Arpenter le monde d'après
Ari J. Blatt  



On a cloudy spring morning in 2018, from the parking lot of a Carrefour shopping center in Lievin, a modest town in France’s post-industrial north, Thierry Girard set off for a walk. Equipped with a backpack filled with photographic gear, his camera affixed to a tripod slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, he crossed the street, circumnavigated a traffic circle, and began strolling down a sidewalk, immersing himself within the terrain, as if waiting for something to catch his eye. From the sight of it, one would be hard pressed to tell what it was about this most pedestrian of places, a busy commercial zone on the outskirts of a small town in a disaffected former mining region in the Nord-Pas de Calais, that would draw of one of France’s most talented contemporary artists.

Girard was in Lievin that day as part of a short-term residency sponsored by a nearby cultural center whose administration had commissioned himto do what he has become famous for, namely, for crafting a photographic vision of the real that reminds us that even the most ordinary and unremarkable landscapes contribute to our collective imagining of place. As the pictures curated here suggest, this was hardly the first time Girard had spent wandering this area made famous by Zola in his 1885 novel, Germinal, and which has since continued to suffer the ravages of history: from bombing campaigns that razed a number of nearby cities and towns during the two world wars, to catastrophic mining disasters and the widespread economic hardship that followed the decline of the coal extraction industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Having worked for forty years in a region that is as prone to decadence as it is brimming with life, Girard has become something of an expert at uncovering the traumas of this place’s past, and at tracking the way today’s inhabitants live alongside the ghosts left behind. To explore the area through Girard’s pictures is to discover a landscape prone to bearing witness, scarred as it is by over a century of deep human burrowing and dotted with over three hundred slag heaps rising pointedly, some as much as 140 meters high, above the surface of the region’s mostly flat ground. Eschewing historic city centers, picturesque countryside views, and other attractions that would “merit a detour” in the Michelin guide, however, preferring instead to take the road less traveled to sites marked by a confluence of past and present that often lie somewhere off the beaten path, Girard’s practice interrogates places that might otherwise leave us indifferent but which, as his photographs suggest, are perhaps more storied than they might initially seem.

 Advancing slowly now, the photographer scans from side to side and takes a breath in anticipation. As if something unforeseen could come about, a minor “epiphany, at once modest and sublime,” as he calls it, materializing out of thin air. And then something about the place stops him, quite literally, in his tracks. Girard plants his tripod, adjusts its height, and gazes through the viewfinder to frame the scene. His procedure is at once meticulous and patient. For some, it might appear quaintly retrograde, a reminder of the way certain photographic forebears composed views of the landscape over a century and a half ago. Yet while his work is indebted to past masters, his vision of place—which Girard always understands as a dynamic cultural process—is also resolutely contemporary. Melding both documentary and creative modes, his photographs turn topographic reality into a representation, all while subtly deploying a variety of rhetorical and aesthetic devices designed to give the real symbolic form laconic and seemingly dispassionate, but often ironic and always open to speculative interpretation, pictures like these are aware of tradition and the place they occupy within the history of the medium as much as they are about ways viewers might project onto them traces of their own lived experience, memories, and dreams.

After a few adjustments, Girard steps back and waits several seconds for the conditions - the light, the traffic, and the two passersby, oblivious to his presence - to settle just so. And, with a press of a button on the remote shutter release, he shoots. The image, which will later be printed, framed, exposed on a gallery wall, and published in these very pages, represents a site that appears altogether ubiquitous. Some might find the image aseptic, not unlike the simple sighting of a “street view” that the Google car could coldly pinpoint on a digital map, the image of a place that reveals itself transparently in all of its constructed and geomorphological reality. Looking more closely, however, one begins to sense how this place is nevertheless rich with significance. For within it, the photograph brings together the mundanity of everyday life on the edge of a downtrodden French town with the remnants of an important moment in France’s industrial history. Beyond the bushy foreground, viewers can discern the service station at the center of the frame, an array of commercial signage, and the haunting presence of not one but two century-old chevalements, or headframes, that one still finds scattered about in the most unlikely places in cities and towns throughout the bassin minier.  Mirrored both in the pair of red gas station banners and in the back of the traffic signage we see in the foreground, two grey circles that themselves resonate with the roundabout that lies just to the left of the frame, the steel chevalements rise above it all, dominating the scene like the church steeple faintly visible on the center-left. No matter how indifferent locals have become to them, their presence serves asan objet de mémoire as crucial to the identity of this region as the many coal tips (the terrils) that are equally prevalent in these parts. Together they embody the history of industrialization, the exploitation of labor (“Prix le plus bas!”), and the degradation of the environment in one of France’s most economically embattled territories. While this terrene peri-urban landscape has been molded over time to conform to various municipal imperatives, the photograph brings to light traces of the past that the winds of progress, in the form of local planning, space management, and commercial development, often manage to obscure.

Ultimately, Girard’s work in the Nord is replete with pictures like these that smack of their neutrality but in fact belie a subjective sensibility to the richness of this place. Indeed, another photographer working in a similarly documentary mode would very likely not have chosen this specific place as subject. And even if one did, chances are they would not have chosen to compose, frame, focus, shoot, or develop, expose, print and publish it in the same way. Walking the world with Thierry Girard shapes our gaze and attunes us to look closely. His way of seeing constitutes a dynamic, thoughtful, and altogether transformative way of envisioning what on the surface might seem like perfectly mundane locations, but which the photographs endorse as landscapes endowed with the capacity to expand and indeed “scape” our experience and understanding of the territoire.

  Ari J. Blatt is associate professor fotr French studies at UVa, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
This text as been published in "Le monde d'après" éditions Light Motiv, 2019.
retour textes