More than any other art form, photography is intrinsically linked to intimacy, which, alongside autofiction, features as the theme of the 6th Festival du Regard. The history of the medium is indeed punctuated by authors who have taken their loved ones, family and friends, as models for their work. And sometimes life and work merge together because photography has the power to stop time and fix reality. It thus us allows to hold on to memories, the foundations of our humanity. This is what makes it a discipline in its own right.
The themes of intimacy and autofiction take on an added dimension in the context of the health crisis which, everywhere in the world, has compelled people to withdraw into themselves. But the pandemic makes here only one incursion into art, namely in the video and installation by Reda Eltoufaili, a student at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art de Paris-Cergy who is among the artists selected through a call for submissions.
The two artistic directors, Sylvie Hugues and Mathilde Terraube, have conjured up an exhibition that juxtaposes some twenty historical and contemporary artists using photography to call on others as witnesses. While self-portraits are numerous, every artist uses them in his or her own way. The most spectacular is the Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man by Hippolyte Bayard, dated 1840, the first in the history of photography. It was made one year after François Arago’s famous speech before the Academies of Sciences and Fine Arts, which named Daguerre as the father of photography. This portrait is “a cry of protest,” explains Sylvie Hugues, since the inventor of direct positives on paper intended to contest the fact that his process had been eclipsed.
As we make our way through the exhibition, we discover “Eleven Years,” a series in which Jen Davis recounts her daily life in images in order to learn to accept her obese body. While, for the American, the self-portrait plays a therapeutic role, for Alberto Garcia Alix it is only a part of his work, but one that recurs regularly. The Spaniard’s black-and-white pictures of friends, his own reflections and, more rarely, still lifes and architectural views, paint a portrait of the Movida era, which followed forty years of Franco’s dictatorship. For Alix, the self-portrait can take the form of his hand holding a pair of shoes. “Revisiting one’s contact sheets is a trip into the past, it brings memories to the surface.”
Franck Landron has been obsessed with photography since he was thirteen: he has been taking pictures the way he draws breath for over fifty years. The chronological frieze he himself installed contains over 270 photographs aligned back-to-back like frames in a film. It goes from high school friendships to the present, showing a life passing by with its joys and misfortunes. “Photography is for me like a diary, an anchor point. I think you have to photograph everything but not necessarily show everything,” said the photographer who defines himself as a collector of images.
At the Festival du Regard, emotion is the order of the day: we are touched by snapshots of life that echo our own existence. The exhibition gives pride of place to family stories: Araki’s honeymoon or Marc Riboud’s tender look at his daughter Clémence, who has Down’s syndrome. Riboud’s images are accompanied by the words of Catherine Chaine who describes the suffering and difficulties related to this disability.
Deanna Dikeman moves us with her photographic ritual conducted over 27 years. She shows her parents at the moment of leave-taking. We observe the passage of time, the aging, then the disappearance of her father, then of her mother. The narrative ends with a banal yet chilling image of the family home with its empty driveway. “This one was very difficult to take,” says the photographer.
In a clever blend of thrill and humor, the exhibition also includes a few treasures shown for the first time, such as a series of greeting cards signed by Robert Doisneau, who had his daughters, and then his grandchildren, pose for him throughout the decades. His images reveal the same playfulness we find in his face. Another form of self-portrait? Another year in a row, the Festival du Regard is not to be missed!
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Festival du Regard, October 1 to November 21, 2021. Old post office in Cergy-Pontoise, near the RER train station.