François-Marie Banier is a photographer and a painter, and he paints on photographs, which should scarcely surprise us at a time when many artists readily hybridise media that we thought were separate and isolated in their modernistic independence. Yet since Baudelaire, in a famous text, gave photography the ancillary function of painting’s “humble servant”, the relations between the two media and their respective positions in the academic hierarchy of the arts has been tumultuous, even antagonistic. In his essay The Work of Art in the Era of Technical Reproducibility which dates from the late 1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote that instead of wondering if photography was an art, we should study how it modified painting. François-Marie Banier seems to prefer to reverse the question; asking how painting modifies photography. Or more exactly, how a photographic print can be a surface for a graphic and pictorial interventions drawn from both the fields of painting and writing.
From early adolescence, Banier took photographs to escape from the falsity of life, from stifling conventions and the asphyxia of meaningless routines, in short, as a breath of fresh air. “The camera”, he writes, “was a window”. A window which opened on to the incongruous, on to the impertinence of the real world, on to things that are “not done”, but are done all the same; opened on to a crowd of faces, bodies and backgrounds, poses and expressions and new experiences, taken from real life to be stored away as memories.
At first sight, his production since then could be roughly divided into two groups, which fit quite well into a certain historical idea of photography over the last half century: celebrities and outcasts, as if the in-between, that is most of us, did not count in the photographer’s eyes. On one side, Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, Isabelle Adjani and François Mitterrand, Françoise Sagan and Vladimir Horowitz; on the other, the nameless, the anonymous, the poverty-stricken and the destitute, beggars and tramps, living in the streets and lurking in doorways, scouring the rubbish bins and refuse heaps. High and Low, in keeping with a strict division followed by Weegee, Diane Arbus and many other admirable photographers from the last half-century. But unlike his prestigious peers, mostly American, and therefore both fascinated by celebrity and revolted by the inequalities of their society, Banier, although his father was Hungarian, was born in Paris and fits into a completely different photographic tradition which is typically French.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he photographed, is no doubt a major reference here, with his theory of “the decisive moment”. However, Banier applies this magic moment, the ideal image, which Cartier-Bresson said was almost the peak of dramatic tension, to a much longer period: indeed, for a face to reveal its truth to the lens, the photographer must sometimes wait for month or even years, ready to pounce on the magic moment, the revelation of the being. What when strikes the photographer’s eye as “decisive” is sometimes the surprise of something he was no longer waiting for, the sudden eruption of the unexpected, a miracle that long familiarity with the “model” had made us despair of. Banier’s most successful portraits testify to this tenacious patience, this attentive relationship, this long-term exchange.
This is no doubt why all these faces, that we see not in black and white but as if greyed by a long association, do not make up an official portrait gallery, and even less the archive of some paparazzi or other, but almost a family album in which time has laid its strata over the photographic film, like the alluvia of anecdotes, stories, conversations and shared experiences: an intimate layer of silver salts.
As for the shots of the poverty-stricken and the destitute, the “miserable”, “nameless ones”, far from having the social or political impact of the photos of a Lewis Hine or Eugene Smith, they are part of another tradition, French as well, which goes back to Eugène Atget and Brassaï and runs right through the Surrealist movement: these photos give a discreet, allusive glimpse of the sometimes enigmatic poetry of everyday life, its uncanny nature which escapes rational analysis, a sort of romantic vision of the street, the tangible projection of the photographer-writer and therefore of the spectator. Neither can one help wondering about the tender and sometimes painful mystery of these lives which cross for a moment then vanish for ever, withdrawn into their world.
So much so that Banier could no doubt take as his own these few sentences from Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Martereau: “I do not believe in chance encounters (I am obviously talking only about those that count). We are wrong to think that we bump into people in a hit and miss way. I have always felt that we ourselves make them materialize: they appear just at the right time, as if tailor-made, on command, responding (though often we do not realise it until much later) to needs in us, to sometimes unavowed or unconscious desires.”
Nathalie Sarraute, the novelist of “nascent feelings” as she wrote in Tropismes, was photographed by Banier on several occasions. I believe she offers us a perceptive way of understanding the writing the artist puts on his photos. Anecdotes, tales, dialogues, a romantic vision—all these terms refer of course to the writing of fiction. And, for more than thirty years Banier has been writing novels, and plays…; yet he also places isolated words on his photos (“relief”, “surface”, “figure”), scraps of longer fiction (“They say any old thing”, “and if she hates me, what can I do about it?”), confidences (“I forget nothing”), proverbs and mottoes (“Daily life is a moot point”, “Avoid regrets like the plague”), extracts from letters (“My dear Yves,…”), or from diaries (“I saw her with Fidel Castro and Kate Moss”), tragic-comic anecdotes, bits of dialogue (“Please stay, Shrimpie, please”), captions (“trees”, “zone of sorrow”, “abandoned hand”, “tear fastening”), lines of poetry (“the birds had blue eyes that night”), telegraphic notes, chains of words reminiscent of the Surrealists’ automatic writing (“sleep in peace / smoke without fire”), etc., all written very freely, the letters scribbled across the photo; and various types of inscription which I would like to focus on for a moment.
Sometimes Banier fills in what could be called the bare patches of the photographic image with neat, close lettering; the writing crawls patiently around the “subject” or “subjects”, black on white or white on black, as if he were writing on a book with uneven pages (see Louis Aragon or Le canapé de Picasso). We then read an anecdote, a memory, or perhaps longish extracts from a story, a novel or correspondence, the essence of which eludes us.
Sometimes, as on the very beautiful painted photo called Lucinda Childs, short texts appear in the same bare patches, accompanied by illustrations, sketches, little caricatures, “naive” and humorous drawings which, like a picture book emptied in a heap, make up a mysterious rebus in several dimensions, written on the black areas of the photograph as if chalked on a blackboard, or like a curious etching. The photo here becomes a sketchbook which, like Delacroix’s famous notebooks, mingle essays and sketches, lettering, notes scribbled from life, but never follows the schoolbook rules of a “page of writing” which goes steadily from left to right and from top to bottom. Taking fantasy a little further, one could even consider Banier’s lettering on his photos or canvases as the work of a mischievous, rebellious child sarcastically cocking a snook at all the rules of proper writing and even spelling (ça becomes sâ; raté becomes râté, etc.). a deliberate desire for regression, which also shows in the “lack of application” in drawing, the “messy” painting, “unfinished” pictures, the “things not done” which, there too, are done all the same. It is a stirring challenge to the norm, the rebellious desire to stand up against faceless conventions, wherever they come from, to flout them and at the same time replace them with the whim of the moment, with the anarchic irruption of the thousands of faces we carry within us.
Sometimes, as in the 1998 Autoportrait, the writing is coloured and so uneven as to be almost illegible, talking over almost the entire photograph, masking it with its rhythms and energy. Only the eyes of the hooded figure manage to pierce the screen of crazy calligraphy, the feverish swarm of letters, strokes and blots which masks for a second time the subject of the work: that is, the artist himself. Here the value of the lettering is its plastic function; it is no longer simply carries a “message”; the writing itself conveys energy, it is the embodiment of acts, action, the instant imprint of a state of mind, of a fleeting emotional tone, “nascent feeling” as Nathalie Sarraute wrote.
In the old days, photographs used to be painted on for three clearly separate purposes: spotting, touching up and colouring. Spotting was, and still is, a way of correcting tiny defects in a print by means of a very fine paintbrush. Touching up was used to highlight some detail or other in the print. Colouring was a way of turning a black and white photo into a coloured picture by adding watercolour in large, clearly defined areas. Benier sometimes touches up his photos to accentuate a shape or correct facial features, but his intervention is always clearly visible, and legible, suggesting a compulsive transformation, an inspired metamorphosis, rather than an unobtrusive skilled alteration. And when he colours a photo, far from respecting the original shape of the image, Banier more often tries to destroy it. The effect is a desacralisation of the photographic image, a vengeful and perhaps raging iconoclasm. Rather than adorn, decorate, enhance—in a word, highlight the photographic icon with his brushes, Banier instead attacks it, as if he were wielding a knife (itself one of the artist’s tools) instead of a brush. Hence, no doubt, the curious impression we have when he look at his painted photos, as if a window pane had come between the spectator and the intact black and white print, a pane which the artist had scribbled and painted on…
In fact, except for film, photography is the plastic medium which offers the greatest illusion of reality, especially the illusion of depth and relief; but when surface effects are superimposed on it—writing in particular, which draws us back irresistibly to the flatness of the page, but also the “frontal” nature of Banier’s painting—the painting seems to come unstuck, and “to move away” from its photographic base. The effect of a pane of glass treated with whiting is nowhere more present in Banier’s work than in the large work titled Claude Lévi-Strauss. Le Brestalou, août 1998, in which the photo is almost obliterated by broad white brushstrokes. One might ponder the meaning of this effacement which substitutes mysterious, almost primitive, lettering for the image of the famous ethnologist…
Moreover, the intrusion of writing into photography leads us to a different notion of time: we were in the purely visible, with an immediate grasp of the image, and suddenly the legible takes over, imposing the implacable diachronism of its syntagmata. Suddenly the silence of photography is broken by another system of signs: language. Logorrhoea, babble, injunctions, murmurs, slogans, cries, whispered vows, burning declarations, reproaches, prayers, sorrows: all the metamorphosis of the artist’s own life in words that scratch, lacerate and slach the photographic surface, which was too smooth to be true. There too, with the effect of an enigma, an eternally unfinished fragment, writing undermines the false truths of the candid image, giving it a temporal depth it never had before. The photograph, which freezes time and takes a sample of reality, then slides towards its blurred edges, towards the areas out-of-frame, which cannot be seen but can be expressed in words. It then takes part in an account of a meeting, a sentimental tale; then moves towards the intimacy inherent in all photography, the power of which Banier has grasped while throwing us a few clues about his secrets.
“I do not believe in chance encounters”, the artist could therefore say with Nathalie Sarraute. In a premonitory way, the author of Tropismes evokes Banier’s painting of words and signs in Martereau, a novel published in 1953 (when Banier was six): “sorts of very rapid signs containing all that, summing it up—like a brief formula which caps a long algebraic reasoning, which expresses a series of complicated chemical combinations—such briefs signs which slip into him, into me, so quickly that I could never manage to understand them, to grasp them. I can only find snatches and translate clumsily into words what these signs represent, fleeting impressions, thoughts, feelings often forgotten which have piled up over the years and are now drawn up like a huge powerful army behind its banners, regrouping, starting to march, about to surge forward…”
For there is certainly a surge in this raw, sometimes brutal painting made of “fleeting impressions” and “nascent feelings”, ephemeral “tropisms” where it would be vain to seek the least rational order, the least logical continuity apart from the sovereign urging of the subconscious. It is rather about painting with neither beginning nor end, submerged in a private, autobiographical world, entirely absorbed in the act of recording itself, by the present moment in its execution, the instant of its accomplishment and, equally, the inscription, obviously much later, of scraps of text. It is painting without second thoughts, or “repentance”—either pictorial or religious—subjected to the sincerity of the act, to the force of emotion, to the dictates of impulse. Is it medium paintings? No doubt, because the artist is here the oracle of his private world, a clairvoyant seeking hidden truths, a compass drawn by the magnetic fields of his subconscious.
And among these magnets whose coloured forms come to light or, better still, cling to the canvas like iron shavings, are the crowds of faces drawn rather than painted, sketched rather than drawn, so fast that they become funny, ghostly figures, like sleepwalkers, sometimes in enigmatic clusters, turning their great questioning eyes on the spectator like carnival masks, hooded men, troubling spectres, pallid-faced ghouls, voodoo dolls or African effigies: is the picture really the house of happiness, and are these sprites staring at us because they have just noticed us, and our unhappiness?
“I do not know the rules of painting, but who knows the true measure of sorrow?” Banier asks. So for him, the picture is a “repair area”—words written vertically on a recent painting—a place for repairing the damage of time and inner wounds, an arena for the ephemeral, a trap to catch the fleeting image, the fugitive’s collar grasped in extremis, an enclosure for lost time which can no longer flee, but is caught, stuck down, frozen in this pictorial remembrance, the essence of which is, quite clearly, photographic.
Translation: Isabel Ollivier
This interview was conduced by Brice Matthieussent on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog Fotos y pinturas which took place at Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires from the 17th of april until the 21th of may 2000.