Browsed by
Category: Photography

Images in the 21st century: some thoughts on Andre Rouillé’s: “La photo numerique, une force neo-libérale”

Images in the 21st century: some thoughts on Andre Rouillé’s: “La photo numerique, une force neo-libérale”

I recently read an excellent book about photography in the 21st century, Andre Rouillé’s ”La photo numerique, une force neo-libérale”, published by editions “L’échappée” (who are publishing many interesting books about society and technology). It is probably the most lucid text about modern images I’ve read so far: to me, it describes accurately the current state of affairs. Most classic texts about photographic theory (Sontag, Barthes) have been hopelessly outdated by the arrival of the internet and the profusion of digital images. But this one is right up-to-date (published last year) and is the clearest look so far at the role of images in our modern world. The scope of the book is large: not only does it describe how new technology has changed image-making, but how digital images have become essential to the modern economy.

Let’s start by considering a definition of terms. In English, to describe the two ways we have of making images there is ”analogue” and ”digital” but Rouillé prefers the terms photo-argentique (”argentique” is silver) and photo-digital. This emphasizes that they are really different in kind and nature. Analogue images are fixed and immutable, digital images are constantly changing and are defined by computer code and digits. And most, importantly of all, they can be transmitted instantly anywhere around the world and effortlessly duplicated.

This is about where we are now.

Now, consider how images are captured using with film photography (I’m paraphrasing Rouillé here; he is obviously thinking about rangefinder cameras): one looks through a viewfinder and one decides where to put the frame around an object in the physical world. Now think about capturing digital images with a smartphone, because that is how most digital images are created: one looks at a screen on a rectangular object held at arm’s length. The whole body is involved, not just the eye. The notion of the frame enclosing the physical world has disappeared, and in deciding to frame the photograph one moves the arm and not the head. In the first case, you see the world and not the image; in the second, you see the image and not the world. With a smartphone, it is easy to take multiple images, but you can’t always see the screen in bright light. The result, in the second case, is a profusion of images which do not conform to the conventional idea of photography as a document and an accurate representation of the world. This leads, naturally, to a new aesthetic, one in which crucially images are not at all intended to be a faithful reproduction of reality. The usage of photography today is clearly very different from it was in the 20th century, and by way of example he cites the examples of certain 21st century Magnum photographers whose images turned out to be a less than faithful representation of reality.

So the point to be understood is not at all simply a response to the tired ”film versus digital” question, which after reading the book really seems to me to be missing the point. One can certainly use a digital camera (and here I mean I camera, not a smartphone) in the same way as a film camera, carefully setting the shutter speed, aperture, framing the subject, just as you can also use a film camera like a digital camera — he cites Gary Winogrand as someone who did just that, who took film photographs ”in a digital way”. But today, almost all images are created with smartphones, and these multitudes of images are destined to be shared and distributed on social networks. The way in which these images are captured, and the malleable nature of the object used to take them (a smartphone is no more a camera than it is a telephone, a notebook or a record-player) lead to this radically new aesthetic. I think this is quite different from ”snapshot photography” from the start of the 20th century when the first small portable film cameras appeared; those images were never generated in such large quantities and neither were they circulated so widely around the world.

In the second part of his book, he underlines how important digital images have become for the enormous corporations that have become an integral part of our lives. These digital images created in such great quantities have become an enormous source of wealth for these industries — but not, of course, for those who create the images. These images contain all the attributes of the neoliberal world: instantaneous, constantly changing form and present everywhere. Digital images have become crucial in maintaining the economy of surveillance capitalism.

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

There is a certain segment of time and space here in Paris that fascinates me. It’s that period just after the second world war. Now, a few months ago, just before the portcullis gates swung down (on st. Patrick’s day of all days) I bought Robert Giraud’s Le Vin des rues. A few weeks before that, I discovered by chance the “Librairie Le Piéton de Paris” and following the excellent recommendations of the shop’s owner I bought Patrick Cloux’s “Au grand comptoir des halles“. Over the next few weeks of the lock-down I read both books very closely. They both describe postwar Paris lucidly and entertainingly.

Les halles in the 1960s (Robert Doisneau)

The back-story is well known: for centuries Les Halles was the beating heart of Paris with an enormous market which attracted vast crowds at all times of the day and night. It was at Les Halles that food and produce was bought and sold for all of France. Eventually the narrow streets proved too limiting for the endless deliveries and in the 1970s the wrought-iron 19th century marché was destroyed and operations were moved to a more modern and convenient location at Rungis. The destruction was filmed and photographed; a quick tour on YouTube and you’ll find it all. As well as the above-ground wrought-iron market halls, Les Halles contained enormous subterranean cellars and by the time all that was excavated and removed an enormous hole was left gaping at the centre of Paris, the famous trou des halles.

For quite a few years nobody quite new what to fill it with. There was even a western adventure movie about Custer’s last stand made featuring the hole and surrounding wreckage. Well, of course later there would be a underground railway exchange for the new rapid train nework (the RER) but what else? A shopping centre, Forum des Halles, which is universally unloved. Meanwhile, the parking lot where the produce trucks idled was transformed into the Centre Pompidou. To a person walking around Les Halles today there is almost no trace of the past life. The ouside of the shopping centre looks a little better than it did when I arrived in Paris; it is now covered by the ‘canopée’. In an interesting bit of architectural short-shortsightedness for a city with Paris’ climate the canopé is not actually waterproof. There is at least much more space there than there was before; it is is now open on both sides.

These details you could have found on the interwebs. What Cloux’s book aims to bring back are the people, the conversations, the circumstances, something that is lost in a bare rendering of facts. It is wonderfully evocative. I’ve already written about Jack Yonnet. Girard and Yonnet, togethether with the humanist photographer Robert Doisneau, are probably amongst the better-known characters from that period. But there are many others in there too. There is Claude Signolle, an expert on the occult. Signolle meets a shady character, a man claiming to be practising witchcraft, who shows him the book that he uses to make sure his incantations work. It is one of Signolle’s own books!

Reading Giraud’s Le Vin des rues just after Cloux’s book I understood why this text was so important as a description of that epoch. Reading Giraud is like listening to him talking to you in the Parisian argot of the 1950s (which is not always easy to follow). A simple as a conversation, colloquial, slangy. You could indeed imagine him in front of you on the other side of the bar with a glass of wine in his hand. Giruad describes how hard life was in Paris in the early 1950s and all the characters he met during his walks across the capital. He must have known every homeless person in the centre of Paris, all the people on the fringes of society that polite people would hurry past. It was Giraud who introduced these people to Doisneau who then photographed them with such success.

Robert Giraud, 1950 (Robert Doisneau)

Everybody in Giraud’s book is trying to turn a trick to stay alive. There is the man, for example, who lives in a tiny narrow apartment on the roof and who catches pigeons to sell to fancy restaurants, telling the buyers that they were were caught on country estates. Similarly, once the tourist boats have left, a group of shady characters make night trips onto the Seine to catch fish with explosives which are then brought right to les halles to sell. The there’s the blind girl Girarud helps by collecting cigarette butts for her which she sells on to another character who reassembles them into full cigarettes. Then there is a Giraud himself, who hangs around les Halles at midnight because that’s the best time to look for work, they always need a helping hand unloading the produce trucks and it’s good money, even if you have to work straight until the dawn. (Both he and Yonnet were casually brave during the war. Yonnet led groups of men around Paris into buildings where they would set up clandestine radio antennae to broadcast information to the resistance. An incredibly dangerous activity in occupied Paris and Yonnet had to kill one of his own men who was on the point of betraying them all the the Nazis. Giraud only escaped his Nazi death-sentence when the town where he was being held was liberated by the resistance; he went on to edit a newspaper for them.)

The end: le trou des halles

The worlds that Giraud and Cloux and Yonnet describe are a vast distance from the established literature of the time, even if the you could walk in less than fifteen minutes from Giraud’s bars in the rue de Buci and rue de Seine to the Boulevard St. Germain. I don’t know if Cloux’s book will be ever be translated into English. it’s a dense, lyrical text that took me long enough to read. It felt strange to read these books and to know that, while I was reading them, not a single bar or cafe was open anywhere in Paris.

In Paris, Confined.

In Paris, Confined.

During the confinement I went out almost every morning for a walk and to buy some bread. I took my cameras with me. There was often beautiful sunshine. I like that low light and the way it shines on the buildings.

And on the streets,

A walk up the steps …

The street of the (alcoholic) artists

..and you could be sure that at that early hour, there would only be a few joggers. You didn’t see many people like myself.

Of course, no cafes or bars were open,

and the streets I liked to walk down were empty.

One thing you noticed quickly was that the signs and posters didn’t change. In the city we are used to continual change. The posters for the municipal elections held just before the lockdown started stayed up for weeks. I watched them slowly degrade with time. Mr. Campion is about the kind of person you would imagine him to be, based on this photograph. He is a Parisian attractions-park mogul and is responsible for all those tacky fake-wooden chalets you see around the city at Christmas.

In each arrondissement, his picture appears with an equally improbable figure (the local candidates).

You would find messages in the street sometimes, like this one: “thank-you rubbish-collectors”.

Or this one, helpfully written in English:

Of course there were always lost cats.

And dog-walkers.

Crossing the street was certainly easier.

It was a great relief when the parks finally opened after being closed for two months. We went right down to Montsouris on the morning that it had been opened. In some parts of the park, the grass hadn’t been cut for more than two months! Quite undheard of for a Parisian park.

Luxembourg was empty. It was lovely to hear bird-song coming from all around, and not just from the window.

We are not out of this thing yet. Now, today in Paris, because of holidays the city is even more empty. I hope I’ll be able to take some more pictures of people once again!