Laurent Guérin, Samayou – John K. Grande

[Fall 2010]

Galerie Orange, Montreal
May 6 to May 30, 2010

Laurent Guérin, who began his career as a fashion photographer, cut his teeth on photography working as a studio assistant for Serge Clément and Olivo Barbieri. It soon became clear that Guérin had caught the bug. His drive and eye led him to become a contributing photographer for Agence Stock Photo, and he continues to build his repertoire as an itinerant photographer of the everyday and unusual. World Press Photo included his photographs of street children in India in a show held at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac in Montreal in 2004. These photographs – in which all the chaos and beauty of India, from street life to more contemplative imagery, are captured – became the book Hindi Pop. Guérin is a member of the new generation of photographers, who have something of a video-stream, multisensory aesthetic, both in the spirit of their imagery and in their approach to working with street photography. That said, there is a certain kinship between these photographs of a new India as a window on the world and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s sensual, colourful photographs of India, taken in 1948, which captured an inherently photogenic and history-laden country, whether the subjects were the homeless, beggars, the Untouchables, pedlars on bikes, the well-to-do, or temples.

When Montreal rocker Jean Leloup asked Guérin the quintessential question, “Why photography?” Guérin’s reply was, “I tried to be a pilot, and then lots of other things. I’ve planted trees in the Yukon, sold Christmas trees in New York, and done bookkeeping in Saint-Eustache, but I’ve always come back to photography. It’s the only thing that gets me out of my hotel; without it I wouldn’t even leave the hotel.” Guérin travelled across India for four months by motorbike with a former army sniper, and in his photographs we see nonchalance and a serious, uninflated eye for the unframed moment.

For the latest show at Galerie Orange, the photographs, all black-and-white images printed on Hahnemuhle paper, most of them 30 by 45 inches (76 x 114 cm) in size, capture instants of Guérin’s three-year sojourn in Japan. As evidenced in the sumptuous, light-textured works, Guérin spent his time voraciously drawing in the ephemeral and experiential ambience as he moved around from Hiroshima in the south to Aomori in the north, the islands of Okinawa, and Yoyogi Park near Shinjuku. Like the photographs in Hindi Pop, those in the Samayou show have been collected in a book, Nippon.
Guérin’s aesthetic seems to have been inspired by the photographer Shomei Tomatsu, whose enigmatic works build images out of the most flighty light and details into delicate metaphors for life. He seems to be transfixed by the surface of things, the appearance that masks deeper truths, just as Yukio Mishima’s novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) described a Japanese society at once shy and cloaked and yet bold and brash, capable of seizing the moment. One photograph is of an old man in a straw hat standing on a bridge – a timeless image in a way, but equally an image of potential offering, for there are a handwritten text and a bowl in this man’s hands, but we do not see his face. Here is the strength of the image, edited, selected, just as a writer might do with words.

Some of Guérin’s images are as minimal and poetic – a stone bench with flower petals – as are the culture and situations that he enters into. Another one shows the mid-fuselage of a World War Two Kamikaze airplane. Now an artefact, its ageing painted and winged body has the imperial sun on its surface. Day Mosaic presents sixteen prints of varying sizes as a single wall tableau that includes such images as a shop window filled with old Rolleiflex cameras, a shot of an ageing street character with his bike, and an orchestral arrangement of rooftops, all splayed in a complex but complementary decorative geometry on a hillside. On the adjacent wall, Night Mosaic captures nocturnal scenes in a similar spirit. And so the Samayou show tells its own stories, each picture caught in a moment testifying to a once-closed island society undergoing rapid change and responding to the ever-changing pressures of global culture. By definition, contemporary culture now stretches beyond the traditional framework of what we once called culture, and, like modern-day anthropologists, we are witness to snapshots of Japanese society. All of this outward evidence may become timeworn over decades of repetition, and one wonders whether photography’s search for the exotic, which is often “elsewhere,” could be conducted just as easily in the here and now of North America. Image upon image, generation upon generation, Guérin’s photographs are truly unpretentious, shadowy images that are never prescribed, even fleeting and flighty, an embodiment of a very traditional kind of street photography in a world transformed by and immersed in ever-increasing volumes of informational imagery.

John K. Grande is Curator Emeritus of Earth Art at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario. His latest books are The Landscape Changes (Propect/Gaspereau Press, 2009) and Art Allsorts: Writing on Art & Artists, 2 vols. (Go If Press, 2008, 2009).

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