice? It grants their impotence a kind of survival, as it does everything it touches.

A fool’s bargain – the peasant woman in Sommières digging her field, defied and still defies me, her fist on her hip. She is right. Who won? She did. And she knew it. She knew it as soon as she saw me get out of the car, with that glint in my eye. She knew at once what I was after with my camera. Her “forms”, as they used to say. She gave me everything. And held it all back.

Thirty years of wandering – but not always straying. Thirty years on the lookout. What have I looked for? Followed? Awaited? Always the same. You can’t change your spots.

From John Huston sitting by his oxygen tank to the girls at the Moulin Rouge, via all my famous or anonymous passers-by, how awful if I hadn’t pressed the button! How many images lie ahead of me, images towards which I feel a duty?

Say two or three things more. Talk about inner worlds. How to approach them? If they aren’t obvious to me, then I pack up, fold away the circus canvas on which I tried to freeze the shadows of those destinies that I thought to glimpse, between two worlds.

While writing can delineate a voice, a laugh, there is something indefinable and wonderfully human, and sometimes very simple, that escapes the pen or even the most realistic brush. Oddly enough it is the photographer who catches this indescribable something.

Admit that I have loved them all, for their vitality, for thumbing their noses at themselves and at others. Loved them for a thousand reasons and, first of all, for that habit they had of not dying. They had, they have, like a kind of inner climate, a fantasy, a madness. Magnetised by photography, they could not fail to enter the camera and make their photograph – their gift to me – a vibrant one.

Photography feeds on people, the novel feeds them. Photography gives us what we ask of literature.

Why mention writing here? Writing is as perverse as photography. It appears behind the style, behind us, only when it’s all over. From behind the pen, or behind the camera, we think that it’s all happening outside. But the circus is here inside. The ringmaster too. And he doesn’t always get on with the beast within that wants to understand it all and sort the spectacle from the reality, the instant from eternity. It is a bitter struggle. It all goes on close to the heart.

The person’s behaviour, manner, their being’s sensuous presence, are just as important as their mysteries. The charm of presence. The words that define it in its absence cannot fill the void. Words, whatever they are, do not give us that other dimension, or they give us too much of it. What remains within is an idea and, however attentive and strong we are, we always lack that decisive aspect: their presence.

Walking along the pavement there, that Scrooge is altogether another man: the funny roll of the shoulders, that whole body taking liberties that he forbids his wallet, that amazed sideways glance along the shop windows, that old-fashioned gentlemanly politeness are his gift, this time. He is important because he brings back these emotions in us. Even if he had no inkling, it was through him that they came. Through him, I rediscovered those confidences that I drew out as a child, after class, prowling from bench to bench, facing the Seine and watching it flow between Héricy and Samois, when the dam was still there and the name André Billy still meant something to a few people. Thank you to that stranger who for me is a link in a civilisation – or, to be less pompous – quite simply, thank you to that bearer of shadows.

The need for this face that takes me back into the midst of those uncertain evenings when I listened to the adult. Evenings that are now imprecise, that bring back worlds and their dead.

Close your eyes, orphans, unlucky lovers, distant friends, close your eyes and describe that dear one. Big brown eyes – you remember them, and the form, the colour that keep coming back to you – that sometimes he rolled… a long nose, flat at the top… I know, there are better descriptions. However powerful, however inspired words can be, compared to a photo…

Seeing the exact form of that smile now gone forever. All the things that a photograph brings: that other side of the person, the self stripped of everything that we said, of all the pledges and all the misunderstandings, of all the horror and the hugging, of all the verbiage, of everything we tell ourselves when waiting.

“Cruel photographs”, I have heard people say once or twice. I challenge that. You show them something, they feel obliged to talk. You overtake them, wanting to catch them by surprise. There was an intention. Yet the gaze is always elsewhere. And they were indeed for me, those Amazon’s veils, that embonpoint garnished with bunches of grapes, and that stuffed rat perched on a top hat.

Faces, walks, ways of being, couples and solitudes are poems, manifestos. The photographer is their publisher.

The contact sheets on which the photographer chooses and delimits his work are rough drafts, the most taxing part of his task. Each image is lethal; it kills another. Verbs, adjectives, pronouns, nouns, relative clauses, conjunctions, adverbs, chapters, volume I, volume II – writing has plenty of ammunition. You can always find a way of ringing around the subject. Whereas here it is this particular photograph, this pose, this emptiness, this moment, this light and none other, that have to hit the spot.

So, yes, photography is cruel, but for the photographer, because this is the image that will have force of law.

Beckett wanted to be alone and to walk, fast, between the hatching of the sunlight, on the pavements of Tangier where I saw him year after year – long, thin, wearing shorts, carrying a brown bag over his shoulder, now and again leaning towards his wife whom the Moroccans at the hotel took to be his sister. No doubt because of the silence between them, like a third person.

He interested me for the line that went from his neck down to the ground, that straight line, that tallness that seemed to weigh him down. The walk of a freezing heron or flamingo in that burning country, an aerial topped with a square of thick, white hair, lined up like the army at Carthage that, in spite of myself – in spite of himself, too, Cicero had suggested to me at school.

I started following Beckett around the streets of Tangier, losing him and finding him again. It wasn’t the right moment. Not yet. From further away, he would stand out more. His walk belongs to something that we all possess, like a vocal cord, a stridency. Capture that eloquent whiplash.

Later on he told me that in Ireland, when he was very young, he used to think he was a kite and fly from tree to tree. That in Paris he and his wife lived in a double flat overlooking the yards of La Santé prison. That he communicated with her by phone.

On the beach, near Malabata, he spoke at length about his mother, who didn’t believe in him, and who would have been so happy about his Nobel Prize. He spoke about Joyce, of the seventeen years that he “courageously” (sic) spent writing Finnegans Wake. Mentioned his wife on finding someone for his first novels, which were turned down by seventeen publishers. “For a writer it’s very important to read. To see how others do things.”

I saw him again in Paris, where sometimes he would take me for a coffee. That was terrible: afterwards, I couldn’t take any photos. I found his husky voice and his accent too affecting, and also his ironic, lost smile, his blue eyes, his kindness. I preferred to “have him pose” from a distance. There, between the trees on the Avenue René-Coty, he continued his walk, or rather his trajectory. The same every time, in the middle of those quarters full of lost souls where, at the hour he chose, his theatre of grotesques was at its most despairing.

He ended his days in a gloomy old people’s home. None of the occupants had an inkling that this stranger was considered a great writer and that he was world-famous. None of them had heard of Waiting for Godot, Happy Days or Molloy. They said he had a very handsome jacket and that his room looked on to the garden. They told me that he used to be a clown and didn’t like to talk about the circus.

He stares at the lens, distressed that all this exists. His silence brought me back to those passers-by, to the strangers, to the respect for their furtive silhouettes.

To possess a photograph. To come back to that still image. They used to say that a photograph fades – before the silver-print and other miracle papers. Not true! Carjat’s Rimbaud is still there, and Verlaine hasn’t budged. Nor have Degas’ photographic masterpieces.

To possess a photograph, enrich it every day with our experiences. This relation is strangely similar to the one we have with the telephone, or by letter, with people that we don’t see and who share their lives with us from a distance: baby fell out of the first floor window, wife tired, sulking, couldn’t do my archery, spending too much on clothes, everything sorted out at Christmas. These photos inscribe that place beyond, hold back the river for a second as it sweeps along those thousand and one things that we almost feel and for which we are the poor and powerful distant screen.

How long will I keep this fascination with people who are lost to me? That we lose, before we ourselves are lost – black-and-white encourages the “funerary” style. To write or photograph is always to say: this will never be again.

 

“Shadows are always black, even when cast by swans.”

Victor Hugo, La Fin de Satan

 

I do not think I have sufficiently stressed that photography gives another measure of a person about whom we thought we knew everything. It’s like the difference between the words we prepare before a romantic tryst or termination, or any other potentially decisive rendezvous, and the words we actually speak when the moment comes.

Photography seems to have something quicker than writing, something more… spontaneous, more… one shouldn’t say “easier”. I am looking for this plus. There isn’t one. Nothing is less concise than certain photographs. Once they’re taken, they always exceed the subject.

I could say that, since I was born, I have been accumulating proofs (prints). But of what?

A session without poses. Accord or discord – as in music, it all depends how you strike up. That is what sets the tone. And with me, often, it marks the end.

To write and photograph in order to save from disappearance the little that we understand of what is visible. Even if sometimes people say, “It wasn’t like that.”

To write and photograph. If writing is also the work of memory, memory sometimes anticipated, the imagination is no more than a way out of memory, an escape. In cards, the word is discard. When the ink flows, the act, the other, have already passed on. Are the past.

Where the word leads to death, takes part in death, photography swerves away from it. Where writing plays with time, photography stops it. Photo. There is nothing more to say. Except, thank you for this proof.

I was not without appetite at the feast of these proffered faces.

 

Text originally published in Photographies, 1991

The life of photography

by François-Marie Banier


This text was written by François-Marie Banier, published by Gallimard on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog François-Marie Banier which took place at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris from the 26th of March until the 15th of June 2003.


Photo: Charles de Noailles, 1970, by François-Marie Banier