Marion Gronier does not mince images in We Were Never Meant To Survive, published by Le Bec en l’air. It is a demanding book, and a faithful reflection of the author’s rather fierce way of entering the history of portraiture. There are no frills or grins, but a poignant confrontation between the photographer and her subjects: Native Americans, Mennonites, African Americans.
We Were Never Meant To Survive opens with a quote from the writer James Baldwin (1924–1987), taken from an essay he wrote for Richard Avedon’s (1923–2004) Nothing Personal, published in 1964. It is no coincidence that Marion Gronier, 45, used this contemporary reference to share her journey in America. Even though, in her portraits of Native American, she first cites Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952) who photographed 80 tribal nations on the verge of extinction, between 1900 and 1930.
What was your starting point for We Were Never Meant To Survive? Was it Edward S. Curtis and his portraits which you consider “dangerously seductive”?
Edward S. Curtis’s portraits had haunted me for a long time, an obsession that stemmed from a childhood fascination with Indians. Then, in 2009, I had a chance encounter with Mennonites: a choir was singing a Capella in the New York subway. The contrast between their immaculate whiteness and the low, dark, dirty passageways was striking. I stopped, transfixed, and scrutinized each face one by one. Their strangeness troubled me, almost disturbed me. I kept these apparitions in my mind until I had the idea of setting them side by side with Native American faces and telling the story of the encounter between the two peoples who founded the United States. The Mennonites, about whom I had learned a lot in the meantime, could, in my opinion, be considered the spiritual heirs of the first settlers.
Why do you feel that Curtis’s work, which remains a rare iconography of the indigenous peoples — in addition to writings and recorded sacred songs — is misleading? Is it because the Indians are placed on stage and, once again, held captive?
Yes, that’s right. And I was seduced by these images. I wanted to propose a new, contemporary vision of these Indians. Not only because they are different today from what they were at the time — even if at the time they were already different from Curtis’s portraits — but also because my photography is different from Curtis’s: it doesn’t fall for the lure of romanticism or glamour, as we might say today. It wants to be frontal, with no concessions.
Nevertheless, these faces are also inevitably captive to my gaze, then to yours.
What is your connection to America?
North America has been another fascination, more adolescent than childish. American cinema was at the root of it; photography came later.
I don’t have an intimate connection with this country, but I keep being magnetically drawn to its capacity to inspire reverie even while making us indignant, to make us believe in a world better than ours even while flaunting the evidence of a fundamentally unjust and violent country.
In your text, you explain how much you wanted to “hold on to” these faces before they disappeared. This was also Curtis’s obsession.
Yes, for me, photography is a story of appearance and disappearance.
Are these portraits of Native Americans, Mennonites, and African Americans snapshots?
No, they are posed. Nevertheless, what I try to capture is very momentary, fleeting, it is a particular light in their eyes.
At the end of the book, you describe a rather tense face-to-face encounter. Does it reflect your experience on the Indian reservations in Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico, or the time you spent editing?
It was indeed a tense encounter. There was no aggression on either side, but there was a confrontation. As I describe it in my book, I said very little, and my silence made my models ill at ease, and myself as well. I was waiting for something to happen and this something could not be provoked by words; on the contrary, words would have spoiled everything. So there was a tension, and, retrospectively, I even think that it was this soft, silent tension, this suspense, that brought about what I was looking for.
Editing is a very important moment in my work, but it is not tense. I know what I am looking for, but it takes time to make sure I have found it. So, I do a first edit; I let myself be haunted by the faces, then I do a second pass, tighten things up, delete images that have lost their edge, that don’t haunt me anymore, and then I do a third and a fourth pass, maybe even a fifth. I don’t count them; I only want to keep the faces that never stop intriguing me. For me, the tighter the edit, and perhaps in that sense tense, the more accurate and satisfying it is.
Why did you choose Louisiana and New Orleans for the African American portraits?
I chose Louisiana for its history as a slave state. It is, of course, not the only slave state, but then the contacts I had there, who could welcome me and help me with my project, tipped the scales.
How were the shooting locations — the Indian reservations, Pennsylvania, Louisiana — important to you? You didn’t want the people you photographed to be identified by the location, which doesn’t appear in any of the portraits?
The spaces, i.e. the reservation, the Mennonite village, and the black neighborhood, more than the places, were important to me because they are three spaces of confinement, forced or chosen. Although they are not the focus of my work, which is portraiture, these spaces also tell the story of American history and society.
These spaces are represented metonymically in my portraits. The backgrounds to each of the three series are carefully chosen: the warm-colored, ochre, beige, or brown walls in the American Indian portraits remind us of the adobe dwellings of the “Pueblos”; the painted wooden walls of the Mennonite homes evoke their activity as farmers; while the painted, graffiti-covered brick walls belong to working-class neighborhoods, poor and therefore Black.
The earth tones of the Indian portraits speak to their relationship to the land, which is fundamental to their history and spirituality; the whiteness of the Mennonite images speaks to their ideal of purity; and the graffiti-scarred walls of the Black neighborhoods speak to the daily violence that permeates their lives.
Why color and not black-and-white?
To make it more real and to show the colors of the skin which are the basis of so much discrimination.
Interview conducted by Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she contributed to the fame of the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
An exhibition featuring these photos at agnès b., La Fabrique, 17 rue Dieu, Paris. November 11 to December 1, 2021. More information here.
James Baldwin video archives at Collectif James Baldwin.