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Two French Photographers Across Generations:

Sabine Weiss, “Intimate Memory”
and Laurent Millet, “Somnium”

 

Photography can document, illustrate, ab- stract, and capture images of the world around us in an infinite number of ways. As we saw with last summer’s exhibition at the MCA titled “Witness,” the politics of photographer, subject, and viewer are complex and inescapable.

Time, place, and process contribute so much to what we see. Looking at two neighboring exhibitions of photographers from different generations currently on display at Stephen Daiter and Catherine Edelman galleries give viewers a chance to examine the role traditional photographic media and process play in the twenty-first century.

Sabine Weiss, a Swiss-born, globe-trotting photographer carved out a place for herself in the male-dominated world of photography during the mid-twentieth century. Associated with the French Humanist School, she captured candid images of everyday life.

“Intimate Memory” at Stephen Daiter ­Gallery is only Weiss’ second show in the United States though she is 92 years old. The first was at the Art Institute in 1954. There is no mistaking these prints for anything other than vintage given the small scale, softened details, and occasional crease. But what is most striking is Weiss’s bold curiosity and talent for crystallizing the raw humanity of her subjects rather than offering up flourishing compositions of what feel far more scripted than candid as can be the case with the more well-known French Humanist images.

As a result, viewers are treated to studies of life where play and labor intersect and unfold. The girl dancing in Young Gypsy is familiar but the image has an air of mystery. Is the dance part of a shared celebration or is this young girl making a living. Perhaps both, but the image does not need to tell us. Rather, the viewer is posited with the task of making meaning from the ambiguous framing of this corner of the world.

 

Gypsy girl, Pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1960. Gelatin silver photograph,. c. 1960 print. Photo courtesy ­Stephen Daiter Gallery

 

A trailblazer in her time, Weiss used photography to explore the complex emergence of form in the simplicity of human life. Her mode of working is a kind of photography most people are familiar with today. One gets a camera and goes out into the world to shoot light, architecture, people, and activity. But Photography as a tool that reveals form has evolved into a narrative unto itself.

This performance of intellectual mechanics is something that is explored with evocative introspection and occasional humor in the work of contemporary artist Luarent Millet whose work is being shown at Catherine Edelman Gallery in the exhibition, “Somnium.”

Though Millet is producing work today, the images exhibited at Edelman employ arcane photographic processes such as silver gelatin and platinum palladium prints. The first images are bleak landscapes inhabited by sculptures made by the artist. These are the more bland and introspective of the works and the sculptures feel like folksy or tribal decorations more so than spatial signifiers but there is no denying the dedication to the craftsmanship that went into the process of making these images.

Progressing through the series, the photography itself becomes the subject with the appearance of three-dimensional grids constructed in string accompanied by the shadow of the photographer himself. The ideas of form, gaze, and presence are reduced to simple structures in a way that is both playful and contemplative. The images become more specific as well as humorous when Millet appears as a blurry figure staring closely at toy-like structures composed of transparent cubes and pyramids in the "Somnium" series.

Whether it was the artist’s intention or not, there is something funny about the male ego made manifest in the act of straining himself to make sense of the world around him. Like it or not Millet has taken the traditional role of photographer as documentarian and turned it inside out revealing the inner alchemist of the material image maker.

The staging that occurs in Millet’s images is a major part of the work. His choice to capture these tableaus and utilize arcane photographic processes confuses the sense of time viewers may place the images in. We are left with a questionable veil of nostalgia that leaves the images feeling illustrative and theatrical.

 

La Chasse 12, 2003, © Laurent Miller. Images courtesy of ­Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

 

Even Weiss’s images, despite their datedness, transcend a sense of time in their presentation of candid human moments that are still relatable today. Weiss’s work reinforces the value of the photographer as someone who engages with the social structures of the environment while Millet withdraws from it. In that process of withdrawal the photographic process is relegated to the philosophical world of painting and drawing where the two dimensional surface becomes a portal into a psychic space rather than a window into which we see the capture of a real moment in time.

 

Evan Carter hails from Worcester, Massachusetts. He studied Painting at Mass. College of Art in Boston and is currently an MFA candidate in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Chicago.