The Topographic Imaginary: Attending to Place in Contemporary French Photography
Liverpool University Press (Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures, 84), Liverpool, UK, 2022
256 pp., illus. 52 col.; bw. Trade, £95.00
Niépce’s iconic “View form The Window at Le Gras” (1826), the “Heliographic Mission” of 1851, the multiply-authored documentation of the Hausmannian reshaping of Paris in the 1850s and 60s, the famous DATAR project aiming to represent French territory in the 1980s along artistic as well as scientific lines: in spite of these watershed moments and examples, landscape photography has only recently become a hegemonic genre in France.
The reason of the new or renewed interest in this type of images is perfectly summarized in the keywords –“attending” and “topographic” – of the title and subtitle of this exciting study, itself the continuation of a previous volume, France in Flux. Space, Territory Contemporary Culture, coedited by Ari J. Blatt and Edward Welch in 2017. The most far-reaching term is certainly “attending”, not to be confused with some of its purely visual synonyms like “looking” or “viewing”. It supposes new forms of attention, which are in sharp contrast with the forms of hasty, distracted, less qualitative than qualitive forms of reception induced by globalization, digitization, networking, and universal communication. The latter all tend to put between brackets the experience of the here and now of a unique place, uneventful as it may be, while the former, “attending”, is a way of bringing us back from the illusion of the “anywhere anytime” to the illuminating yet immersive sobriety of a “something” that is also a “somewhere”. The second key term, “topographic”, is equally much more than just another word for geography-oriented or space-bound images. It designates uses of picture-taking that make room for the microscopic, the vernacular, the view that can only be disclosed by careful investigation (Blatt smartly links this topographic imaginary to the forensic aesthetic and its patient search for clues and traces in apparently transparent environments).
The topographic attention and its ubiquity in contemporary French photography can however not be explained with the mere help of visual or aesthetic criteria, important as they are. In the case of France, a longtime hypercentralized country, it should not come as a surprise that the idea of territory, that is the shared common space as materialized in the way it is not only represented but also politically and bureaucratically managed, is at the heart of most cultural and ideological debates in a period where the very idea of France has got under strong pressure. It suffices here to think of phenomena such as decolonization, decentralization (since Mitterrand), the gap between Paris and the rest of the country, the social divide between cities and suburbs or urban regions and deserted country areas, the economic and social backlash of postwar modernization and last but not least the heated controversies on identity and identity politics.
As one of the carriers of topographic imaginary –literature being the other one, and I am very grateful to Blatt that the scope of his book also includes some literary texts–, landscape photography is the ideal starting point to study these changing views on French territory and thus on French culture in general. The structure of the book is at the same time very logical, almost Cartesian, and cautiously selective. Ari Blatt has chosen to narrow down his analysis to a small number of important photographers, such as Thierry Girard and Raymond Depardon, without falling prey to the Matthew effect, though. This restriction makes perfect sense in a study that is not about photography and photographers alone but about certain ways of seeing France. It also offers the guarantee that an attentive reading of all pictures is possible. Moreover, the examples and practices under scrutiny are arranged along concentric circles, an ordering that can be read as an interpretive statement in itself. Blatt opens with the capital, more precisely the demolition of a central old neighborhood and its replacement by a modern temple of art, tourism, and commerce: Beaubourg. After that, he examines the photographic view of the city’s ring road (the “périphérique”), the border between Paris and its suburbs (but for most Parisians and to some extent for most other French citizens, the frontier between civilization and the rest of humanity). Blatt then continues with the photographic mapping of French landscape in all its variety, with a strong focus on the representation of its historical aspects and dimensions or the absence thereof. Both questions, spatial variety and the lasting or vanishing impact of the past, finally converge in what is probably the best-known topographic project of the last two decades in France: Raymond Depardon’s attempt to give a panoramic overview of the country via the almost encyclopedic representation of the unknow, rural, semi-urban, nearly invisible France. The last word, however, is for images to go beyond metropolitan France as one may find it today outside the tourist circuits: images of French places in overseas departments and former colonies, which all raise questions on the role and place of France in a globalized world.
The Topographic Imaginary is an excellent study, written with textbook clarity, drive, and elegance, bridging the gap between literary, visual and cultural studies in a domain where interdisciplinary research, although cruelly needed, is still far from being the norm. Blatt also demonstrates a perfectly mastered knowledge of the literature and scholarship on the topics he examines. Finally, it is a pleasure to notice that his argumentation, critical and analytical as it is, never jumps to the ideological conclusions that are one of the pitfalls of much cultural history today.