First comes the setting: a deserted or barely populated corner of a big city, the middle of nowhere, near a dark alley. The type of place that invites sordid events, that summons crime. For example, the vacant lots photographed by Mark Ruwedel at the edge of a large city in the 1980s. Or the visions captured in the late 1970s by Robert Adams in his beautiful series Summer Nights, which shows the garden of a wealthy villa at nighttime. The series brings to mind Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in which two assassins enter the splendid Clutter house and kill the whole family one by one… There is less violence in Brassaï’s urban landscapes of the 1930s’ Paris: two dark figures are chatting in an empty boulevard at night; snow covers a small square and there is not a soul in sight…
Photography is an art form conducive to storytelling. Contemplating deserted places, or those stalked by a solitary shadow, it is hard not to begin weaving a story featuring petty thieves or gangsters who rob or kill under the cover of the night. Sometimes, these places look like a theatre stage, as in Daniel Boudinet’s photographs of the 1970s Paris. Oftentimes, the places are uncanny, like in the image by René-Jacques showing clouds of vapor rising from a gutter even while the ground is sprinkled with snow. A bizarre tableau, almost surrealist, it spawns a wave of dreams, a fable of a woman who, walking home alone at night, gets her purse snatched…
Little by little, the figures take shape, the faces become clearer. Take for example the photograph by Paulo Nozolino taken in 1979 in Lisbon: An eye peers into the darkness. We can’t see the rest of the face, and have to guess what it might be like. It brings to mind a man, alone, as in the photograph taken by Klavdij Sluban aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway in 2008. The passenger looks out a small window and seems absorbed in intense meditation, perhaps a failed robbery plan; or perhaps he owes a huge debt to the mob and is running to the end of the world to cover up his tracks? Where do his thoughts take him as the train travels across Mongolia? Or the chauffeur photographed by Saul Leiter in 1955, what is he thinking about? What sort of conversation can he overhear in the back of his car?
And what about that woman hanging on to the handset in a phone booth in California photographed by Bernard Plossu in 1974? It is hard not to think of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas where the brokenhearted heroine gets lost in a big city. Similarly, the passersby captured by Ray K. Metzker in sublime black-and-white photographs, evoke anonymous vagrants, second-class citizens wandering aimlessly. Sometimes a face emerges, leaps out of anonymity and is thrown into the raw glare of the spotlight. Weegee has made it his specialty to capture criminals or corpses with his flash. He reveals the underside of a city where tales of the macabre, heists, and guns are spun.
Dolores Marat’s images are much more dreamlike. The photographer crosses paths with characters straight out of a movie. Take the “woman with a handbag” walking down the escalator at a metro station who brings to mind numerous plots. Or the “man in a hat” sitting in an empty cinema. These images further resonate with Miguel Rio Branco’s series Red and Blue With Horse, made between 1973 and 1974. We can barely make things out, but the mood is set for a film in which violence and passions are stirred in the colored haze of neon lights. Everything evokes scenarios, writing and human vanity… One photograph serves as an apt metaphor here: an image of Yasuhiro Ishimoto taken in Chicago in the early 1960s. It shows two newspaper pages tossing in the wind. These pages may contain some gory news items which, as their flight shows, will be reduced to nothing through the work of time and oblivion…
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Fil noir, Exhibition from the collection of the MEP
June 5 to August 25
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris