Readings – Christian Liboiron

[Spring 1994]

Susan Sontag, Sur la photographie
Paris, Éd. U.G.E., 1993, collection 10-18, 240 pp., $13.75.
Translation of On Photography, New-York, Anchor Books, 1977

For a long while, the Francophone reader has had only a very bad translation of the essays presented in On Photography. Today, Philippe Blanchard offers us a translation that is both intelligent and faithful to Sontag’s spirit and verve and which preserves the concise and incisive sentences of the author. Sontag has at once assembled a social and literary semiology, an aesthetic, and a sociological analysis of the uses for photography. She tries, by looking at the representations and the concepts of photography in the media, in literature and in cinema, to understand the relationship that a given society maintains with reality and image (this latter becoming a mediator of reality).

Twenty years after taking form, this book still possesses today the same acuity of understanding the fundamental problems of photography and of its aesthetic development.

Frame of Mind: Viewpoints on Photography in Contemporary Canadian Art,
Edited by Daina Augaitis, Banff, Walter Phillips Gallery, 1993,
134 pp., ill. b. and w. and col., soft-cover, $20

The Walter Phillips Gallery regularly publishes exhibition catalogues and anthologies of theoretical texts addressing various problems that enrich the area of contemporary art discourse. Frame of Mind includes ten essays on as many artists represented in the gallery’s permanent collection. “The epistemology of the camera” is claimed by Towsend-Gault in the introduction as an aspiration of the anthology: “…how do we represent what we know to ourselves, to others, and what part do the representations themselves play in the knowing?” It is an abuse of the meaning of the word to suggest the construction of an epistemology of photography, especially with the works presented. An epistemology would have been possible with photographers such as A. Londe, A. Bertillon et E.-J. Marey, who use the camera for scientific purposes. The works chosen do not have knowledge as their aim, in the sense of epistèmè; they are more about a subjective understanding of the world.

Despite this bad start, the essays retain their intrinsic qualities. The texts are short (from five to seven pages), annotated and accompanied by a good collection of illustrations. No one was able to answer the anthology’s question; however, the problem of the duality between the images and the author-supplied comments of M. Lewis, K. Campbell et S. Schelle seems a fair compromise insofar as the offering of discussions of the works while simultaneously addressing the anthology’s question. The other essays address the works of R. April, R. Arden, S. McEachern and I. Wallace. Noteworthy are the freshness of these last and the distinctive point of view of the essays on the work of D. Blain by J. Lamoureux, of Evergon by A. Laframboise and of S. Alexander by J. D. Campbell. This anthology gives the reader information about the works produced in the period 1985 to 1990 and will serve as a practical reference for those doing research.

Hervé Guibert, Photographies,
Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 1993, 131 pp., ill. b. and w., bound, $93

Hervé Guibert is not as naive in the field of photography as the narrative (placed in epigraph) would lead us to believe. He was a photography and cinema critic at the newspaper Le Monde from 1977 to 1985, and, in 1981, he published L’Image fantôme (Ghost Image), which was devoted to narratives about photography (some of which describe images and events that are presented or reproduced in this new monograph which is an anthology of this famous writer’s best work).

The photographs appear as little memos, “Post-it notes” of an intimate diary recounting a character’s life (H. G.), the friendships that form and fall apart, the obsessions that he expresses through little arrangements, his desires, and his manuscripts and books — strewn, an offered, mixing fiction and reality. The order of the images is well presented, dragging us straightaway into the private lives of his aging aunts Suzanne et Louise. Next are the photos of the Musée Grévin and the Musée de la Specola. The first series presents wax recreations of famous crimes, and the second series shows de-fleshed scientific specimens of wax, views of muscles and entrails. The publishers have herewith created a sound metaphor: They have made a sneak attack upon what Guibert, who had contracted aids, deplored about his own body, seeing himself near the end of his illness as an old man. So, following the sequence of the old women those of the mock bodies and the almost-alive masks, we meet the friends and lovers of Guibert, these sensual young men who exude vitality.

Thanks to this well-printed, very nicely-made album of 125 photographs, we bring Guibert back to life symbolically through images, since the image has a presence: “At night when I go to bed, I move over to make room for Photography’s bodies, and I talk with them under the sheets.”

Pierre Molinier,
Winnipeg, Plug In Editions, 1993, 74 pp., ill. b. and w., soft-cover, $20

Contemporary photography has developed a propensity for dealing with subjectivity and identity — notably that of social or sexual minorities. In the manner of Belloc (who, at the beginning of the century, photographed the prostitutes he frequented), Molinier involves the camera in his life and in his own sexual activities. This practice functions as a Narcissus’ mirror with whose aid he stages his own fantasies — he even goes as far as to adjust the image of his own body by physical transformations and technical manipulations.

The catalogue of this traveling exhibition (presented at the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal last autumn) is, to date, the only work available on Molinier and his work. It includes a dozen photographs from the sixties and the seventies, accompanied by several documents about Molinier’s workshop that are reproduced in the margin. The French translations are almost unreadable, chock-full of misprints and errors. What is more, the documents in the margins are repeated in the text; it is therefore necessary to read S. Watson’s and P. Gorsen’s original texts. In the brief introduction, the curator, Wayne Baerwaldt, develops a footnote on the life and work of Molinier; the two are inseparable. He instructs us on Molinier’s methodology, analyses the connection between the artist’s fetishism and his photography, and makes a passing mention of his involvement with surrealism in the fifties and his excommunication by Breton in 1965.