Grammaire de Formes

Grammaire de Formes
Danièle Méaux (texts and editing), Éric Tabuchi, Jordi Ballesta and Guillaume Bonnel (photographs)

Landébaëron: Filigranes Éditions, Paris, France, 2021
128 pp., illus. 117 col. Trade, 25 €
ISBN: 978-2-35046-527-2.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2021

Every native French speaker knows by heart these lines from Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire: “The old Paris is no more (the form of a city changes faster, alas! than a mortal's heart)”. This form, as hinted at by the quotation, is not only a spatial or architectural given, but also a cultural frame that dramatically depends on the combination of three elements: the built environment itself, the subjective experience of place and space by the city-dwellers, the visual and literary representation of this setting. The photographic mediation of the city cannot be separated from the literary one and vice versa. A Grammar of Forms, the new project curated by Danièle Méaux, one of the leading scholars in contemporary visual culture in France, is tackling exactly that intersection of words and images in documenting and creatively rethinking the multilayered structure, perception and experience of the modern city.

The title of this book, A Grammar of Forms, which expands on previous publications by Danièle Méaux on the use of photography as a research-based method in the field of archival and documentary studies, can be read as a manifesto. It is a linguistic metaphor that designates the various ways in which a set of (architectural as well as urbanistic) items can be combined, not in the prescriptive but the descriptive sense of the word. The grammar in question does not dictate the rules to be followed when it comes down to building houses or planning a city. It tries to list instead the actual combinations, official and fully authorized as well as informal and savagely vernacular, of all these forms as materialized in the city. It is such a grammar of forms that the words and images of this book want to represent in its diversity (if not chaos), but also in its underlying order.

Photographically speaking, three levels are to be distinguished: Guillaume Bonnel displays the city as a landscape, privileging more panoramic views; Jordi Ballesta portrays the habitually unseen or unnoticed details of the vernacularized urban tissue; Eric Tabuchi foregrounds the a certain number of sometimes unexpected housing patterns that are disclosed bi comparative diptychs. Concerning the verbal and literary component of the book’s montage (a term explicitly claimed by Danièle Méaux), one easily notices that it links the representation of the city not only with a large theoretical background (with a logical emphasis on cultural studies, as given for instance in the work of Michel de Certeau and Jacques Rancière) but also with a more poetic perspective (here smartly relying upon the geographic and historical imagination of the novelist and essayist Julien Gracq). This editing makes room for a wide circulation between the pictures of the three authors, each of them equally equipped with a solid theoretical knowledge of research methods in urban studies.

An old mining and industrial city confronting the (heavy) challenges of post-industrial society, Saint-Étienne is an understudied and underrepresented place, a kind of blank spot on the map of France, so exemplarily documented since the reinvention of landscape photography since the large collective DATAR project of the early 1980s. After that enterprise, individual artists such as Raymond Depardon and Bernard Plossu have produced landmark reportages on cities and landscapes, whereas numerous other collective projects, often publicly funded, continue to record and archive the changes of the natural and built environment in France. Thanks to the efforts of both local institutions and the commitment of academic researchers such as Danièle Méaux, the city of Saint-Étienne is now progressively opened to the eye of new beholders and the results are stunning.

First of all because the book strictly avoids any form of exoticizing or spectacularizing images. It does not picture the architectural highlights of city, while it also refrains form explicitly aesthetic views (even the deadpan aesthetics that has become hegemonic in the post-Becher years is kept at a distance, mainly due to the systematic use of color photography). The visual style is sober -but sobriety is definitely a style, not an absence of it. The aspects of the city that are shown are always linked with the practices of building and housing -people are absent from these pictures. And the book’s montage stresses the similarities of the work of the three photographers, without erasing their differences --their images are not mixed, but presented as a triptych. Yet in spite of the differences in technical realization, subjects, and personal agendas of each of the artist, the overall impression in strangely homogeneous. A Grammar of Forms creates an image of the city that is at the same time very banal and highly revealing, quite repetitive and permanently surprising, totally uneventful and surprisingly original. What the reader discovers, also thanks to the informative and elegantly written commentaries by Danièle Méaux, is a “new” city. A city whose forms, small or great, are brought together via their visual correspondences and with the help of the theoretical signposts of the text which identifies and names recurring patterns as well as noncanonical variations. A city which proves to have a grammar, something that is certainly not immediately visible, not even to the inhabitants of Saint-Étienne (for walking or driving to the city is lass easy than it looks at first sight). A city, at last, that proves capable of being shown in visual and verbal terms, in a book where both aspects are the perfect equivalent of each other and which one could label as a WHYSIWYG realization: what you see is what you read.