“To photograph is to confer importance”.
Susan Sontag

 

Narrating stories while the mystery remains

No matter how close the eye of the camera comes up to the people in François-Marie Banier’s photographs, they retain their mystery. What for instance do we know about that woman who brought the whole of her eroticism to play in the middle of the streets one sunny June day in Paris in 1994? Doubtless many viewers, both male and female, would say she is past her prime: why display a body that is anything but immaculate? And the same people would call the way she bares herself frivolous or perhaps even obscene. But such a judgement would sorely miss the point as to what exactly it is that fascinates the photographer. And it overlooks the woman’s indisputable dignity. This dignity is to be found in her composed, sceptic gaze, which contains all the highs and lows of a life truly lived. The bearing of her head, her bent, slightly tensed arm, every curve of her body, reveal an inner stance that is saying: “Look at me, I am here in the fullness of my life and I am ready to give it all if required.” Even if her costume points to the contrary, this Josephine Baker of the streets is certainly no easy customer. It would take some willpower to address her, precisely because she has laid herself bare in this manner. Banier shows this woman, whose class background can only be surmised, as a modern heroine, and that is her mystery. All of her experiences, which have led to our encountering her as she presents herself now, remain outside the picture; we know nothing about them. But the woman’s presence is surrounded by an aura of countless stories that extend back into the past but also into the present.

Another woman: armed with helmet, sunglasses, heavy-duty garments and boots, is about to take her dainty dog for a walk. The way this Roman woman masks herself is no less meaningful for us than the way the Parisienne bares herself. Once again we are confronted with the concerted force of her life experience, although what she conveys is not fullness but the anxiety of being hurt and humiliated. We recall the countless women in wartime who covered their bodies in rags out of the justified fear of being raped. But what induces a middle-aged woman in the southern metropolis to cut herself off like this from the proximity of others in broad daylight? We shall never discover the answer.

And what – to take a third person – moves that pensive wanderer who chanced across the photographer’s path near the Elysée Palace? Over the years Banier encountered her time and again, until one day he followed her and discovered that she lived in a makeshift dwelling in a park. A figure whom he once described as “a veritable church, a monument.” Once again we are faced with a mystery we are unable to unravel, one that is truly propelled into the world by the photograph.

With each mystery that Banier’s works give us to ponder, a chasm of possible experiences opens up, a forest full of voices which ceaselessly clamour to be heard. For François-Marie Banier is not only a photographer, he is also a novelist – and as a photographer he is always a narrator. It is evident that he chiefly spends his time in the metropolises, in places that afford space and refuge to people who have left the well-trodden paths of middle class life, whether of their own free will or through a calamitous event that made all return impossible. Not that Banier has to actively search; he comes across the fringe figures who populate this book as if as it were the most natural thing in the world, because the way he looks at others is informed by a deep humanity coupled with respect. Nowhere would even the slightest accusation that the photographer assumes the position of a voyeur stand scrutiny. Admittedly he never asks his protagonists whether they actually wish to be photographed, for this question would radically alter the character of his shots. Walker Evans, for instance, only managed to produce his inimitable Subway Portraits (1938-41) by working with a concealed camera. Yet Banier does not really conceal his photographic activity; he is assured of the gratitude that the people will show when they become aware of the photographer: gratitude at being chosen.

The doorman at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum: which visitor would pay him so much attention? The homeless man who has parked his mobile crate-cum-home in Rue Saint-Martin: he returns the photographer’s gaze with a self-assured smile, as if meeting an old friend. And that slight figure of a man in his over-sized suit, whom Banier encountered 1994 in Venice while on his way to see Marlon Brando: isn’t he revealing all of his forlornness to his opposite number in a heart-rending moment of trust? Consciously or otherwise, many of the people on whom Banier sets his eye appear to sense the irretrievable moment that documents once and for all their presence in this world.

 

 

Modes of Approach

 

Even if Banier’s photographs convey a certain homogeneity in their depiction of the subjects, on closer inspection we find a whole range of modes. Let us take for instance the ageing gentleman dressed up in a suit and waistcoat, complete with hat and umbrella, who has stopped amidst the teeming traffic on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. The stream of cars has made crossing the road difficult, so that his momentary wait becomes an interminable period of torture. Time appears to have come to a standstill beneath his feet. Fifty years ago, as Banier well knows, this man’s demeanour was a vital part of middle class Paris, and was accompanied by specific standards and a large canon of regulations that determined the social order. August Sander already outlined the prototype of such a demeanour in his own photographs. In the Paris of 1992 this bearing seems almost tragic: like an obsolete attempt to rescue traditional bourgeois standards from across the passage of time. And yet – as is also shown by the photograph – nothing seems able to ruffle the man’s composure, the bustle of the boulevard does not really touch him. Thus his presence seems both pitiable and comic.

When Banier trains his camera on the participants at a demonstration against the commercial exploitation of animals by the meat industry, he unexpectedly detects a demonic trait and lurking violence beneath the cow mask. Here he trades a gaze that loves humankind for one that is as incisive as a scalpel. And this applies no less to the fanatical Le Pen supporter who does not shy from using her dachshund as a vehicle for propaganda.

By contrast, he clearly relishes the picture presented by the gay clad in chains, who displays his personal obsession with the greatest self-confidence at the Gay Parade, and the same is true of the drollness of that trusting senior citizen in the small town of Sommières. No less apparent is the deep respect he shows for the magnificent concierge who, unconcerned by her domestic garb, displays her poodle with pride. When he discovers the former policeman performing his charity work among the whores of Pigalle, there is a secret agreement about the comedy of the situation which his opposite number willingly enters into. And the two naked men are not the least bit shy of presenting their ripe bodies to him in the bathroom in Atlanta. Perhaps the two men will have sex once the photographer has left, who knows?

However deeply embedded these different characters are in their heterogeneous and often contradictory social milieus, Banier’s camera always finds a way to approach them and pinpoint the uniqueness that sets them apart from thousands of others. Sharp-sightedness goes hand in hand with the ability to discover the comic element in the banal and with a respect for human dignity. It should be noted that the photographs of marginal figures shown in this book represent only a modest, albeit highly eloquent part of an extensive body of work that includes any number of contemporaries, extending from Samuel Beckett to Vladimir Horowitz and from Silvana Mangano to Johnny Depp. Simultaneously, the portraits of these nameless people underline all the more Banier’s continuing interest in the diversity of human life.

Diane Arbus once said: “You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” It would be hard to suggest that Banier is immune to such flaws. But this kind of seeing is absorbed in his case by a boundless, far-reaching desire to discover the person amidst the banal and the outlandish: the entire spectrum of human sentiments and emotions, all those unspoken stories that have worked their way into their gestures, their bodies and their bearing.

 

The Precarious Balance

A number of photographs could perhaps be entitled “Scenes from Damaged Lives.” We see an amputee, a former soldier resting somewhere on a patch of grass in Miami. We see the tiny child in a remote corner of Salvador in Brazil, left alone before an enormous house door. We see the nun in an old peoples’ home in London, and picture to ourselves how she was once surrounded by stressful duties aimed chiefly at serving others. Nothing remains but the loneliness of old age. The concern here is with people who have not much to expect from life, and who are all marked by the injustices that have ineluctably descended on them. Yet in Banier’s work it is precisely these people that stand out from the masses like lighthouses; the photographs tell us incessantly: “This man or this woman, or this person or that person also counts, and counts no less than any one of us.”

We see the back of a man who has had the words “I hate you…” tattooed on his skin, and we see that other tattoo in which a shattered submachine gun is pieced together to form a new symbol, the five-pointed star of liberty: two answers to all adversity, emanations of the defiant will to master your fate, however harshly it has treated you. It is precisely these photographs, where marginal life is brought into focus, that show us the theme that has constantly preoccupied François-Marie Banier: the human condition. And this permanent questioning places Banier and his work in the ranks of those great photographers who have tackled the selfsame theme, not least August Sander, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, to name but a few. The question about the prerequisites of being human is posed only by those who can draw on the necessary experience. And Banier has the experience, for without it his photographic oeuvre could scarcely develop that awareness of a person’s fragile condition that radiates from every shot.

“When I take photographs”, says Banier, “it is much the same as when I write. I write because of the wound inside. I have struggled to cope with that wound, ever since I was five, say, or twelve. And everything that emerges while writing when one is thirty or older is ultimately fed by this pain. So all of my photographs are filled with impressions and experiences that I had much earlier on, or with people who I already got to know years ago.” This statement gives an indication of what it is that fascinates the photographer, and explains why over the decades he has succeeded in sifting out his subjects from thousands of others, regardless where he is.

Let us conclude with the woman whom Banier saw in Calcutta in 1988. She is anything but an outcast who has landed on the fringes of society. Her ornate jewellery, her floral dress, co-ordinated as it were with the fabrics in her room, her well-tended complexion – everything seems to point to a situation in life in which she wants for nothing. There can be no doubt that in her younger years the woman was a beauty, a diva, a seductress. But, to put it bluntly: those years are well and truly over. However, the makeup that has been carefully applied to her eyes and her carefully pencilled eyebrows tell us something else: a desperate rebellion against the ravages of physical decline. Surrounded by this makeup is a pair of mournful, indeed mourning eyes through which the unvarnished tragedy of growing old is conveyed. In keeping with this, her gaze is a knowing one as it looks steadily into the future that is left for her, and correspondingly there is a certain tenseness to her hands as they grip her handbag a little more firmly than necessary. A tiny detail in this photograph that appears more by accident acts like the lemma in an emblematic context. The word “age” can be read on the strap of her handbag – nothing more in fact than a fragment of the brand name, but for the beholder this brief word sums up the entire meaning of the photograph.

On the Edge refers not merely to life on the fringes of society, far removed from regular incomes or the support granted by a family or a loved one. It can also mean that the lives of others unexpectedly proceed a little faster than one’s own. The woman in Calcutta exemplifies this, as does the man on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Every man and every woman, and in fact every child anywhere in the world can end up on the edge when, for instance, something intensifies to become a kind of stigma. At times, as we learn from Banier’s works, it is no more than a small tick, a quirk belonging to the outsider, sometimes a physical affliction, age itself, a stroke of fate or quite simply adverse social circumstances. But the photographs also convey the complementary experience, that revolt against force majeure that is necessary if one is to be human. Almost all of the protagonists in Banier’s work have this power, even if it is simply the silent acknowledgement that life goes on and one must go along with it – come what may. It is the way in which this precarious balance between stigma and rebellion is caught by the camera that makes these photographs so unmistakable.

When life on the paradisal island of Tahiti eventually became hell on earth for Paul Gauguin, he summoned his strength once more in 1897 and painted that pictorial bequest that took humanity per se as its theme. It bears the title: Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? Each and every one of the people that Banier sets eyes on and captures almost in passing with his camera has these questions written all over their face. That is what makes the photographs so significant for us – we who yet again have got off so lightly.

Narrating stories while the mystery remains

by Martin Hentschel


This text was written by Martin Hentschel, published on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog On the Edge which took place at the Krefelder Kunstmuseen, Museum Haus from the 13th of june until the 3rd of october 2004.