Thomas Sauvin is one of the recurring names in today's vernacular photography. This French artist and long-time resident of China has given new life to negatives found in a landfill in northern Beijing through daring exhibitions and publications. A sprawling project that enables viewers to discover photographs of anonymous people from the Middle Kingdom.
In 2010, Thomas Sauvin bought a burlap bag containing approximately 15,000 negatives from a detention center in a district of Beijing. They were thousands of portraits of prisoners photographed from the front and the side (as required by protocol), as well as equally rigorously shot images of pieces of evidence, i.e. tools used for the crimes (mainly theft) and the various kinds of "loot." The objects are systematically placed next to a 3 cm ruler used to provide a sense of scale.
As the strips of negatives do not clearly reveal the link between the inmates and the objects, one can only hypothesize as to how they are connected. Did this young girl use a crowbar or pincers to force open a door? And did this man with the protruding forehead steal a bicycle or sell cigarettes under his coat? Ideas combine and viewers are tempted to establish a gallery of portraits with these faces kept at a distance by the past and the wear and tear on the negatives. But these portraits of criminals did come with the names of the convicts, as well as the date of their incarceration, so publishing them was a delicate matter. Thomas Sauvin therefore set the bag aside and slept on the idea for several years.
A "radiographic" book
It was at an artistic residency program organized in Portugal by publisher Void in 2019 that Thomas Sauvin eventually unveiled the collection of archives he had set aside for 10 years. With the help of a designer, he spent a week formalizing a new narrative process around a selection of 200 images, with a special focus on the photos of objects taken methodicallly by a photographer who will remain unknown and which surprisingly bring to mind Beauty of the Common Tool by Walker Evans. The opening pages of this book are disorienting. Rather than objects per se, instead there are shapes that are drawn like radiographs in silver ink on black paper.
As you leaf through the pages, the abstract shapes transform into recognizable objects such as keyrings, pliers, knives, and padlocks, while specifically Chinese goods also make an appearance: a Shanghai Forever bicycle, Chinese cigarettes, a compilation of music by Zhang Die (a somewhat forgotten star of mainland China).
All these objects are arranged methodically, with a certain refinement, even, which did not go unnoticed by Thomas Sauvin: "Vernacular photography is traditionally associated with non-artistic photographs, but based on what I've seen in my research, and particularly here with these pieces of evidence, I find that we can detect a thought process in the composition of the subject, an elegance in the approach of this anonymous photographer who obviously wanted to do his job well."
There is indeed an unspeakable beauty, both pragmatic and unexpected, that emerges from this little book. Entitled 17,18,19, in reference to those 3 little centimeters present in all the photographs, this book, like Thomas Sauvin's other ones, reveals a new aspect of his work and is a testament to the extraordinary malleability of these lost and found images.
By Léo de Boisgisson
Published by VOID
Text by Holly Roussell
224 pages, 45€