I’ve only managed to get to a handful of exhibitions since I started this course, but I’ve belatedly realised that they all had something in common: they were all about places. Mass Observation was about Great Britain and had a wide scope; the Tony Ray-Jones half of Only In England covered England generally, mainly its coastal towns, while Martin Parr’s half of the same exhibition focused specifically on Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire; Mark Neville’s Deeds Not Words was centred around Corby in Northamptonshire. The last exhibition I saw was the most specific example so far of ‘photography and place’ – a collection of new works by young photographers, all centred around ‘La Samaritaine‘, an old department store in Paris – closed down years ago but now about to be renovated. The resulting show is ‘Ma Samaritaine 2013‘. A more detailed description is on the Paris Photo website, but in summary, eleven young photographers were given carte blanche by the Samaritaine creative team to each produce a series of photographs, “organising them as they saw fit in order to express what the site evoked in them through the filter of their eye and their sensibility.” The exhibition takes place in the disused store itself, which deepens the connections between the images and the space they inhabit. The old fixtures and fittings of a faded department store – staircases, changing rooms, shelving – act as makeshift gallery. Unsurprisingly, the 11 photographers all took different approaches to the general brief. I’ve grouped them in what I saw as similar styles. Posed: Tomoya Fujimoto produced a series of cinematic images of intense-looking French couples, with the store relegated to background character, while Marion Gambin reversed the ratio, with wide angle shots of models posing in the vast open spaces of the empty shop. Oliver Aoun went the middle way, with his dreamlike ‘ghosts and angels’ given equal prominence to the Samaritaine setting, and I found his work to be the most interesting. His intention (and I’m translating from the French here, so bear with me) was to ‘discover the imprint left behind by the people who had passed through the place, to show the traces made visible by their absence’. He got the blend of people and place just right, and to me his work was possibly the most successful interpretation of the brief. Marie Gruel took a similar ‘ghostly’ approach, albeit more shadowy, more of a spooky horror film kind of vibe.
Interior: Some of them used the inside spaces of the store itself as their subjects, with Marin Hock taking a more deadpan architectural approach while David de Rueda and Clement Briend were more lyrical in their compositions and use of light and shade. In the main these left me fairly unmoved to be honest. I have no aversion to architectural photography per se, but not having any previous knowledge of the store itself, images of the empty spaces didn’t evoke any particular reaction. The most interesting of the three was Briend, whose work was more of a light installation than pure photography.
Exterior: Vladimir Vasilev focused on the surrounding streets, in a mono street photography style that brings out the grittiness of the back alleys at night, in contrast to the bright and colourful image projected by the storefront in its heyday. Marikel Lahana went one step further, focusing on a specific resident of the quarter, a transexual called Stéphanie, making this work more a character study than a study of place. Of the two I much preferred Vasilev’s work; he got the sense of place nailed I think, albeit in a very different way to those who focused on the interior and the history of the store.
Abstract: finally, Nica Junker and Philong Sovan created more graphical, lyrical images using the Samaritaine as raw material. I found these aesthetically more interesting than many of the more literal photographs. Junker’s series was more carefully constructed thematically, juxtaposing close-ups of the remaining fixtures with product information and old advertising slogans to evoke the sense of the shopping experience itself, not merely the building. In a way this gave more of sense of connection with the Samaritaine than many of those images that focused purely on the physical space. Sovan’s work focused on shooting at and through what remains of the windows, using the available light to bring out otherwise unnoticed details.
I found this to be a fascinating exhibition that I’m incredibly grateful to have stumbled upon. It was a great opportunity to look at the work of a wide range of contemporary photographers, all previously unknown to me. I now have 11 new bookmarks in my ‘Photographers’ folder in my web browser. As someone who had never even heard of the Samaritaine before this day, did I leave with a sense of the old place? Not really, if I’m honest. In a way, the subject could have been anything. It just happened to be an old department store.