A modern antidote to the artificiality and virtuality of the global media society
It is extremely refreshing to open a book, or see an exhibition, by François-Marie Banier; it is a way to reassure oneself that even in these days, dominated by the dazzling and superficial approach of the mass media, Humanity still roams the streets of our big cities, and that there are still artists who enjoy to look for persons capable of being themselves, to capture them in the instant in which, for a moment, due to excessive emotions or a temporary distraction, when the mask and the social defenses are dropped, they reveal the coincidences between a physiognomy, a personality and a destiny. In fact, it is very hard to image humanity in an abstract sense; it is much easier to recognise in a particular human being: a man or woman who suddenly, with a smile, but also with a tear or a grimace, succeeds in feeling and manifesting the promise that after all, continues to keep us together. Yes, deep down, forgotten, dispersed in the thousand commitments, worries, perplexities of life our common denominator, Humanity still survives.
Banier photographs in the wake of this great humanistic tradition, and not only because his lens focuses first and foremost on human beings. He is a humanist because he seeks, follows and photographs – one by one, in a fraction of a second – Individuals. Let’s take a look at the protagonist of his images: they are not stereotypes or models who remind us more or less vaguely of someone else. Each appears as a unique personality, who over the years has managed to conquer – to model, produce, conserve and enhance, and who flaunts, perhaps unconsciously but with the determination and pride of perseverance – the face he deserves. The persons of his photographs are all special; and I am not only referring to the celebrities he has met and photographed during his life, but also to the anonymous individuals, solitary beings he has met in the street: old people whose wrinkles, walk and expression convey the events of their past and the way they face it: and children whose ingenuity and innocence reveal their character, their pluck, their joys and sorrow, and in the final analysis the destiny they are headed for. In a nutshell, all Banier’s portraits depict future personalities.
And it is here, in this concept of the person who changes while essentially remaining the same, that the first results of his language have concretised: the snapshot. Banier, having turned snapshot photographer because of the language he has chosen to communicate his humanistic research through the individual, makes this limit a quality. His strategy, once he has found the ‘right’ subject, consists of tackling it, following it, watching it until the moment arrives in which he manages to take it by the throat and transport the fraction of a second in which the short or long events of a life story, experienced and suffered, coincide with the fleeting moment that catalyses an essence and a personality, to film. These are rare moments, perceived as a kind of elective affinity between photographer and model, aimed at symbolising a life in the moment it vanishes. One of the essential characteristics of these rare moments is the fact of being brief. Like a musical diapason, they cannot be kept for long. What remains is a memory of something that belongs to the past. But the snapshot, which succeeds in capturing them, enables us to re-experience them in a kind of synthesis which incorporate the past in an eternalised present.
Banier experiences this activity of his as a pain, as the celebration of a mourning aimed at defeating death, while psychologically yielding to its inevitability. Photography, like writing, gives him the awareness that ‘it will never be like that again’, that ‘this moment has existed, but it’s beauty and perfection will never repeat itself’. He interprets his preference for black and white as a way to celebrate this mourning, and in this regard he quotes a wonderful phrase by Victor Hugo who, having practised as a photographer first and foremost during his exile on Jersey, knew what he was talking about: ‘even the shade of the whitest swan is black’. I venture to disagree. True, to the extent in which Banier seeks to depict not a human ‘type’ – that is to say, in the sense of the great French tradition inspired by Balzac – but precisely the person facing him in the moment when his personality succeeds in expressing its quintessence, he receives a testimonial that is unrepeatable and as such inevitably a thing of the past, and moribund. But at the same time, this frame offers the possibility of an extension, a continuation, a divination not only of the coincidence between past and future, and the fruits the tree may yet bear in a time which is therefore not merely cyclic – and as such bound for winter and death like every human being –, but which is part of a common project also from a cultural and historical point of view, and thus capable of an extension which gives our lives awareness. In fact, the photograph is not only text; thanks to its tradition it is also context, and thus I – whether author or spectator – may involve and compare it with my experience; and eventually draw deviant inferences, imagining a future in relation to these past and present moments. In short, I can imagine a future not on the basis of inevitability, but of freedom.
We have spoken of how Banier bases his work on one of the main characteristics of photography, namely its instantaneity. His work features two other fundamental elements: one consists of the historical and cultural pact sealed over the years in order to connect text and context, fragment and aggregate, frame and interpretation of reality. The other is associated with the analogous character of photography, which used to be a fact, but which – with the advent of digital media – has become a choice of field. We will come back to this later.
Every accomplished photographer knows that the fragment he tears from reality will necessarily sooner or later become part of a context, that is to say, it will be interpreted and enter in a history. In the face of this prospect he essentially has two basic choices: to limit the image himself through conceptual and/or style-related choices, or allow it to fluctuate more or less freely, accepting or provoking a certain openness offered both by the model, who may decide to interpret his or her own life in different ways, and by the photographer and others – us, the observers, the critics, but also new interpreters and potential visionaries. An illuminating comparison with respect to the problem of an open versus a closed attitude may be made between Banier and another great photographer of humanity, Henri Cartier-Bresson. In fact, Banier’s strategy of confronting past and present is in many aspects related to the ‘decisive moment’ of Cartier-Bresson’s great images almost always depict encounters between two contrasting situations as wealth and poverty, man and animal, lay and religious and so on. These encounters are often casual – and sometimes completely so for the model – meetings between two or more persons who, due to the very fact of being in the same frame, reveal the affinities and differences of a human, cultural and social condition, which a book would not suffice to describe. Also in his portraits of artists and writers, where the protagonists appear alone, Cartier-Bresson always alludes – counting on the fact that we do so too – to the profile and creative and social importance of his models. Behind them, behind their appearance, pose, expression, attire and attitude we always perceive their cultural destiny. True, these moments are fascinating, but because they turn a full circle, dressing the persons again, and illuminating the individuals in the light of their historical role. While the extraordinary formal equilibrium of Cartier-Bresson (attributable to the fact that his harmonious frames are based on the golden section, and that he refuses to cut the images once taken) should be interpreted as a homage to the dignity of what he photographs, it must also be considered a binding seal which impedes a different reading of the message.
In Banier’s snapshot-events, on the contrary, the individual is deprived of his social identity; we may say he finds himself, nude and crude, facing himself (his past and present): Banier’s ambition is precisely to manage to capture the most profound essence of his protagonists, the results of a lifetime, in a moment of mute compression in which we find united, in the fragment-snapshot, his story, his passions and the destiny which have formed them. It is in that moment that humanity – with or without a capital H, as we prefer – speaks, in the sense that the reconstruction of the context no longer depends on knowledge, or the composition of the image, but on the instinct of each of us: not on the book, on the role and so on, but on the fact that we, the spectators, identify with that kind of humanity. This mysterious harmony is not created when we know – or pretend to believe – that ‘Humanity’ exists, but when we manage to experience it, recognise it, relish it because we see it accomplished and proven in a particular human being, in which we unanimously recognise, even if on a physiological and physiognomical level, the essence and coherence of vibrations we share. It is hard to reconcile ourselves with this dialectic of universal versus particular – which so often makes us suffer, if we want to experience it all the way – but it is inevitable if we want to identify with the by now obsolete ideal which consists of wanting to be, and accepting to strive to become, more and more ‘human beings’.
To elicit this participation on our part – this emphatic interactivity – Banier adopts a strategy based on the open image: in other words, he renounces closing his photographs, his images in black and white that someone have defined ‘cruel’ but which are only sincere, perhaps crude rather than cooked to quote Claude Lévi-Strauss. More often than not, his models are placed in the centre of the scene, to appear as fascinating apparitions open to dialogue and confrontation. Banier himself is the first to invite us, with his example, to project the life of his models inside and outside the frame. His photographs are never finished: months and years later he picks them up again, looks at them and comments them with texts which he scatters everywhere, on the bodies and the clothes, but also in the background he has placed his models against. Some notes are like comments written in a diary to evoke past moments experienced together, some express true judgements, while others are illuminating, personal intuitions projected towards the future. They all manifest a desire to continue the dialogue, a whish not to limit a life within a snapshot, but to involve it in an exemplary process which is extended, revealing common human roots. Through it, also we project ourselves towards the reiterated staging of a total memory, the very one which made Mallarmé say: ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’.
In the same way as universal Humanity only exists through the verification of truly authentic existences, also great photography, writing, the novel and painting belong in the shade of the great work through continuous remakes and revisions – we are for instance thinking, par excellence, of Rembrandt’s etchings, which were continuously modified by the artist through a succession of states which reinterpreted the biblical fact through experience. This aspect makes it particularly interesting to compare, in the exhibition, Banier’s photographs in black and white with his photo-writings – the images we mentioned above, in which he comments his photographs – with his photo-paintings in which he adds colour to his snapshots, and with the paintings proper, inspired, and this comes as no surprise, by graffiti and Dubuffet’s art brut. Banier has been defined as a ‘great dilettante’, a versatile artist who has been, over the years, novelist, painter, drawer, actor, and certainly also man of the world in the sense that it would be hard to obtain such variegated official contacts as he must have had in order to photograph celebrities as different as those he has captured – from Mitterrand to Caroline of Monaco, from Andy Warhol to Vladimir Horowitz, from Salvador Dalí, his first mentor, Mick Jagger, Johnny Depp, Yves Saint-Laurent and so on – without belonging to the same circles. On the one side this idea of the great dilettante corresponds with the transgressive attitude of those who disagree with a bourgeois idea of professionalism – ‘I would rather be considered a taxi driver than a chauffeur’, Cartier-Bresson once said about himself – but on the other he manifests the attitude of someone who continues working on his photographs with other media, not because he considers them incomplete, but because he, like Banier, thinks that the world is recreated every day – as the future – and thus dedicates a part of himself to the continuation: in time and in space, and in a language different from photography.
We are able to believe in this perpetual metamorphosis because the process is based on a fundamental conviction – perhaps a magic and primordial conviction, but a fundamental one because it is scientific – and more precisely that photography, classical photography as Banier sees it, is not an illusion. In fact, the traditional photographic negative is not a virtual image, an electronic transcription of signs which correspond to bits of information which may be manipulated and altered at will, as in digital media, but an analogous equivalent, an imprint of a body which really exists at the moment it is photographed. It is inscribed, complete with all its physiological and physiognomic traits – including wrinkles, pores and delicious curves – on a negative-positive. Without that certainly Banier’s idea of humanity certainly cannot exist, because it is based on a correspondence between ideal humanity and physical humanity which endorses it.
For spectators like us, contemporaries suspended and, so to speak, submerged in the exaltation of artificiality and virtuality of the media – which by now makes it impossible to distinguish truth and falsity, authenticity and artificiality, humans and robots, women and dummies, and even reality and fiction – this encounter with a language like analogous photography, which records the imprint of a unique human being who testifies about himself, but at the same time about our idea of humanity, is a regenerating experience. And here we conclude, and thank François-Marie Banier who reminds us, through his images, what to do in order to be and become, in joy and sorrow, more human beings.
This text was written by Daniela Palazzoli, published by Mudima on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog François-Marie Banier which took place at the Triennale di Milano & Fondazione Mudima in Milan from the 6th of May until the 30th of July 2000.