Contemporary Photography in France: Between Theory and Practice | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Contemporary Photography in France: Between Theory and Practice

Contemporary Photography in France: Between Theory and Practice
Olga Smith

Leuven University Press, Leuven, BE, 2022
230 pp. illus. 32 pp. in full colour. Paper, €45.00
ISBN: 9789462703445.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
January 2023

Does it still make sense to study photography in national terms in an era where most cultural practices have become transnational, if not global, certainly in the case of language-insensitive media such as photography? And if so, how is it possible to do it in ways that do not simply return to outdated models of nationalism? And how to interpret the fact that French photography (and French art in general) is no longer strongly visible on the international scene, despite the worldwide success of some theoreticians and a (very small) number pf practitioners? Focusing on the transformations of photography in France since the 1970s, with the oil crisis of 1973 as a turning point in the economic and political history of the country, this book gives a nuanced yet clear answer to all these questions.

According to Olga Smith, the (relative) international absence of French photography is not the outcome of cultural navel-gazing or excessive public support for exclusively French material or, worse, of the age-old French resistance to all things American. It results instead from the difficulty of matching the way in which French photography is produced as well as critically framed with the current hegemonic protocols of making, reading, and using photography. Although exceptionally funded by the French state, here the main stakeholder in the field, and no less internationally oriented than in previous decades, French photography has been part since the 1970s of a different history, which hinders its integration in the larger discourses on photography that have been dominating the international scene since many years. Think for instance of the confusion raised by the divergent interpretations of concepts such as modernism and postmodernism in Anglo-Saxon and Francophone scholarship (the work of the postmodern Lyotard, for example, is not at all the logical continuation of that of the modernist Greenberg) or the dissimilar relationships between art history and photography by those using French theory in the United States and what the same French theoreticians had to say on photography in France, where the focus is less on photography as a medium, that is as a medium-specific practice, than on the uses of photography (a good example here are the misunderstandings engendered by the reflection on photography as “tableau” in the work of Jean-François Chevrier, which cannot be reduced to an attempt to redefine medium-specificity but hints at the material presence of photography in museums and galleries).

The ambition of this book is twofold. First, it proposes a new history of recent French photography that tries to go beyond traditional historiographies, still strongly determined by art-historical and institutional concerns. Second, it shows that this new approach can also enrich our views on photography in general. In both cases, however, the approach is nonpolemical. Art history remains a decisive dimension and the book traces back with great clarity the battle for cultural legitimacy. At the same time, Smith also avoids all forms of debunking of the presently dominating discourse on photography. Throughout the book, there is a sound defense of an enlarged approach of photography, opening new paths rather than pitching one discourse against another.

The key point of this excellent monograph (although Vienna based, the author showcases a really excellent knowledge of the French context), is the mix of a highly traditional perspective with a very innovative and provocative one. Old and new thus fluently converge without any danger of collision. On the one hand, Smith represents the history of French photography with the help of a classic ordering in neatly separated decades, each of them having its own point of gravity or special attractor. In the 1970s, photography is seen by the author as a way of expressing subjective viewpoints and histories. In the 1980s, photography becomes strongly oriented toward the world of the object. In the 1990s, it turns into a form of hybrid, tying in with other media and broader social practices. The book ends with a transversal chapter on photography and landscape that highlights the increasing importance of questions such as identity (yet not only in the Anglo-Saxon sense of identity politics) and borders (in more than one sense of the word) since the 1990s. On the other hand, each of these decades is read through the prism of a theoretical body that interacts with the larger cultural as well as material context of the period in question. The 1970s are seen through the lens of Roland Barthes, eventually the author of Camera Lucida (French original in 1980). His take on the role of the subject and her or his body resonates with the crisis of managerial planification of France’s modernization after World War Two, while also replying to the crisis the great modern narratives. All these changes and new sensibilities are visible in the changes of press and magazine photography, then still the dominating host medium of photography. The key thinker of the turn toward the object in the 1980s is Jean Baudrillard, also a gifted photographer himself. The broad take on mass consumption and the world of simulacra offers an inspiring background for the rapid and powerful institutionalization of photography and the debate on photography in general, not as new medium but as a newcomer in the world of art museums and galleries. For the 1990s and beyond, the central notion is that of the “unruliness” (French: indiscipline) as coined by Jacques Rancière, who approaches the struggles around photography – and how to use it to show which kind of subjects and objects– as a laboratory for a more-encompassing political struggle in favor of equality and democracy. The final chapter on landscape, which pays a well-deserved tribute to scholars such as Ari Blatt and Danièle Méaux, offers complementary views of what had started to emerge in the 1990s. It also emphasizes the stronger integration of French photography in the international debates and discourses on photography.

Smith’s history of contemporary photography, both detailed and very readable, is a decidedly innovative publication, even for readers already familiar with the field and the critical debates that surround it. The major novelty of the book is, paradoxically speaking, the choice of a nonphotographic point of departure. Photography is studied via the work of three thinkers whose main concern is not photography itself but the relationship between signs and society. Photography in that sense is less an art than a social practice, although the artistic dimension is never overlooked. Corpuswise, but this is a smaller reproach, one may regret a certain blindness to so-called minor forms of photography like the work published in photo novel magazines, strangely absent from a book that is permanently in search of new ways of entering the space of what can be shown and seen. But in general the philosophical, social, political, that is the non-art-historical point of view is truly enriching while never disrupting the chronological and nearly encyclopedic presentation of the material. This important innovation helps establish fruitful connections between ways of thinking that are no longer separated by disciplinary frontiers. It also sheds new light on the trajectory of famous artists such as Christian Boltanski and Sophie Calle, whose lesser-known productions are here at the center of the author’s close-readings. Finally, it also allows a very open presentation of many works, authors, tendencies, discussions, and controversies.

As (re)written by Smith, the recent history of French photography makes room for a wealth of images, excellently printed in a rich gallery of color plates, and a great variety of ways of doing photography criticism. One can only hope that this excellent overview will spark new interest in what is going on in France, both in terms of the production of new images and in terms of critical discourses on the role and place of photography in society.