Le BAL: A New Photographic Institution in France? – Michel Poivert

[Winter 2012]

We present an analysis of the context and strategic positionings that prevailed at the foundation of BAL, a new French photography institution with its roots in the field of independent press agencies. Although such a reality does not have its equivalent here, Michel Poivert’s viewpoints on the emergence of institutions, the recognition of documentary photography, and the issues in visual media education provide an interesting perspective on the initiatives taken by, and shortcomings of our institutions with regard to photographic issues.

by Michel Poivert

Le BAL opened its doors on 18 September 2010. BAL is the other name for Les amis de Magnum Photos, and it evokes the former function of the site – a ballroom – that it now occupies at 6 Impasse de la Défense in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. For more than two years, the association has been running a program of activities devoted to visual media education for students and teachers; with the opening of this venue, it now offers the same to the general public. Exhibitions, workshops, and other events oriented toward documentary production will be held there, and the brand-new facility is dynamically communicating its objectives. The creation of a specialized institution is always an event, as it shifts the cultural universe to which it belongs; in this sense, it will cause changes affecting the production of photographic, video, and cinematographic works. What does Le BAL offer that is different? How will its activities fit with the programs of existing institutions? Does the large amount of public assistance (by the city, the region, and the federal government) mean political support for new organizations? These may seem like simple questions, but they are indicative of an interesting time in the history of contemporary photography.

For those who are closely associated with the setting up of cultural and arts institutions, the creation of a facility always seems like a tour de force, as it involves the establishment of legitimacy, patient observation of the situation to define priorities, maintenance at all costs of the initial intuition, constitution of a network of financial partners, creation of a dedicated team, and so on. Obviously, Le BAL, with Diane Dufour at its head, built this edifice stone by stone, and today the conditions today have been fully met to operate with a permanent program. Its impressive “tribe” – the group of people committed to supporting the project –is composed of the “who’s who” of the photography field, who can be used for the necessary lobbying. Of course, like many institutions, Le BAL did not start from scratch. Previously, the Centre national de la photographie (CNP) benefited from a political will and the talent of a major publisher (Land and Delpire); more than a generation ago, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) was born of pact between a mayor and a cultural leader (Chirac and Monterosso); and the “new formula” CNP of the 1990s took advantage of a historical situation (the advent of photography in contemporary art and the activism of a critic, Régis Durand). With regard to Les amis de Magnum Photos, the decisive elements were specific: they resulted from strategic shifts – “diversification,” to use a marketing term – of the Magnum agency’s activities. The economic difficulties that affected photography agencies around the world forced them, in effect, to invent new markets.

In the 1990s, the issue of culture was the focus of a first major shift: as sales of press photographs began to dip, agencies began to exploit their collections in cultural terms (for example, the Magnum exhibitions presented by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Centre Pompidou). The figures of the creative artist and of the photographic heritage of the press picture came to constitute the two pillars of what I call the patrimonialization and aestheticization of photojournalism. Le BAL is symptomatic of the agency culture seizing on a new market; its target is no longer museums or other spaces devoted to art, but schools: the education market. It is an interesting gamble on several levels. First, at the very moment when Magnum in the United States has given up the direct valorization of its heritage by handing it over to an investment fund, the aim is no longer to exploit photographers’ works but to understand them as didactic objects: how does one look at the world, how is an image read, what is the history of these documents, and so on. The final step in the crisis of normal practices, the education market is a sign of the times: it allows an activity to be refocused on the fundamentals (comprehension, raising awareness, and so on), and it touches the core of all issues: in no longer being a body for production and distribution of images, a facility such as Le BAL counts on other raw material:
content (stories, critiques, and so on) and the methodologies for their transmission (pedagogy).

Here, as in the information trades, professionals are not ad hoc. The MEP, whose early activities were linked with the magazine La Recherche photographique at the Université Paris VIII, has always had a policy of openness to associative and university life. It built an auditorium available free of charge for this type of activity; it developed, as do all museum-type institutions, a solid educational hub; and, above all, it made its library a centre of reference. Also in Paris, the Jeu de paume devotes much effort to hosting groups of students as well as colloquia and other types of seminars. National education, for its part, has integrated into its programs subject areas dealing with history of art and photography, but also – and as I have done much work on it this year I can testify to this – on how photography will be positioned in the reform of the visual arts program in high schools. The city of Paris is also getting involved in education through the Maison du geste et de l’image. This convergence and “growing” stability of visual media edu-cation, which is found in all modern and contemporary art museums through the expansion of mediation, is a major phenomenon. Le BAL has performed an analysis that puts education at the core of its project; education is thus no longer one service among others in a facility but forms its very identity, as it now does in other fields, for educational services companies. In addition, by setting the universalist objective of educating the gaze on the modern world, these institutions take few risks regarding critiques of their goals. It is thus between consensus and originality that the visual media education strategy falls. We can hope that literacy of the gaze that was the mark of avant-garde utopias is not summarized as the goal of a business plan.

By proposing and obtaining, from the relevant government department, the region, and the city of Paris, the subcontract for teaching history of photography in certain high schools, Le BAL is inscribed within the general shift toward privatization of education. There’s nothing new here, but how are questions of content and skills dealt with? For the moment, teachers are recruited from among doctoral students who can use this credit in their future careers, but development of the activity will require that teachers with an education in the history of visual media be found. One solution may be the creation of a graduate degree in the subject, but above all there will have to be reflection on a specific curriculum in close collaboration with teachers (historians, artists, and writers, specifically) in the field. It cannot be denied that educational and cultural curriculum professionals are watching BAL phenomenon with circumspection. The voluntarism and tenacity of this young institution cause some irritation: what is it offering that doesn’t already exist? How does it obtain from both the public and private sectors what others have been refused due to the economic crisis? As we know, these are times of shrinking bureaucracy and outsourcing, and so it is logical that the city, the region, the federal government, and private partners are interested in a new structure, managed by entrepreneurial principles. Symmetrically, it is understood that an educational program in this field does not seek, as it did in the past, to create its own school (too expensive, especially with regard to payroll) and prefers to think of itself as supplying services to match the demand of public facilities. Results-based culture now applies to everyone, but we know also that this culture is not always well adapted to the education sector. Summaries of activities have used quantified results, but it is never really possible to measure quantitatively the effects of a curriculum except by thinking of it in terms of an investment over the (very) long term.In the fields of education, photography, and even research, the opening of Le BAL is thus provoking a bit of a backlash.

To speak in economic terms, the market share that Le BAL covets may have to be divided up. Photography festivals (Arles, Perpignan, and other, smaller ones) have long included colloquia, apprenticeships, and other educational activities. Whether through simple value-added aspects that are intended to attract institutional partners or that are indispensable to the offer characteristic of this type of event, the issue of knowledge and its transmission is more and more fundamental to photographic institutions that, for a long time, were content with contemplative activities. “From seeing to knowledge” is the new watchword for the history of photography. Le BAL is definitively inscribed in a new cartography, still full of dotted lines, of the valorization of photographic creations. Broadly encouraged by the Ministère de la Culture’s photography policy, the “new program” foundations and associations are involved mainly in projects such as the one currently underway in Arles with the launch of the LUMA Foundation, which will include a university-type educational hub, a school, and so on. Thus, with the prestige of the new premises, new stakeholders, solid funding and political encouragement, the world of the photographic image is being redesigned after the era of institutions inherited from Minister Lang.Finally, there is the aesthetic positioning of Le BAL in the visual media field. By promoting documentary images and analysis of the relationship with the real, Le BAL is both faithful to the initial missions of a photojournalism agency and in phase with a section of contemporary creativity in which the documentary has achieved credibility. Furthermore, the opening to video and film makes it possible to avoid over-specialization. It will be interesting to see how this positioning evolves; it is the product of what has been observed in art schools over the last twenty years (development of video and film, highlighting of documentary), and in this sense capitalizes on the resulting forms of recognition (all of the stars of the international photography scene are, after all, apostles of documentary, from Allan Sekula to Jeff Wall). But when a new aesthetic path is taken, the added value that the prestige of contemporary art confers on the tradition of photojournalism is at risk of being reduced and bringing “documentary” photography back to its strictly utilitarian value, that of information, which will then play its last card through the interest that artists have found in it. In a word, the historical and aesthetic opportunity from which the positioning of Le BAL benefits is a fascinating symptom for the historian of the present; aside from the fact that its functioning is ruled by the classic laws of liberalism, the definition of the content on which it will be judged will necessitate a constant anticipation of the values of the documentary image in order not to be enclosed, in the long term, in a corporatist schema.
Translated by Käthe Roth

Essay published on 8 September 2010 – and still available – on ViteVu, the blog of the Société française de photographie: www.sfp. asso.fr/vitevu/index.php/2010/09/08/382-le-bal-nouvelle-institution-photographique-en-france.

Michel Poivert, who has been very involved in French photographic research, presided at the renaissance of the Société française de photographie and is a member of the editorial committee of the magazine Études photographiques. He has written several works and organized a number of exhibitions on photography. His most recent book, Brève Histoire de la Photographie, was published by Hazan in 2015. Poivert is a professor in the history of contemporary art and history of photography at the Université Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne.

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