Relaxed, or wired, as the case may be, Thomas Boivin welcomes visitors at his studio with unconcealed pleasure and a love for natural coffee. Belleville, which he calls his “true” second book, has just come out: it is remarkable for its eloquence and a kind of reserve rare in Boivin’s generation. “It’s about nothing, and I absolutely love it. I wanted to escape any explanation.” He smiles with barely hidden satisfaction as he contemplates his book, free of any text, not even a caption, with its Yves-Klein-blue jacket like a child’s drawing—a simile that is quite befitting. With a print run of 1,000 copies, Belleville benefited from the attention of an English publisher, Stanley/Barker, founded by Rachel and Gregory Barker in 2004. “The ‘Anglosphere’,” comments Boivin, “that’s already all the continents.”
Born on June 19, 1983, in Saint-Mandé (Val-de-Marne), this photographer disturbs the peace, and the status, of the image with fifty-two B&W photographs taken in a seemingly well-trodden territory: the Belleville district of Paris. The photos are all the more unsettling that Belleville isn’t really the subject. There is nothing here to evoke the past; we are light years away from Willy Ronis (1910–2009) and his man with a suitcase on the steps of Rue Vilin (1950); nor is there any question of a bygone Paris. Down with nostalgia, only the present matters! Here is an inside witness to the life of this 20th arrondissement neighborhood, as endearing as ever.
And it is this present, this terrible presence, that is embodied in the portraits, still lifes, and landscapes taken freehand in medium format (there is also a photograph taken with a view camera, go and find it!). “Fantasized about for so many years, this book doesn’t come out of nowhere,” stresses the photographer. “I think it is faithful to the work. If there are moments of clumsiness, they belong more to the work than to the book; and in this sense I am very happy. But, at the same time, the book no longer belongs to me, it has an autonomy.”
So what is Belleville about? In a nutshell, what’s the story? No, not a story, protests the author (“certainly not!”); rather, “a relationship to the world that does not impose itself, that is lived in the image.” It’s a relationship nourished, among other things, by the heritage of his American predecessors, such as Robert Adams and Mark Steinmetz, who enjoy “an incredible relationship to the world, and that’s something that can only be experienced and conveyed by the form, it cannot be declarative.”
Populated by unknown passersby who look like us—at once throbbing on the inside and quietly looking away—Belleville must be read in silence. This is gentle, mysterious photography that does not as much show as urges us to think—hence its singularity. Belleville is therefore not a geographical notebook, even less a practical exercise, but an in-depth portrait (photographs taken between 2012 and 2020) of a young, “a bit dull, opinionated” young man, who became at his own pace a sociable original.
Thomas Boivin, Belleville, Stanley/Barker, 100 pp., €49.
Photographer’s website here
Publisher’s website here
Thomas Boivin has two ongoing exhibitions: One in Brussels, organized jointly by Fondation A and the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, until June 26.
The other in Paris, at Douches la Galerie, until July 23, where you can buy (very beautiful) gelatin-silver prints and the book Belleville.
To learn more about Willy Ronis and the man with the suitcase at Rue Vilin, see Ce jour-là, a wonderful photobook published by Mercure de France in the Traits et Portraits collection directed by Colette Fellous.