“Whenever I show the book, some people think they have a poorly printed or incomplete copy on their hands. Luckily, others understand that it reflects whatever they wish to project onto it.” When you put it like that, the presentation of Gaël Bonnefon’s latest book by publisher Céline Pévrier, founder of SUN/SUN, comes as something of a surprise. And, quite frankly, it is. The third publication of this Toulouse-based photographer subverts the codes of a traditional photobook. Its format, as if designed for children’s hands; the size of the images; the juxtaposition of black-and-white and color photographs; the importance of the text… set Aux jours inoubliables apart from other books in the genre. But why, then, might the reader be led to believe that this singular object is no more than a rough draft? To find out, we need to follow the author in the suspended time of contemplation.
Let’s recall the jeering, not to say scathing, comments made by the public about Kasimir Malevich’s White Square on a White Background (1918). Considered to be the first monochrome in contemporary painting, this work was no more no less than what its title suggested. It was the famous artist’s way of wiping the slate clean of figurative representation. And yet, photography still is held high among figurative arts. The Eighth Art often stands for the solid, the identifiable, the known, and the remembered. Aux jours inoubliables comes in to reframe photography and let the narrative breathe.
In this deconstructed family album, some images are missing. The quest for memory is then filled by the blank. But where Malevich filled his canvases with paint, Aux jours inoubliables doesn’t cheat. Here, the emptiness is very present, underscored by the trompe-l’œil of subtly tinted pages.
The straight and narrow
Bonnefon’s project is self-reflexive in its radicalism. The fruit of a residency in Ariège, Bonnefon’s childhood home, this work represents an amalgam of several elements. The images made by the photographer are juxtaposed with those of local children from this corner of southwest France. This gesture bridges the present moment and the past.
Aux jours inoubliables also brings together a range of talents: Bonnefon’s own, of course, those of his publisher, but also the contribution of the Greece-based graphic studio Typical Organization, whose expertise and input were decisive. “They came up with several variants,” recalls Bonnefon. “They clearly knew what they were doing, and that was very motivating. It was sometimes difficult to pair my images, taken over several years, with those from the residency. We ended up delivering a poignant work that leaves no one indifferent, whether the reader understands the premise or not.”
And then there’s the text, a rare element in this kind of exercise. Too often reduced to filling the empty space in photobooks with literary pretensions, it fulfills here its rightful role: that of creation. “During a residency in a convent,” explains the photographer, “I started reading the Old and New Testaments, rewriting passages in my own way, just for fun. For this book, I reused these passages and combined them with the words from children’s own letters written in Ariège, and extracts from the script of my previous film.” A bewildering mix that nonetheless corresponds to the book as a whole: words that remind us that this is a sensitive work that cannot be reduced to a concept. A path, or perhaps a dead end, that makes sense up front. Much more than a residency project, Aux jours inoubliables questions the status of the image as a clue. How much credit should be given to memories? Are these images real? Did these moments even exist? If they don’t resurface, why invent them? What if emptiness is the ultimate stigma of memory?
Gaël Bonnefon, Aux jours inoubliables, SUN/SUN, €35, 000pp.