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On the Road Together

For several years, photographer Arno Brignon embarked on a road trip across American cities named after European capitals. The project was carried out on film.

[Article to be enjoyed with music]

White lines as far as the eye can see against a mountain backdrop. In the mist, a car, the perfect American one, with familiar curves, pierces the image, in tough black and white tones. This photo could be by Robert Frank or Elliott Erwitt… Because it belongs to our collective universe.

As Arno Brignon is well aware, he’s not the first one to cruise on the endless roads of North America. The United States is perhaps the most photographed country in the world. From 2018 to 2022, he has been touring 12 cities named after historic European capitals. His series, presented at the Château d’Eau gallery in Toulouse, France, is an initiatory, intimate and documentary journey into the heart of the country.

Old friend

Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Lisbon, Paris, Athens, Brussels… All these European capitals have their little sister on the other side of the Atlantic. A proof of the historic link between the land of the Star-Spangled Banner and the Old Continent. When visiting these eponymous cities – most of them in the eastern United States -, Arno Brignon was like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years.

© Arno Brignon / Signatures
© Arno Brignon / Signatures

The photographer went deep into the depths of an America we don’t hear much about, where Madrid is a village of 300 souls “lost at the bottom of a canyon”, where the Lisbon of Maine is not the Lisbon of Florida. Through this symbolic route, one grasps the pulse of a “post-democratic society, at a time when populism and technocracy seem to be clashing just about everywhere in the West”, and face this country “born of European settlers who drove out the natives” that no longer speaks to itself. The United States is 10 years ahead of Europe in this premonitory mirror effect, for the better or for the worse. To look at this neighbor “is to look at ourselves, so strong are our ties”, says Arno Brignon, whose project was born out of the election of Donald Trump, “a shock”.

Brignon also wanted to understand what makes the Trumpist electorate tick, to understand the European heritage, to build a bridge between Europe and the United States to grasp the influence of this election on the old continent and the rise of populism. The circumstances of this trip provided him with some answers, not necessarily the ones he was expecting.

Photographic territory

Let’s face it. A road trip to the United States for a photographer is “not original”. Indissociable from photography and cinema, this territory has surely been the most captured by images. There’s no escaping the history of photography on these endless roads, in these motels with their rusty signs, in front of these landscapes and these inhabitants. At every corner, there’s a Robert Frank, a Dorothea Lange, the words of Kerouac, the shots of Sergio Leone, the voice of Johnny Cash… Arno Brignon accepts “these father figures of photography”, and makes his photography a tribute to this heritage of the image. There are references to Erwitt and his smoking locomotive, to the colors of Steve McCurry and Bernard Plossu.

Arno Brignon used out-of-date silver film on his various trips. “Strange things happen, chromatic problems appear, these accidents are part of the project,” explains the photographer, who is even offered an old 800-iso studio film by Sarah Moon, giving a dominant orange, western-sounding tone. One can then listen to these photos with Johnny Cash and Patti Smith on the sizzling car radio.

Lisbon dans l'état du Maine, Aout 2018. © Arno Brignon / Signatures
Lisbon in Maine, August 2018. © Arno Brignon / Signatures

“Family interfered with this project”

Like the weathered chroma of out-of-date film, the real soul of this project was born of an unforeseen event, or rather two. To preserve the unity of his family, damaged by his long and repeated absences, Arno Brignon had no choice but to work on this project as a family, with his wife Caroline and daughter Joséphine. “Otherwise I’d end up alone,” he jokes.

Photography is a solitary job. You feel, you meet, you wander, worrying only about yourself and your shutter release. “The family came along and interfered with this project. So we had to learn to look and see together,” admits the photographer. “It changed everything in terms of the photographer’s questions and encounters, and in a way it was my own deconstruction of the traveling photographer.”

« The subject is not outside, but inside me. The subject is us. »

© Arno Brignon / Signatures
© Arno Brignon / Signatures
Brussel dans l'Etat du Wisconsin, juillet 2022. © Arno Brignon / Signatures
Brussel, Wisconsin, July 2022. © Arno Brignon / Signatures
© Arno Brignon / Signatures
© Arno Brignon / Signatures

Over the course of four years, the small team made a series of trips, making concessions on the original route, taking a detour to New York and Chicago, before plunging into the endless, monotonous plains of the eastern United States. Lying by the window, her head resting on her hand, Joséphine stares into the lens, while the Stars and Stripes float discreetly behind the curtains. The family overturns the perspective, the initial project takes a back seat, and we find ourselves on an inner journey, where the territory is one of absence for the photographer, that of a computer scientist father long stationed on the other side of the Atlantic.

Like a long contact sheet, this project traces the itinerary of a family history, an unexpected introspective journey. “The presence of my family has been a lifesaver for the project, and I’ve made encounters I wouldn’t have made without them,” admits Arno Brignon. “These cities of the interior, banal, intimate, fragile, threatened by emptiness and disappearance, are ultimately no more than a metaphor. The subject is not outside, but inside me. The subject is us.”

“Us”, Arno Brignon, galerie Le Chateau d’Eau, Toulouse, France, until April 14, 2024 / “Rien à perdre”, Philémon Barbier, 2nd gallery, Le Chateau d’Eau, Toulouse, until April 14, 2024.

Copenhague dans l'état de New York, Juillet 2018 © Arno Brignon / Signatures
Copenhagen, New York, July 2018. © Arno Brignon / Signatures

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