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Henri Calet and Paris

Henri Calet and Paris

In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.

A small photograph of Calet

Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact “Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess” (harder to spell, that’s for sure). After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.

At the puces de Vanves, a favourite haunt of Calet’s

But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, “well, it’s a book for Parisians”, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.

In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and ponies and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.

Lady with a beard, seen at the puces de Vanves. Yours for only 200 euros!

Calet’s father was a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or by provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:

Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.

And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.

Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:

« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »

or in my rough translation:

“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “

Calet’s popularity has risen here in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?

Josef Koudelka: “La fabrique d’Exils” (Centre Pompidou, Feb 22-May 22nd 2017)

Josef Koudelka: “La fabrique d’Exils” (Centre Pompidou, Feb 22-May 22nd 2017)

Koudelka is the last. In an interview with a the journalist Sean O’Hagan in 2008 he tells this story “‘Once, Henri [Cartier-Bresson] rang me in Paris and said, “Josef, Kertész is in town, you must come to dinner and meet him.” He held Kertész in the highest regard as a photographic master. I said, “Henri, I love his pictures but I do not need to meet him.” The phone goes down. Then he rings back and says, “No, you do not understand, you have to meet him because we three, we are of the same family.” At the time, this seems to me to be an unbelievable thing to say. Now, though, when I look back from a distance, I can see that maybe there is something in that.’

Each of these three photographers made their own unique and vital contribution to photography. Although the oldest, Kertsesz was the most modern (Koudelka’s words). Cartier-Bresson was of course the master of lightly ironic, perfect compositions and “photoportraits”. He managed to be invisibly present at many of the defining moments of twentieth century history, taking pictures of those who were there and not the thing that was happening. Koudelka, like Kertész, was a rootless exile with an approximate command of language. But unlike Kertész, he never did a job he didn’t want to do. And Koudelka is the last of these three still alive.

We are fascinated by creation and the artistic act. We always wonder how the sculptor reveals the head buried in the block of marble. We want to know what the trick is, how it’s done. What’s behind the curtain. Here in Paris, Josef Koudelka recently gave a selection of prints to the Centre Pompidou (Beaubourg). These works form the basis of a new exhibition, “le fabrique des exiles”, which runs until May. Yes, it is in some senses a “making of” of one of the great photography books of the 20th century, “Exiles”. The book is accompanied by a essay by Koudelka’s friend and collaborator of 40 years, Michel Frizot, which follows closely the path that Koudelka took to create his work.

“Exiles” comprises around a hundred black-and-white photographs taken mostly in the 1970s and 80s. Certain have carved a place for themselves in our collective photographic consciousness as deep as any other works from the 20th century. Many of them have a certain strangeness or melancholy; others are graphic and expressionist. Seeing large prints of these photographs in Beaubourg amplifies their power. The grain becomes razor sharp, the blacks become inky black. There is that lost dog silhouetted in a wasteland of grimy winter snow at the Parc de Sceaux or outline of a man with an umbrella and flowers against the graceful curves of a wall somewhere in Europe.

Spain, 1973

The broad details of Koudelka’s life are well known. The publication of his pictures of Russian tanks rolling into Prague in the spring of 1968 made “P. P. – Prague photographer” an international celebrity — and especially someone highly sought after by the communist authorities in his native Czechoslovakia. Soon enough, there would be a trip abroad from which he would not return, transforming him too into a perpetual exile. He would spend the next decades photographing at festivals and country fairs in a half-dozen different European countries.

He was not interested in the events themselves but rather what was happening at the periphery, the edges. Before and after. He was not an anthropologist, and this work was not reportage.

Frizot reveals Koudelka’s notebooks. Trained as an engineer, Josef K. planned his journeys with meticulous precision, and one can see these detailed agendas. But there are also other wonders, such as the chart of constellations together with details on the stars and planets. A useful thing to have if you need to get somewhere.

He traveled with almost no possessions and made no place his home, sleeping outside in the spring and summer and in the Paris Magnum offices or at friends’ houses in the winter which he’d spend developing or printing from the many rolls of films taken that year. He said that he didn’t want to take pictures of people who were worse off than him, although his aim was too low: the gypsies at least lived in caravans and had television and heating whereas he slept outside every night and had one pair of trousers for the whole year. In the exhibition we see for the first time self-portraits of Koudelka asleep on office floors or outside the ground in the open air, sometimes a city skyline or a stand of trees in the distance behind him.

Star-chart (Carnet-Agenda 2005, Archives Koudelka, Ivry-sur-Seine)

That is the romantic image, the vagabond artist creating effortlessly great art. But in reality the amount of work required was staggering. Each year Koudelka would shoot more than a thousand rolls of film. Over a twenty year period, that amounted to more than 300,000 images — and from that, only around a hundred pictures found their way to Exiles. Most years would only result in a few images. Photography is ultimately a work of selection, and Koudelka was merciless in selecting images from his own work. On the contact sheets, images were graded into categories, with only the ultimate, highest category leading to possible inclusion in a book. One must learn to be a good critic, and in fact I learned that Koudelka was the only photographer at Magnum who responded to Cartier-Bresson’s request for criticism.

Koudelka is the last, and his work has not been exhibited in any significant way Paris for many years. I hope that one day before too long we will have a retrospective of his work. Recently, Koudelka has returned to the panoramic images which have fascinated him since his early days in Prague; these images would certainly benefit from gallery space. But today, it is wonderful to see these photographs from Exiles on the walls of Beaubourg, and I will try to return again before the end of May.

Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Yesterday, the weak winter sun came out for a few hours and I went for a walk around town. Always the same places, but always something different to see. I was curious also to try a new film that I had just received, Bergger’s “Pancro400”. Like a lot of people I have been following closely the slow re-awakening of analogue photography and the film industry. In the last few months, several new films have been announced, and I am anxious to support any such initiative to bring new emulsions to the market.

Before Bergger, there was “Guilleminot” a French photographic company which was founded in… 1858. When they closed operations in 1995, the technical director of operations, Guy Gérard, decided to start Bergger. I guess this is like the Ferrania story, but twenty years before! Bergger have created a solid reputation for themselves as producers of high quality photographic papers and chemistry. Recently, the photographer-owner of a photographic supply firm and development laboratory, Aurélien le Duc, bought a controlling stock in Bergger. Realising that fewer and fewer people were printing in the darkroom, and more and more people were scanning, he decided that it would be interesting to provide some new emulsions (I am taking this information from a few articles in French I found and this nice interview with A. Le Duc).

Bergger don’t have their own production facilities, they are renting time on a German coating factory, which obviously makes sense given the small volumes involved. I think it is the famous Orwo Filmotech company (isn’t it Orwo film that Josef Koudelka shot on all those years ago?). However, Pancro400 is a new formula, unlike Bellamy Hunt’s “Street Pan” and Ferrania’s “P30”.

Well, I have only shot one roll. Nevertheless, I am posting my thoughts here as I think a few people might be interested. Physically, the film is reassuringly solid and thick, and I had no trouble loading it. I developed in good old HC110 using the times on the Bergger website. As is claimed, it does have nice tones and nice shadows. Yes, there is a certain ambience in the photographs for sure, probably accentuated by the fact that I am using one of my older Leica lenses which has less contrast. I would have to develop my other four rolls to really decide how this film is compared to Tri-X or HP5+, but this first roll seems very promising indeed. It does seem less contrasty that Tri-X in HC110. Here are a few photographs:

In parc Montsouris (where else)

Now on the quais and near Notre-Dame. Since the berges rive droite have been closed to traffic a few months ago, it always feels either post-apocalyptic or eternal summer, depending on your point of view.

That’s all! As a rule, there is only one or zero good photographs per roll, and I have put three here, so that is asking for trouble. Thanks to Bergger and friends for providing us with another choice for film…

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

On Monday documentary filmmakers Jean-Francois Dars and Anne Papillaut published a short “film” that they made about my research and photography here.  Here is a direct link to the film.
It was wonderful working with them. It was a long process: we started in April when we recorded the soundtrack. I had carefully prepared a text. But it didn’t work at all! Faced with the microphone I couldn’t recite any of the words at all. I was completely stuck. So I just started talking about what I wanted to say in french, because it seemed easier to speak to them in French about these things (I speak in French with all of my french friends and colleagues, after all it is more than ten years that I am living here now). And that was the text that they used.

Taking the photographs 

Afterwards, during the summer Jean-Francois came to my office and took a few photographs and after thata we went into the darkroom where I developed a big picture of one of the Euclid CCDs. Jean-Francois suggested that we take some pictures at night, because I had talked about how I preferred taking pictures at night on film, so a few months later we spent a wonderful winter evening together (after a nice meal of course) when we walked around the centre of Paris and took pictures.

See the craters of the moon

Or rather, I took pictures and Jean-Francois took pictures of me taking pictures. I can’t say that I approached this with some small amount of trepidation, because Jean-Francois was a friend of Kertesz, and Kertesz took the first-ever photographs of Paris at night! However, in the end I was quite happy with the photographs I took and a selection of them are on my 52rolls pages. If you look carefully, you can see Jean-Francois taking pictures of me. It was so easy to interact with people and take these pictures, it was the most natural thing in the world. I just applied my Winogrand-inspired technique of smiling a lot, even when I wasn’t sure if anyone was looking at me or not. This really does work.

Losing the photons

The “histoires courtes” are very short, most I think are under three minutes. The text and discussions were edited to focus on the key difference between electronic detectors and photographic plates: the quantum efficiency of silver grains is a lot lower than electronic detectors. In the visible spectrum, the latest CCD cameras from e2v have a quantum efficiency in the visible bands of almost 100%. Only around 4% of photons falling on film get converted into silver grains. This difference of course had some interesting consequences: in the film era, people spent a lot of time and energy trying to increase the quantum efficiency of photographic plates, “sensitising” them by baking them in the oven and so forth. Eventually photoelectric detectors came along, but alas, they were not array detectors and so making images was impossible. The arrival of electronic array detectors was a revolution: a CCD camera suddenly transformed a 2 metre telescope to a 4 metre telescope. Now today with the very high efficiency of electronic detectors in the visible bands, the only way to increase the number of electrons is to increase the size of the primary mirror. In addition to the greatly increased sensitivity of electronic detectors offer much higher angular resolution, and in most cases the electronic detectors fully sample the instruments’ response function, so the amount of detail you can record is limited by the atmospheric conditions and not the detectors. So the advantages of electronic detectors are clear for astronomers. But for photographers?

And on film?

I already wrote about this over on Leicaphilia. To take a good picture on an average day in Paris, you need an detector sensitive to say ISO400, a lens that can do f8 and a shutter speed of 1/125s. Nothing more. Most digital cameras have been able to do this for at least a decade and a half. And if you want to print your masterwork at a reasonable size – 18×24 say – in most cases ~5 megapixels suffices. Nothing more. So, you might wonder, where does that leave the last decade-and-a-half of technological development? Well, not in the service of taking pictures…