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Mystery Street by Vasantha Yogananthan: Louisiana Through a Child’s Eyes

At the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan presents Mystery Street, the fruit of a three-month residency in Louisiana. Children’s games, heat, idleness: by capturing the moment, his images focus on movements typical of an age when everything changes.

It’s an exhibition at a child’s eye level, a eulogy to movement, to the moment, to what photographer Vasantha Yogananthan calls “impermanence.” On view until September 3 at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, Mystery Street retraces the artist’s peregrinations around New Orleans, where he took up residence for three months as part of a support program run by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès.

The result is an uncluttered work, attentive to detail, color, and facial expression: a reflection in a puddle by the curbside; a tree leaf being pushed through a loop in a wire fence; fingers running through the hair to comb it back; or a plump hand embracing a playmate or a brother. The work focuses on the here-and-now: the emotion that floods the face for a second, the fleeting shadow that briefly clouds the gaze.  

This isn’t the first time this French photographer has taken an interest in preadolescence—an age when everything changes so quickly. Ten years ago, one of his first series, Piémanson, shot on a Camargue beach, recounted these evanescent moments just as the moment, barely captured, had already passed. In contrast to this transience, Yogananthan takes his time in this series. He often travels several times to the same location, and several years separate his different projects. He obeys the temporality of analogue film: this technical aesthetic process implies slowness, a delay in unveiling. It also implies immersion: in order to get up close to his subjects and gain their acceptance, the photographer has to blend into the background, avoid sudden movements. He must disappear. 

© Vasantha Yogananthan
© Vasantha Yogananthan

So why Louisiana? Because there “the child becomes a living metaphor for the body of the city,” write exhibition curators Agnès Sire and Clément Chéroux. In a land still traumatized by Hurricane Katrina of 2005, the notions of the ephemeral and the transitory do not have the same meaning as elsewhere. What’s more, the city now faces the threat of the rising sea levels due to global warming, and people are acutely aware of their own lack of stability, their fragility, and “impermanence.” A new generation is growing up in this half-ruined environment, ever in danger of total destruction: the children’s games are both more serious and more triumphant than ever. 

Yogananthan came without any set expectations: he is not one of those who try to fit their photos into a preconceived idea of reality. For him, the camera is a learning, rather than assertive, tool. Winning the children’s trust meant letting his guard down, accepting that he too was unstable, uncertain, and constantly experimenting. He pays homage to this relationship: his young partners in adventure are named at the entrance to the exhibition; this is the only information available, since no captions accompany the photographs.

© Vasantha Yogananthan
© Vasantha Yogananthan

The strength of this humble body of work lies undoubtedly in its discretion: Yogananthan avoids the spectacular. Fans of dramatic poses, staging, and other tricks of the trade are advised to give it a miss. His photos shine with a different, more toned-down, delicate brilliance. But the color is omnipresent: vivid patterns spun into a blur on a carrousel; a pair of denim in garish orange; the yellow of a freshly painted fence; the hula-hoops; a flowerbed against a car with gleaming metal handles…

Mystery Street teases out the exceptional out of the everyday, the extraordinary out of the banal, in games ever repeated and constantly reinvented. Yogananthan’s work never idealizes anything: faces are sometimes cut off by extremely tight shots, scenes are blurred, unflattering low-angle shots are used, there is dripping sweat, grimaces, and gazes lost in the distance… But what emerges from these scenes is the beauty of an age when the self develops in the collective, with and through the other, as in a mirror image; an age when one has the formative experience of otherness. Because of, and despite, having nothing better to do. 

Vasantha Yogananthan, « Mystery Street », Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 79 rue des Archives, 75003, Paris, France, until September 3.

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