For over thirty years, Thierry Girard has explored photography’s capacity to shape our sense of place. One of France’s most important living photographers, winner of the prestigious Niépce prize, Girard seeks to unearth the intelligence of the landscape, to reveal through the image what Michel Chaillou calls the repository of “hidden knowledge” that invests even the most familiar of places, but which we all too often fail to apprehend. His pictures attend to sites of ostensibly little merit, often off the well-trodden path, in between, or en route. There is nothing very “decisive” about the moments these images arrest. Nor do they lull viewers into passive admiration for the picturesque. Rather, the sharp, penetrating photographs on display here all consider seemingly anodyne portions of the French territoire as privileged sites of contemplation, identifying the places they sight as caches of memory, affect, and deep thinking about the physical contours of the nation.
In a 2010 essay, “De l’esprit des lieux” Girard expresses a key thought that unites virtually every image in his corpus, including many on display here: “early on, I realized that the landscape was not indifferent, and that it would be all too reductive to dismiss it simply as that which appears in our line of sight, before us.” To suggest that landscape is hardly indifferent or unconcerned with anything beyond what it shows us, is to acknowledge that the world is always “thick” with meaning, with presence, indeed with a kind of thought, “une pensée paysage” as Michel Collot calls it, that invites us to think with and through place, whether we happen to be physically present in the sites themselves or beholders, like visitors of this exhibition, of their representation. Photographs like these expose a genius loci, a génie du lieux, a “spirit of place” that is often obfuscated by the everyday, hidden in plain sight, but that ultimately, when we stumble upon it, has the power to enchant, enlighten, and move. Over the years, Thierry Girard has cultivated a meditative form of patience that fosters this kind of cognitive stumbling. He has also mastered the techniques of an art form attuned to the nuances of the environment and sensitive to the minutiae of the real. As such, Thierry Girard does not so much “shoot” photographs. He concedes his gaze to the surroundings and, quite simply, perhaps more poetically, allows images to happen.
While Girard has photographed far and wide, across Europe and the United States, and in India, China, and Japan most notably, some of the artist’s most compelling work focuses on his native France. The photographs that comprise this exhibition represent numerous locales throughout the “Hexagon” and collectively map portions of the artist’s homeland. They also testify to a recent “topographic turn” in contemporary French culture by which a number of that country’s most celebrated artists and thinkers have sought to ascertain the look and feel of metropolitan France, and to express its identity in spatial terms. In doing so, they challenge some of the most dominant commonplaces and clichés associated with “French” culture and the mythologies it has engendered. Girard’s work, especially, contributes to our understanding of what “France” is, means, and how it appears. His photographic landscapes experiment with genre, the medium of photography, and its traditions to imagine—and make visible—a more expansive idea of his country’s shared common space.
L’intelligence du paysage/Intelligent Landscapes highlights a diverse set of distinct though not mutually exclusive principles that exemplify that ethos and have informed Girard’s work since the 1980s. The first is a predilection for itineraries. Influenced by the kind of photographic road trip made famous by the likes of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore, Girard has produced a number of series that trace a preordained path over and around a particular territory or region. These photographs not only chronicle places visited and things seen, they attest to a more personal, more intimate journey that Girard experiences along the way. Compared to these photographic itineraries, which are all facilitated by modern modes of transport (trains, planes, and automobiles), the photographs that record Girard’s marches photographiques, or photographic walks, revel in their slowness. Walking in nature, these pictures tell us, awakens the senses and opens the body and mind to the intelligence of the landscape that the artist seeks not so much to capture but to emit in his photographs.
A third tendency that informs Girard’s practice is the recognition of a metaphorical potential inherent in the landscape, and in the representation of that landscape in photographs that distance themselves from a more documentary mode. The photographer, motivated here by concerns more lyrical than descriptive, seeks to ascribe a sense of poetry or symbolism to the visible world and unlock the hidden secrets at play beneath or beyond what we can see with our own eyes.
The sampling of Girard’s work commissioned by the Observatoire photographique du paysage, also aims to render the invisible visible, but in a different way. The OPP, as it’s known, is public survey project that began in 1991 and which continues to sponsor some of France’s (and Europe’s) most innovative photographers as they track the way man and nature collude to alter the vernacular landscape. Working under a series of technical constraints designed to streamline the composition of each image, OPP photographers like Girard return year after year to the same region to photograph and systematically rephotograph a variety of sites, thereby documenting their evolution, and the evolution of how we see them, over time.
Other photographs shown here that embody the photographer’s interest in the diversity of France’s heterogeneous “territories” are the product of long-term residencies, notably in the Oise, north of Paris, and in the Creuse, Haute-Vienne, and Deux-Sèvres departments in central France. Usually commissioned by local councils in the regions they depict, these photographs emerge from a more sustained study of place. Perhaps more importantly, they indicate and evoke the photographer’s own immersion, both physical and emotional, in those places.
Finally, this exhibition also includes a suite of images designed to introduce viewers to the way Girard’s interest in the intelligence of everyday landscapes has evolved most recently. The pictures that comprise these arrangements include a selection of staged photographs that think through the history of landscape painting and revisit an imaginary museum of images by some of Europe’s greatest artists, as well as four prints from the Ardennes region that offer a reflection on both the landscape of a military defeat (during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) and the current demographic decline in far northern France. Both series epitomize many of the core principles mentioned above, all the while suggesting new directions that the artist’s work might take in the future.
© Ari J. Blatt, 2015
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of French University of Virginia
This exhibit (february-may 2015) is generously supported by the Department of French, the McIntire Department of Art, the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, and the Buckner W. Clay Endowment for Emerging Issues in the Global Humanities.
A special thank to Willian Wylie, Professor of Art, University of Virginia.=