Raymond Depardon is one of the most respected French photographers, and for good reason. He tells the stories of those who never make the news. Before photographing them, he spends time getting to know them and earning their trust. His intimate images tenderly portray their often-simple existence. “To photograph farmers means entering their private lives and creating relationships of trust over many years,” he writes.
This closeness can be traced back to the photographer’s childhood. Raymond Depardon is cut from the same cloth. Born in Villefranche-sur-Saône in the Auvergne in 1942, this farmer’s son took his first photographs at the age of 12 on his family’s farm. The first image in Rural, his latest book published last October by the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, harks back to his heritage. His father, Antoine Depardon, a beret perched on his head, sits on a chair in front of an old wood stove and stares at the floor… A plate of leftovers from the last meal can be seen in the foreground. This authenticity is found throughout the book, featuring around 100 black-and-white images taken with a vintage 6×9 folding camera that originally used negative film on plates of glass. Raymond Depardon depicts the land, men, manual labor, loneliness, and the fragility of small-scale farms, but also the beauty of the French countryside.
“It began in autumn, the early 1990s,” writes Raymond Depardon in the preface of his book. “I bought an old Austrian Pinzgauer truck, a six-wheel drive equipped for sleeping in the desert. I would make my way there alone to better know this territory and its inhabitants, located in deserted regions of France.” The photographer spent time with the Privat family in Le Pont-de-Montvert in the Lozère département and took incredible portraits of its members in their home, then at work, along with their animals. One image captures the men accompanied by their flocks of sheep and their dogs against the backdrop of the hilly plateaux of Lozère.
He also photographed the solitude of Paul Argaud in Saint-Jeures (Haute-Loire), Rémi Ponson and his cattle in Rochepaule (Ardèche), and Madeleine Lacombe in Aubas (Dordogne), magnified by the sun and the interplaying light and shadow that only talented photographers can master. A world that may soon be gone. “These men and women who lived and persisted in cultivating these desolate lands were sages, philosophers, heroes, ahead of the impending, inevitable decline.”
Raymond Depardon, whom one day a farmer said to “I am glad to see you again,” did not just photograph farmers, he also filmed them. Alongside his countless publications on the subject, he directed Profils paysans, a documentary trilogy released between 2001 and 2008. Whether static or mobile, his images bring out the nature of each character. They are accessible, profoundly human, and consistently kind.
“Today many of these farmers have passed. There are still nephews and nieces, but few of the children have taken over the family farms. In summer, during the vacation, the villages are repopulated for a short time. I like these places; it’s a great pleasure for me to return regularly to see how they are doing.”
By Jonas Cuénin
Jonas Cuénin is the editorial director of Blind and the former editor-in-chief of the magazines L’Oeil de la Photographie and Camera.
Raymond Depardon, Rural
Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Editions, Paris
Book available here.