Un village — a book and an eponymous exhibition — sheds light on twenty years of life and work of the French-American photographer Madeleine de Sinéty. In the 1970s, she documented in color the day-to-day routine, community events, and intimate life of the residents of a rapidly changing small town in Brittany, France.
A self-taught photographer and a graduate of the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Madeleine de Sinéty spent forty years observing the daily lives of inhabitants of rural regions around the world. In the early 1970s she fell under the spell of a small village in Brittany that brought back memories of her childhood in the countryside. Located about 40 miles from Rennes, and home to 500 inhabitants, Poilley consists of stone masonry houses centered around a granite bell tower, with about twenty farms scattered around the village.
Time seems to have stopped there. On a whim, between 1972 and 1981 Madeleine de Sinéty made the village her home. Very quickly, she befriended several families, tirelessly photographing their work and daily goings-on. From time to time, she would invite everyone to a slide show. Pews were transported from the church and set up on the clay floor of the village hall to make room for everyone gathered to view, amid shouting and laughter, their own lives and daily work, astonished to find them so beautiful.
In 1981, de Sinéty left Poilley to live in the United States with her American husband, Daniel Behrman, whom she had married in 1978. They lived in California before moving to Maine, where she as part of the Maine Photo Workshop, alongside famous photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Lucien Clergue, and Arnold Newman, all the while pursuing personal projects. Mary Ellen Mark, one of Madeleine de Sinéty’s mentors, shortly before her death wrote the introduction to the catalogue accompanying the 2011 Portland Museum of Art exhibition of de Sinéty’s images of rural Africa, Europe, and America.
A fruit of patient observation and close relationship with her rural subject, the photographic archive of the Breton village, its residents, and the epoch, assembled by de Sinéty, is one of a kind. She tenderly portrays an old-fashioned France, a village, a community, with its rituals and its ceremonies: a village festival, a soccer game in the mud, apple picking, a math class, pig butchering.
Madeleine de Sinéty produced 33,280 color slides and 23,076 black-and-white negatives, as well as several hundred diary pages. One can see the intimate and familiar quality of the relationships with the people she photographed and the rich and diverse encounters she made in Poilley.
De Sinéty died in 2011, before she could organize her own archive. The GwinZegal Art Centre in Guingamp had to proceed without her, and collaborated with her son, Peter, on arranging her images to pay tribute to her work. Her oeuvre is neither that of a photographer fulfilling a commission nor that of an anthropologist, but rather that of an artist simply sharing the life of a tightly knit community, a rural microcosm inching toward modernity.
Madeleine de Sinéty, Un village
September 18, 2020 to January 17, 2021
Centre d’art GwinZegal
4 Rue Auguste Pavie
Book published by Éditions GwinZegal