“The truth of life lies in observation and memory, otherwise it merely passes us by.”
François-Marie Banier’s photographic novel begins with the passers-by he sees in the street, whom he calls “my crossers.” Among these walking women whom he observes with genuine amazement, we could distinguish the twin sisters in the Luxembourg Gardens, walking in step, arm in arm. They were among his first models. He portrayed them with his Minox in 1979, 1980 and 1981, left them, found them again then lost track of them. Later, he was moved to write this heartfelt appeal directly on the surface of one of his prints: “They lost me. Where is your haunt now? Please, get in touch.”
In counterpoint to these inseparable, colourful twins, “one pale pink, the other almond green”, there is the fleeting presence of isolated individuals, like that woman in the dark raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a paper bag, whom Banier photographed frontally and then from behind, like that stranger in Saint Petersburg in November 1991, the sole of whose shoe he caught in close-up on the street, not unlike that infirm woman captured by Kertész in New York in 1936. These individuals who tend to be marginals, who are without the protection of a social role, money, power or fame, yet whose lives are perhaps a success, because they are what they want to be, reveal Banier’s affinity with outsiders, whose solitude touches him deeply. “They”, he states quite sincerely, “are the ones I love the most.”
In contrast to these heroes of the everyday, broken by fate and bent by the years, there are buxom matrons like the woman in a floral dress, worthy of Lisette Model, immersed in her breviary, or that alert coquette in white fur, a cousin of the privileged creatures of Diane Arbus, walking through an urban wasteland in Saint-Étienne in June 1979. Sliding along her narrow trajectory, framed as if on a screen on which the ballet of life parades before us, she plays opposite these mischievous, comic or timorous mice who go about their destiny in long dresses and astrakhan pillbox hats on the Rue Monsieur or Rue du Regard. Or again, the twins on the Rue de Rivoli, one of Nature’s stutters, who form a couple that is as close-knit as it is endearing, a mini-society all of its own.
You need to have quite an eye to catch the strange and disconcerting image of the man with the briefcase and camera, or the woman with the pipe in Madrid, or the boy gathering a ball of wool in Marrakech, a vision that is mathematical and almost abstract, or the female midget standing in front of the Bacon painting. The fact is that, from the photographic point of view, however rebellious and intrepid he may be, François-Marie Banier is much less of an orphan than he imagines. He can fairly easily be fitted into an aesthetic family whose great master is André Kertész – a photographer who was similarly close to the man in the street. Like his Hungarian forebear, whom he portrayed in December 1981, Banier is attuned to the quivering of life, to precarious impressions, to human vulnerability, to the fragility of bodies and to the instability of things.
To realise this, one need only look at his portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson, gathered in May 1998 outside his home, opposite the Tuileries. Caught in the act of being himself, in his illustrious incognito, the apostle of “French-style” classicism, is not taken “on the hoof” but deliberately, face-on and full-length. Banier does the job of the portraitist by immortalising a man with whom he shares a taste for the unique moment, a feeling for formal balance and a conviction that the human element is paramount. This love for others emanates from his moving portraits of Marie Laure de Noailles and, above all, the one of Madeleine Castaing in all her simplicity, doffing her mask and, fully consenting, offering a searching, poignant image of herself. Whereas one might have expected her to be upset, this friend of Modigliani, Picasso and Derain and champion of Soutine, this child of another century, simply wrote the following words on the back of the print: “François-Marie Banier is to photography what Goya and Daumier were to painting.”
Driven by the desire to shatter mirrors, Banier, a seer of souls, knows that beauty and truth are inseparable and shares Cioran’s observation that “When you meet someone real, the surprise is so great that you wonder if you haven’t been blinded.” That, no doubt, is what he felt when he caught the actor Pascal Greggory, then aged 20, lost in his thoughts, or flying like Icarus over an open bed in a hotel room, or with Patrice Chéreau in Dans la solitude des champs de coton by Bernard-Marie Koltès. “There is nothing more sensitive and cruel than images”, said Jean Cocteau. They have the “beauty of the devil.” As does Pierre Clémenti, a youthful Satan in 1975 and, in the chaos of his flat, a wasted angel. “The gods really do exist. They are the devil”, we may think when we see Johnny Depp, laughing or mocking, irresistible in his beauty and intelligence, but also caught in an outpouring of fatherly tenderness.
And so, bit by bit, François-Marie Banier is assembling a cosmopolitan family in his likeness – one that, like him, is extravagant. A writer in his photography, he is piecing together his family romance from this fantasy cast. He has discreetly confided that with the portrait gallery he is assembling here, one that is quite the opposite of a pantheon, he is gathering the members of his family, like scattered pieces in a puzzle whose unity he articulates as he goes along. The ideal, inaccessible and irreplaceable figure here is clearly Silvana Mangano, a supreme, splendid actress, solitary and untouchable, surrounded with a twilight glow. A loving mother and maternal lover, she offers up her grave, moody beauty, her strange, incisive profile, in a series of images spread through time. These include the one in the Hôtel Raphaël, composed like a pietà in a patent allegory of affliction, where, posing like a melancholy madonna, she seems to be embracing the memory of Federico, the son who died ten years earlier.
Unsociable and reclusive, Vladimir Horowitz opens his arms and his door to Banier, who recreates the private world of the virtuoso performer, the dreamed-of father, jovial great uncle, deadpan maestro and jokester musician, an extraordinary actor who mocks himself when trying out a piano at New York’s Steinway Hall by playing air-keyboard. A remarkable model, Yves Saint Laurent was, back in the 1970s, the first person to support Banier when the latter showed him his portraits of solitary men and women. Contrary to the figure of legend, Banier shows the great designer as tormented, impenetrable and vulnerable, and then ageless and suddenly weary. And, in May 1989, in Deauville, knowing as he does that death is the mother of fashion, he lies in the darkness like an effigy, as if drained by this ultimate gift.
It is a very different relationship with the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, Samuel Beckett, walking along the street in his anonymous exile’s clothes. He pictures Beckett in his shorts and shirt, bolt upright, a satchel slung over his shoulder, making his way anonymously through the white-hot city or going barefoot on the beach with his firm, inflexible gait, fascinating in his majestic slowness. Treating the famously obscure and the “supernaturally discreet” writer on one and the same level, Banier achieves that essential function of photography, which is to make visible an extraordinary person whom we would otherwise never see, and to give corporeal reality to someone whom we have limited to the austerity of the ascetic or disembodied hermit. And then there is that last image, taken in October 1989, two months before his death, showing Beckett’s sharp silhouette in profile on a bench, walking stick in hand, on a square off the Avenue René-Coty, not far from his retirement home. His right arm resting along the bench back, legs crossed, shoes carefully polished, Beckett is not waiting for anyone. From a respectable distance, Banier captures his immutable presence, his isolation in a structure of horizontals and verticals, and fashions this laconic vision into a masterpiece of emotion and insight.
Because of the resonances they engender, all writers are good subjects for the camera. So it is with Roland Barthes and Françoise Sagan and, of course, Nathalie Sarraute, restrained and eminently regal, at home on the sofa, a powerful block of marble polished by the sincerity of her work. A discreet presence, Banier here gives a portrait that immortalises the face of this woman who said she had no appearance.
In contrast to David Lynch, who admits that “I only believe what I see”, Banier tells us that “I don’t believe what I see”. Even so, rigour, curiosity and intuition are the foundations of this classical yet spontaneous body of work that is enlivened by the pleasure of making new acquaintances or celebrating the faces of those he loves and admires, of plainly and simply suspending life in snapshots gleaned from every sphere of reality, but without ever turning his approach into a system. A private diary in pictures, a daily chronicle of beauty, his surprising and sincere art is based on his fidelity to a number of dominant themes, such as couples, from Michelangelo Antonioni and Enrica to Setsuko and Balthus, Cioran et Simone on Place Saint-Sulpice in December 1992, on the frail skiff of a bench, a last hope, like the bench where Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault perch, a pair of sparrows.
Life is a play which one experiences or sees only once and Banier celebrates its splendour in his photographs of actors, from Catherine Deneuve to Bulle Ogier and Isabelle Adjani whose Madonna-like profile is worthy of Julia Margaret Cameron. Snapping her fingers, Faye Dunaway twists like a schoolgirl, breaking away from her graceful self in a shop while the immense and wonderful Marcello Mastroianni dances and leaps in an impromptu performance.
“I take them on the brink of the precipice. In that very brief moment when, by the grace of inattention, they reveal themselves”, says Banier, this choreographer of the instant who celebrates the dancers of the Moulin-Rouge, and for whom the symphony of colours and rhythms that is dance is an opportunity to exalt his range with a joyous and exuberant display of pyrotechnics.
Banier works with respect, humour and grace, whether his subject is a political personality such as François Mitterrand, in Amman in November 1992, aware of the eyes boring into him from behind, or alongside a giant sculpture by Henry Moore in a telling image of the transience of political achievement in comparison to an artwork. Or again, Prince Charles, sitting alone on a bench, prey to some secret torment, tightly gripping the pommel of his chased cane.
One of Banier’s original contributions to the art of photography lies in the fact that he had the audacity to cover his images with cursory thoughts and reflections. This began in 1987 with ribbons of text running around the photographs, and then snatches of writing, well before 1991, when he put a few words onto the snowy forest view entitled “Three Poles in the Snow at Saint Petersburg” to balance and energise a scene that he found “dull”. By delicately laying down his notes, like sparrow’s footprints on the virgin space of the print, Banier moved suddenly into another world of forms. It is true that written photography, enriched with texts in counterpoint, existed before he came along, but not in the same way. Just as one makes graffiti on walls, so Banier blackens the image with rhythmic notations, deliberately varying the versions, overflowing its bounds with the assaults of meaning and the introduction of a different signification, a content written all at one go, impulsively and jubilantly. “I write to specify, never to comment”, he says in his novel Balthazar, fils de famille. A way of retouching time, the handwritten inscription coats the whole image, proliferates, spreading out like a musical score. This is what we see in the portrait of Horowitz, literally illustrating Banier’s paradoxical but judicious assertion that “Photography gives us what we ask of literature.”
The son of an advertiser, brought up to revere typographers, Banier is demonstrative in his love of words and anthropomorphic alphabets. Charmed by the forms of letters, their morphology and character, he makes them into full-fledged characters in an ideographic system that is without precedent in the history of photography. At once painter and novelist, he deals with writing as with a game, in an automatic spelling-out that points to a unique approach to the text-image relation.
Using his prints as a two-colour palette, Banier paints quite literally on the motif. He creates a new grid that he highlights with successive touches in an iconoclastic gesture that atomises the sacrosanct photographic support – which “in principle” is unique and pure. He himself says that he no longer even looks at his photographs when he is enriching them with these abstract and full forms. Of what importance is the subject, be it Tasses de café, these cups on a tray like a Cézanne still life, or the smile of Bettina Graziani, a little woman in black seen from behind (Sortir pour quoi?, “Go out? What for?”, 1999)? Altering things, elevating a simple chair into a character, he mounts his assault on the picture support with a lyrical expressive power that is by turns joyous and wild and eruptive, spattering his black-and-white prints with cheerful, lively, pure and unmixed tones.
An intense way of acting on the photosensitive paper as if the painter was dancing. The colour conducts emotion and exudes the wild, alert and luminous enthusiasm that celebrates the world of childhood or recaptures the colourful exoticism of Morocco or Brazil. “Painting only ever speaks its own language”, says Banier, who proves his point in the three versions of Matin de Paris I, II, III (“Morning in Paris”, 1998), modulating and modifying the mood and the climate with his tones, depending on the sensation he wishes to express.
The biography of the work runs deeper than that of the life, and Banier’s true biography is that of his art. Who recognises him in that multicoloured icon of the prankster terrorist in his hood, his bright eyes trained on the future in the frontal self-portrait from April 1998? Banier’s work is a fiction made up of realities. The lives of other people, which he watches with a passionate intensity, have become his own history. After three decades of practice, it is now time to review the work that has been done and to envisage François-Marie Banier’s photographic, painterly and graphic production as a coherent body of work. Part of the history of French photography, commenced in obscurity with, at the beginning, the help of the negative printer Daniel Risset, it is admirably prodigal, with the rigour and beauty of a modern classic, an artist who inhabits a singular world and subjects the gaze to the test of his readings, using words, images, forms and colours not to explain, but as a way of loving and better understanding life.
Saint-Maur, 24 November 2002
This text was written by Patrick Roegiers, 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.