Arid landscapes, an empty diner, a cowboy in action. With “The American Desert,” Raymond Depardon takes us on a road trip across the West, from Las Vegas to Hollywood studios to Alcatraz. The photographer paints a portrait of a strangely familiar America, the America of the early 1980s, which, in the minds of Europeans, reflects the colors of the American Dream. However, in the Lyon exhibition, the warm hues of Kodachrome that often adorn the United States of the Reagan era are not allowed. Photos done in deep and contrasting black and white reign supreme.
The eponymous book of the exhibition, the one that inspired the event, was released in 1983–one year after the accidental death of Olivier Froux, to whom the book is dedicated. The man was not only the editor of Raymond Depardon’s films, he was also his partner in crime and his friend, whom the photographer-filmmaker took on one of the three trips that gave birth of the images presented through November 14 at the Galerie Lumière. “We rented a car, we did the tourist thing. I had never done that before in my life,” recalls Raymond Depardon in the pages of the French newspaper Le Progrès.
In 1981, the year he went on this trip, the co-founder of the Gamma agency had already been to the United States several times. On his first visit, in 1963, when he was 21, he had been so eager to explore New York that he hadn’t brought back a single image. Five years later, he covered the Democratic National Convention, as well as the anti-Vietnam War protests and Nixon’s presidential campaign. And, in the early 1970s, he spent several months in Los Angeles, immortalizing movie stars such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
While Raymond Depardon is frequently remembered for his photographic and film work on the themes of justice (News Items, 1983), rural life (Farmer Profiles, 2001 to 2008) and mental health (San Clemente, 1982; Manicomio, 2013), the United States also has a special place in the work of the Magnum photographer. In 2018, the Rencontres d´Arles photography festival presented the exhibition “Depardon USA: 1968-1999,” which was accompanied by a book published by Atelier EXB, featuring some of the images currently on display at the exhibit in Lyon. That same year, Raymond Depardon returned to the France Culture radio broadcast to talk about his fascination with the wide open spaces of America. “Americans have always portrayed the desert as it is seen in the westerns. It is always a challenge to photograph the desert.” A challenge that Raymond Depardon took up brilliantly.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“Le Désert américain” [The American Desert], an exhibition of Raymond Depardon’s work at la Galerie Cinéma de l’Institut Lumière in Lyon, France. Through November 28, 2021.