Published in an earlier version in SOMA magazine, December/January, 2002


At what moment does a photograph come to be taken?

Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography


There is no close-up of the face. The close-up is the face, but the face precisely in so far as it has destroyed its triple function – a nudity of the face much greater than that of the body, an inhumanity much greater than that of animals... But more importantly, the close-up turns the face into a phantom, and the book of phantoms.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema One


Valerie Jouve , Untitled , n. 3, 1994

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 3, 1994

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled, n. 4  1992

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 4 1992

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled, n. 3  1997/98

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 3 1997/98


Lost In Thought

Valerie Jouve's portraits are about subjects lost in thought, elementary actions caught in medias res, behavioral ticks that perhaps allude to something, but what that something is remains opaque. There seems to be a certain reticence in the subjects, a turning away, a particularly urban solitude that produces strange body movements, such as those that happen to people who don’t experience intimacy over long periods and are then put into an intimate situation. Some of the subjects are thinking silently and keeping it to themselves. They maintain a certain distance. Narrative is everywhere (like rocks on the beach, as Barthes described it), but nothing takes hold, nothing solidifies into what is called a primary narrative. What is that narrative? For most photographic portraiture that means to continue the traditions inherited from painting, but to bring them into the present moment, as if this were a matter of simple transposition. Those “traditions inherited from painting” are simple: to provide the basic data of the subject’s appearance, identity, social station, and sensibility in a single image - no small feat.

When it is successful a portrait may achieve what fiction and philosophy have only dreamed of, or vaguely dared to do, and rarely accomplished - that is to convey the nuances of a consciousness in the midst of creating itself in the world at large. In conventional portraits the “sitter,” as they are often referred to, are then subjected to the powerful narrative tropes of specificity - of the world of things and places that enclose the subject not only in her “reality” but in a psychic space, a space of narration that indexes what lies outside of the frame. When we look at portraits we then trace the passage of this face, this body that is pictured, through the historical, cultural and existential predicaments of her time. The subject is in effect a medium, between past and present, living and dead, presence and absence. The subject is a porous membrane and we see how history has flowed through her body, her being, her presentation - or mask. We may, for example, look for the sort of significant gestures that "tell a story" - moments that commercial photographers create on a regular basis with a few carefully chosen props (props that were a part of Rembrandt’s studio as well as David Bailey’s) - but in Jouve’s portraits the story never arrives, or perhaps it has yet to arrive, or maybe it arrived and left and we are too late. The ingredients are all present but the narrative refuses to come into focus - but to what end?

The photographs are in color and show contemporary figures in urban settings amongst the rings of suburbs that surround the cities of Marseilles, Lyon, and Paris, which is where Valerie Jouve has lived and where she finds the primary locations for her work. In her portraits, context is of supreme importance as the landscapes envelop their subjects, and the subjects envelop the landscapes – they create a dialogue. Valerie Jouve: “What interests me above all else is the question of the handling of space... Above all, it’s a matter of understanding how the figure confers presence on its surroundings. Here architecture is presented as the emblematic form of space that man creates for himself in order to exist.”(1) The natural and the man-made seem to flow into each other reciprocating an unfinished movement – one does not play second fiddle to the other – they are interpenetrating, and all of this activity seems to have been caught on the fly as she choreographs her subjects articulating a gesture that is difficult to define. This sometimes happens in the films of John Cassavetes, in which the camera stays on actors as they struggle to realize their character past the point that they are embarrassed or feel they need to remember their lines or their blocking. What we see at that point is that highly personal, often very awkward mannerisms come to the surface, and the distance between fictional characterizations and the actor's own personas at a certain point disintegrates - these are the moments that both Cassavetes and Jouve hold dear.


Valerie Jouve,  Untitled n. 17 , 1996

Valerie Jouve, Untitled n. 17, 1996

An Encyclopedia of Gestures

One senses in the photographs a patient meditation on consciousness and time, but as physically manifested in the world rather than as concepts considered through illustrative art or text. How does she do that? Jouve: “My first contact with the history of photography, for example, was when I discovered a book by Avedon that set up a parallel between miners and celebrities. What struck me was this presence of a social reality devoid of analytical perspective and yet full of meaning. This discovery occurred when I was studying sociology. At the time I was taking photographs purely for my research and it so happens that I rejected discourse in favor of the powerful presence of the individual subjects... aesthetics allow you to do without discourse, to present things in all of their complexity”(2) In the work of Valerie Jouve there is a poetics of description in all of its complexity without "discourse" – an aspect of French art that goes back at least to Edgar Degas, who claimed in his letters the desire to create drawings that would build an encyclopedic series of psychological facial expressions and physiological gestures peculiar to his time.(3) His whole body of work can in a sense be seen as the introduction to this "encyclopedia" which he envisioned but that was never made. August Sander tried something similar and Jouve has much in common with their encyclopedic endeavors.

Jouve explains her beginnings in photography: “This was 1983 and I was working with a Franco-Algerian association in Lyon on the issue of immigration. In the suburbs of Lyon I was studying a group of about fifteen young people in an attempt to define the characteristics of the beur generation (North Africans born in France of immigrant parents). The photographs I was taking at the time had no special qualities, they were just visual notes, a reminder for the study. Still, individuals as such were both in and outside the frame of my analysis, just as they were both a part of the group and deeply isolated, in fact. And it seemed to me that Sociology completely failed to take this phenomenon into account, that it was somehow insensitive to anything that was not a human group.”(4) With her images Jouve was arguing for a different kind of reality not tied to discourse or to “groups” symbolically occupying a “space,” but to individuals in a particular place/time. In effect her photography was, from the start, anti-academic not by design but by default - the photographs offered an alternative vision to her sociology - that had "completely failed" - an alternative that seemed more factual, more real, and most important of all, more responsive to individuals and their environment, and the complex emotions inherent in that lifelong relationship. 

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled, n. 6 , 1994

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 6, 1994

From an exhibition in Paris at the Centre National de la Photographie from 1998, Sans titre No. 6, Sans titre No. 7, and Sans titre No. 23, show people in the midst of contemporary, everyday life, which is unusual. Most photographs capture aspects of the contemporary by chance, if at all. In effect the photographers happen to be in the present - in a particular place - but they are not consciously doing anything with it. It is a purely passive relationship. Jouve is not passive. Her training in sociology no doubt helps, because in sociological work you must actively engage and question things, no matter how ordinary or routine they may appear. In fact it is often precisely these details of everyday life that are the subject of sociological inquiry. With these portraits, Jouve is consciously doing research into the relations between the subject and their environment. With regard to method, these are portraits of people whom she has found and asked to pose. Jouve makes a notation of them and then waits to find an appropriate place that they can inhabit. She then calls the subject, suggests the location and if the subject agrees a day is set aside for shooting the image. She uses a large format camera, usually a 4x5, and color film. Her framing is reminiscent of 35mm snapshots and often consciously mimics the laconic, offhand framing sometimes associated with ethnographic photography, which is used as a form of notation, or journal keeping.

While most of the work is framed as is, Jouve is not adverse to using digital manipulation to eliminate unwanted areas within the urban landscape that envelops the subject, or even to changing that landscape altogether, as in Untitled, n. 20, 1994/1996 (last page). Here the beautiful young French/African woman dressed in a bright dress covered in flowers, was first in a busy Parisian street, but Jouve was not happy with the result. Two years later she found a better background for her subject - a building reflecting the street that is housing a new white BMW automobile - and using Photoshop she combined the new background to the original portrait. The result is one of her best, and most charged works. 

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled n. 27,  1996

Valerie Jouve, Untitled n. 27, 1996

The Instant

The “instant” that photography presumably captures without effort on the part of the photographer is usually ascribed to a mechanism: the shutter. Jacques Derrida identifies the “instant” as a time/space coordinate with varying degrees of duration and a complex relationship to specific places and times that the words “instant” and “space” seem unable to describe. In effect they describe a generality, or a concept, but not the thing itself. This now problematic "instant" (that must from now on be in quotes) is identified by Jouve as something that is no longer a given, no longer a transparent technical byproduct, but rather something that is now visible and problematic. Derrida: “Reference is complex; it is no longer simple, and in that time sub- events can occur, differentiations, micrological modifications giving rise to possible compositions, dissociations, and re-compositions, to “effects,” if you like, to artifices that definitively break with the presumed phenomenological naturalism that would see in photographic technology the miracle of technology that effaces itself in order to give us a natural purity, time itself, the unalterable and un-literable experience of a pre-technical perception (as if there were any such thing).”(5) For Derrida, the word “instant” has a specific dictionary meaning that the mechanics of photography cannot be said to actually articulate (or capture) in reality because of fluctuations in time/space within that “instant” – there is a gap – which he frames as a question: “At what moment does a photograph come to be taken?”(6) In short, not all instants are the same - they do not all have the same duration or the same relationship to a place. Paul Virilio put it much more simply and poetically: “Immediacy, simultaneity, instantaneity, and ubiquity are all so many attributes of divinity that each allows us to escape the historic conditions of humanity.”(7) Escaping “the historic conditions of humanity” might be the heart and soul of the American Puritan enterprise - its very reason for being.

What Derrida and Virilio are saying here might at first hand sound like sophistry or nitpicking but what they are suggesting is not only radical, it is quite scary. They are saying that the vast majority of portraits throughout history are, in effect, not portraits at all but people subsumed to a complex series of conventions in vogue when the picture was taken - and so we have rarely - if ever - actually seen a portrait of a person as they are in reality. Could this be right? Have we never actually seen a picture of our real parents? Have we never seen a real picture of a baby? If someone were to take a photograph of a sunset free of photographic conventions would we even recognize it? What would such a picture look like? Have we in some sense filtered out "real" portraits of actual humans because they were horrifying or boring or incomprehensible in favor of an "idea of portraiture?" If this is so then photographic portraits adhere to a myth of the image rather than to reality - to the thing itself - they represent the world as we would like it to be because we have been trained to see it that way, and new images follow these conventions to gain immediate acceptance as a matter of course. By inference we must conclude that every picture on Instagram is in some sense about "Instagram" and not the person pictured in any of the images - of course we may say the same of any institution or media site or journal that disseminates images.

Valerie Jouve , Untitled, n. 5,  1991

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 5, 1991

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled n. 6,  1997/98

Valerie Jouve, Untitled n. 6, 1997/98

One proof for this radical idea, which most people have experienced, is that when the conventions of the present wither and die their artificiality becomes readily visible. It is then that we see foremost, not the subject of a portrait, but the conventions of photography that have become visible and obvious - in a sense this photographic convention encases the portrait like a shroud. These conventions are so ubiquitous (once they are dead) that they seem to obscure who the real person was more than to reveal them - which in fact is the case. For example, a portrait from 1900 taken in London is bound to tell us much more about the conventions of portraiture in London in 1900 than anything about the sitter - conventions that are now plainly visible from across a room but that in 1900 were invisible. That is why the seemingly self-evident question by Derrida that opens this essay - At what moment does a photograph come to be taken? -  is in fact the opening to an abyss that few would want to explore. Maybe some fearless philosopher/photographer of the future will venture there and come back with a story to tell. 

Interestingly Henri Cartier-Bresson, the man who coined the term "the decisive moment" turned against this idea towards the end of his life.(8) Whether this was due to a re-consideration or to simply being fed up with people taking his famous term as an almost religious credo that they repeated back to him like trained parrots is not clear. Cartier-Bresson was well aware that his proof-sheets - full of non-decisive moments - were in some ways as interesting as the "decisive" ones that made it to the exhibits and into the books. He knew that if one took fifty photographs of a person, in some images they are likely to appear quite thoughtful, or stupid, or angry, or asleep, or - worst of all - to have some expression that is not even identifiable; but one image usually got the person as they present themselves to the public - as the Americans like to say it's the image where all of the ducks line up - the decisive moment. But is it possible that another image in the same roll of film that is not decisive is in fact truer to reality? Towards the end of his life I think Cartier-Bresson started to see that while this might not be true as a matter of course, it might be possible. 

Sam Jones, Portrait of Barack Obama, Rolling Stone October 16, 2008

Sam Jones, Portrait of Barack Obama, Rolling Stone October 16, 2008

Portraits of Power

When Sam Jones photographed Barack Obama for the cover of Rolling Stone (October 16, 2008), published one month before the presidential election, he used the traditional conventions of the portrait and the most technically sophisticated apparatus then available, an 8X10 camera with a strobe. The effect was to produce a portrait that in no way questions the conventions of portraiture, and for that reason we can learn much from it. Jones’ image takes a particular approach popular in the early 21st century for celebrity portraiture - he uses a short lens with a very shallow depth of field. This causes crisp details that accentuate and places attention on the eyes and the mouth. There is then a subtle gradation in focus to the nose, and then a sharp, decisive gradation, to out of focus areas over the rest of the face, with the ears, neck and suit out of focus. The lighting, which is crucial in this portrait, comes from a key light placed above and to the right of the subject, with a frontal strobe light with a diffuser to create minimal shadows. The purpose of this very even lighting covering every square millimeter of the face to such a degree, which in reality is never seen except in unusual circumstances, such as on a hospital operating table, is to convey the idea that there is nothing hidden in this person – no dark corners or scary closets. This portrait by Sam Jones is meant to convey psychological and physical health, confidence, intelligence, sobriety, and sexiness. We are not meant to ask questions or to have doubts of any kind in the presence of this portrait. We are meant only to respond to these ideas because the form is presumably transparent to most viewers. Of course in a few decades, or perhaps only in a few years, it will cease to be invisible, and come to the foreground as the individual presented recedes into the trappings of photographic convention. While similar portraits were taken in 2008 of George W. Bush - Barack Obama's opponent - the photographer in those instances chose a more antiquated convention of soft lighting and generalized focus of interest. Jone's portrait is hip, cool and up to the minute - just like Mr. Obama wanted to present himself to the public. Whatever we may think of Obama as a person or a president his portrait for Rolling Stone by Jones proclaims a new rock star is now on the horizon - one that is not at all like his predecessors (in a photographic sense). 

Yasumasa Morimura,  A Requiem: Where is the Dictator?  2007

Yasumasa Morimura, A Requiem: Where is the Dictator? 2007

Power of Portraits

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Jone’s non-reflexive image is Yasumasa Morimura’s work in which he photographs himself playing out various tableaus from well-known paintings, photographs, and films. This work is insistently, pathologically self-reflexive. In A Requiem: Where is the Dictator? (2007), Morimura dresses up like Hitler and/or Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” - or both at the same time - giving the Nazi salute. Morimura has a microphone prop made from a dildo and the figures in the background are dressed up in suits and animal masks – most conspicuously a pig. The photograph is an attempt to approach the political clichés and propaganda images from a tragic past that is fundamentally beyond Morimura’s art. Chaplin saw the News on the March serials that were contemporary in 1936, and from Hitler’s body language created The Great Dictator (1940). The newsreels in the 1930’s were not subtitled and Chaplin did not understand one word of what Hitler was saying, but he understood the body language. He could see the pathological thug in Hitler’s facial expressions and his hand and shoulder movements, and in how he regarded a crowd when he spoke. It was a brilliant analysis that put the subsequent facile criticisms of Chaplin’s work as sentimental to shame. Chaplin, without understanding one word, saw that Hitler’s image was disturbing, powerful, enigmatic, seductive, and terrifying because he was there and absorbed it in real time. The dialectic at work in The Great Dictator is highly complex because of its relation to lived historical reality as a counterpoint to slapstick comedy and the insistence on the absurd - the tragic and the comic share the stage, as in Shakespeare. Chaplin had done this once before - in the short The Immigrant (1917) - that placed vaudeville comedians on a boat with refugees headed for Ellis Island in New York, to start a new life - this film was, by his own admission, his greatest work. For Morimura history is conflated and reduced into a simplistic neoclassical cartoonish portrait that says more about Morimura’s calculated narcissism than it does about Chaplin, Hitler, or the work that they created or sponsored. That is because Morimura is dealing with history as stock photography - in his work every historical image (fact or fiction) is part of a menu from which to concoct a meal – a discursive, didactic system that does not discover meaning but animates it – or more to the point, illustrates it. The facile treatment of fascist images from the past – treated as accoutrements in a fashion shoot – are there to amuse, titillate, or shock, depending on the tenderness of one’s sensibilities. Unfortunately for Morimura the ironic tropes at his disposal have already calcified into an orthodoxy that is out of touch with everyday life – as moribund and institutionally entrenched as the images that bemused the wealthy patrons in the European Salons of another age.

Catherine Opie,  Devin, High School Football , 2010

Catherine Opie, Devin, High School Football, 2010

Portraits Made to Order for Those In Power

In Catherine Opie’s photographs of young athletes in front of their respective field, stadium or training ground, we have a third possibility for the photographic portrait. In a body of work from 2010, Opie uses a large format camera to photograph high school football players in seven states across the USA. The finished color prints have no grain from the film stock - the large photographs are then framed and displayed on a wall, referencing painting and traditional art. As the text for the promotional material at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art explains the work, “...explore issues of masculinity, community and national identity.”(9) In fact Opie’s work beautifully illustrates Walter Benjamin’s primary gripe with the medium and with photographers. Benjamin: “As Brecht says: ‘The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reproduction of reality say anything about reality’... Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations – the factory, say – means that they are no longer explicit. So in fact ‘something must be built up,’ something ‘artificial,’ ‘posed.’ ” (10) What Benjamin is saying is that, as with Derrida's complaints, reality is missing and we are left with the "pose." We have in Opie’s work this theater of young football players in uniform dutifully arranged in a conventional, formal, manner with a conservative use of focus and frontal framing that we may read ironically or not, depending on our aesthetic tastes. The problem, as Benjamin puts it, lies elsewhere. The complex situation – cultural, economic, racial, sexual, etc. – of teenage boys who play football in various places across America at the beginning of the 21st century is not explored at all. For that we would no doubt have to turn to the photographs that high school football players, and their family, friends and lovers, have taken of each other and themselves and posted on Instagram - or better yet those that were too strange, or intimate, or revealing to be posted on any social media site. These would probably provide very interesting - perhaps even fascinating and revealing explorations of “masculinity, community and national identity” – and for that very reason prove unacceptable within any institutional framework, including the one that exhibits Opie’s work. In fact such photography can probably not be shown anywhere at all. If this is true then it means that possibly there has never been, and there is currently, no outlet available for the photography of reality under any umbrella. That’s quite remarkable for a society that repeatedly refers to itself as “transparent” because of the ubiquity of images. That is why again with Benjamin’s essay in mind, we can say that not only in Opie’s work, but in photographic portraiture per se ‘less than ever does the mere reproduction of reality say anything about reality.’ 

Georges Perec was arguing for something similar to Benjamin in his essay Approaches to What?: “The daily papers talk of everything except the daily. The daily papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the question I ask or would like to ask. What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?” In effect Perec is saying that the daily newspaper pretends to deliver reality in the form of text and images but that, in reality, it does no such thing. It provides stories and effects, anecdotes and quotes, editorials and illustrations, concepts and conclusions, but reality is nowhere to be found. Where is it? Perec asks - the question is in one sense rhetorical, for the answer is that it is elsewhere, outside of the regime of image/text found in newspapers - and as we see with the work of Morimura and Opie, outside of the regime of aesthetics found in Art.

The idea that young men in the Midwest would need someone from Los Angeles or New York to come to their hometown and explore issues of any kind is already to some extent so removed from reality as to be unintentionally funny. One can already see the outlines of a skit that could be made from it - something like Charles Ludlam's wonderful, and very funny, play from the New York downtown scene of the 1980's, Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde. But the moral issue becomes serious when we consider that Opie’s work has a functional reason that the institutional apparatus is interested in promoting – and that is the idea that “issues” can be photographed and inserted into artworks, that are then extrapolated by academics and museum administrators who explain what those “issues” might be to the museum public. This helpless and uninformed public presumably needs explanations since they only see large scale photographs, with pinpoint focus, of football players wearing their gear on a field posing for a picture - the reason they see this of course is that this is what is in front of them. It is the job of the academic or museum director to explain the meaning that lies under the surface, hidden in some invisible place that they see because they are trained professionals. Therefore it is in the descriptive text where the central nervous system of the work is to be found, not in the images, which in this case are merely the "delivery systems" for themes (an approach to art making that many young artists learn in graduate programs in the West, and treat as a matter of course). The world as portrayed is not the world as it is regardless of the supporting texts that may try to make us believe it is so.

The central relationship under discussion here is not between the photographer and the subject, but between the photographer and the caption writer and the essayist who delivers the meaning. Opie’s photographs are expository illustrations that serve the text that explains and interprets, but the problem remains: The reason the public cannot see these “issues” is because they are, in fact, not there. Opie’s work serves to illustrate - or we might say stage - the already prescribed notions of “masculinity, community, and national identity” that the institution would like to promote because they already have a clear concept about football players and the "correct" way to understand their condition - instead of living human beings there are codes of masculinity, codes of behavior, codes of social conditioning, etc. What he have here is a sleight of hand - a presumed attempt to extrapolate ideas from an image premade to illustrate concepts already accepted as fact. There is certainly something that we can learn from Opie's photographs, but it is not about football players in the Midwest, but rather about the rules of reading photographic discourse within institutions in New York and Los Angeles. In a strange sense, Opie’s work is so conservative, orthodox and pedagogic that it ceases to be about those young men – just as the photograph of factories taken by photojournalists that Benjamin was describing, regardless of their well intentioned premise, were not really about factories or the people who spent their lives there, but only served the interests of pre-established narratives that used the pictures as a means to an end - the photograph is merely supporting evidence, an exhibit, “proof.”

Photograph by George Porcari, 2008 Bus riders sit atop a “bus-wrap” promoting a Hollywood film - an image at the service of those in power.

Photograph by George Porcari, 2008 Bus riders sit atop a “bus-wrap” promoting a Hollywood film - an image at the service of those in power.

The Prostitution of the Image

The most ubiquitous photographs seen on a daily basis - our true public art - are images that are at the service of advertising. What is this form in a nutshell? Here is Susan Sontag: “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex.”(11) Advertising, like capitalism itself, is always in a state of crisis and ecstasy, of unrestrained aggression and guilty, self-conscious altruism, of amoral principles and Calvinist, bourgeois propriety. Jean Baudrillard brought the moral issue, with regard to the portraiture that we see today in magazines, billboards, galleries, news outlets and social media, front and center in his typically penetrating and grumpy manner, as he writes specifically about fine art photography, but we can, provisionally, apply his succinct analysis to advertising images: "It is the nothingness at the heart of the image which lends it its magic and its power and which is most often driven out by significations. In the festivals, galleries, museums, and exhibitions the images teem with messages, testimony, aesthetic sentimentality, and stereotypes. This is a prostitution of the image to what it signifies, to what it seeks to communicate - the image taken hostage by media operators or newsagents."[12] The difference between advertising and fine art photography in this regard is that the latter is usually (but not always) “taken by force” - although at times, as we see in Opie’s work, it is a willing participant in a complex reciprocal arrangement with the art institutions owned by the state, which serves as a kind of client in need of illustrations. The problem being described here - the institutional neutralization of contemporary art - is not new. This is Walter Benjamin from his 1937 essay “The Author as Producer:” “The bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”

In advertising of course the image is from its inception made to be sold in the marketplace - in this situation images are, as Marshall McLuhan so well put it, placed in a “brothel without walls.” In the case of fine art photographs - especially those made outside of our consumer society - the complex content, context and meaning, that was perhaps originally contradictory, politically incorrect or even incomprehensible - what Baudrillard refers to, with Gallic nonchalance, as "nothingness" - has been killed and covered up. For the French philosopher we, as a society, have "murdered the real."[13] This new image now raped and devoid of its "real" context is washed clean like a cadaver in a morgue. It is then brought back to life - a zombie image - subjected to narratives and concepts to do the bidding of "festivals, galleries, museums and exhibitions" - that is, to become a slave to those in power. Unlike earlier totalitarian models - such as Stalinist Russia - where artists were coerced into obedience, tortured or killed, the new model now is much more subtle and less brutal; the institutions of cultural power merely create an “atmosphere'“ or a “climate" and everyone dresses accordingly. From an artist’s perspective - in the fine art or commercial realm - owning the copyright of an image that is working as a slave can be highly lucrative as the image/commodity speaks “lies to power” and the owner of the slave image is then compensated in an appropriate manner. The photograph trades on its exchange value in the market but it does so at the expense of its power as an expression of a consciousness, that is, it is no longer an image that thinks. The master does the thinking, the image obeys - or as Baudrillard so beautifully put it, the image is “made to work.”

Chantal Akerman, (film still)  Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels , 1975 The main character is beautifully framed between frames - the mirror that she looks at on the left and the black and white portrait on the right.

Chantal Akerman, (film still) Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, 1975 The main character is beautifully framed between frames - the mirror that she looks at on the left and the black and white portrait on the right.

Valerie Jouve, (film still)  Grand Littoral,  2002-2003

Valerie Jouve, (film still) Grand Littoral, 2002-2003

Film Work

That Jouve makes films seems natural, as in her framing, she is not only cinematic, but consciously stretching the possibilities of duration in photography. Interestingly, in her films she does the opposite – slowing down the flow of images so we consider shots as still images - something that Chantal Akerman was also working with, during a similar time period, but in a different manner, as Akerman plunged, with bravado, into narratives within the world of film genre which she explored in depth. Jouve does not share (in her films at least) this interest in genre or in conventional narratives, such as Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly - brilliantly adapted by Akerman in 2012 - where she turned the conventions of the adventure film inside out. Nevertheless when we look at the work of these two artists we are reminded that the French word for looking is “regard.” Jouve consciously suggests duration in her framing and in the body language of the subjects at the moment that she chooses to capture them. While at first glance this might link Jouve's work with Gille's Deleuze's "any-instant-whatever" (immobile sections + abstract time) the portraits resist this classification - Jouve's images have a beautifully thought out tension between the subject and the urban landscape that is as measured and intentional as any classical portrait. This urban poetics holds our attention in a way that is outside the domain of Deleuze's concept or any theory, regardless of how appropriate it may be to certain aspects of her work. In effect Jouve's pictures are not programmed or conceptualized in the pre-production state, in order to follow rules, platitudes or theories. The process is a messy, improvisational endeavor, and as in any such search the detours and the mistakes are endless, and these eventually become an essential part of the finished photograph. Her work signals the beginning for a concern with duration in photography as a philosophical approach, as a way of looking and understanding particular places (as opposed to the more general “space”). In a sense she achieves what Richard Avedon sought to accomplish. Avedon: “Lately I’ve become interested in the passage of time within a photograph. I’d like to be able to do one long, long photograph that begins in one place and moves logically to another, in time and in event.”(14) Clearly Avedon wanted to fuse photography to cinema - and that is something that Jouve accomplishes conceptually with her photo and film work by putting an emphasis on duration, emotional connections between subject and landscape - and by concentrating on moments of physical and psychological transition normally outside the domain or portraiture. 

Valerie Jouve,  Untitled n. 7,  1992

Valerie Jouve, Untitled n. 7, 1992

The World at Large

In Jouve’s work, this awkwardness, this fragility of faces, this uncertain, contingent nature inherent in the portraits is where we may find the heart of her work. Her photography might be described as a ‘manifesto of awkwardness.’ The philosopher Adam Kotsko describes awkwardness as “... the best angle on our relationship to other people, or the intrinsically social nature of humanity.”(15) Where have we seen this awkwardness before? It is in the cinema of Jean Eustache, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda and Jean Rouch where we see a similar polysemic aesthetic to Jouve’s. Despite many obvious differences in their work, these filmmakers sought to understand how morals and adaptation to civilization work within the social in everyday life as they understood it. They were fascinated by how human beings are caught in a particular time/place and how they dealt with it over time. They used their cameras to scout, to explore, to do sociological research with images. They did not express ideas, they found them on the street. Jean Rouch asked people, “are you happy?” and built a brilliant portrait of his time (1962) and place (France) from the answers in a film called The Jolly Month of May. As in the work of these filmmakers, the creation of images for Jouve is something like ‘close observation’ as practiced by anthropologists - the backbone of the ethnographic cinema practiced by Rouch. This is analogous to writing history about the present while being inside the present and jostling with it. Is this a roundabout way of saying photojournalism? Perhaps, but photojournalism has its own demons that Jouve chooses to ignore, the most obvious being that she has the great luxury of time. She often spends months finding the right location and preparing the shoot - as any good sociologist working on a case. If that historian of the contemporary Jean Rouch could ask, with a certain bluster in 1962, “are you happy today?” Valerie Jouve asks question now with a greater sense of precariousness and skepticism, using photography as a research tool, to find her way around.

Jouve is an artist fascinated by the complex, organic minutiae of the quotidian at the expense of any sociological theory that might explain reality by fitting it into an organized system of knowledge. Jouve is thinking with the photographic portrait – the subjects are on a journey with her and the images are what is left over from that journey, that exploration, that duration - and indeed they are awkward - open cases in an ongoing ethnographic examination of our time - and the subject under study is, of course, ourselves. She accomplishes the difficult task of improvisation by grounding the work in the reality of her own time, allowing the non sequitur and the exception space to breathe. It should go without saying that most fine art photography, (as we have seen with Morimura and Opie) - as well as advertising (the two sides of the same coin) are conceptually based so reality is there, if at all, simply as window dressing, or worse, as a backdrop to a piece of theater. Jouve understands in her work how the present tense of photography also contains traces of the past and the future – of interior and exterior – mask and reality - a "montage within the image" as she calls it (16). But this cannot be interpolated, rather, it must be discovered and experienced, not just once like a flash of inspiration but day to day - a routine of experience and discovery - where direct meaning has been left open, as if undecided, from a sense of conscientiousness as it applies to her photographic field work and its "close observation."  


Valerie Jouve,  Untitled, n. 20 , 1994/1996

Valerie Jouve, Untitled, n. 20, 1994/1996

1 Valerie Jouve, Valerie Jouve (Centre National de la Photographie), 1998

2 Valerie Jouve, Centre National de la Photographie

3 Richard Kendall, Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings (Time Warner Books), 2004

4 Valerie Jouve, Centre National de la Photographie

5. Valerie Jouve, Centre National de la Photographie

6. Gerhard Richter, Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography (Stanford), 2010

7. Paul Virilio, The Futurism of the Instant (Polity), 2011.

8. Wang Muyan, Interview With Agnes Varda, (Film Comment) September/October 2017

9. Los Angeles County Museum of Art website, 2011

10. Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography, (Harvard), 2008.

11. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (FSG), 1977

12. Jean Baudrillard, Jean Baudrillard, Photographies 1985-1998, (Hatje Cantz), 1999

13. Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, (Verso), 1995

14. Jane Livingston, The Art Of Richard Avedon (Random House), 1994

15. Adam Kostko, Awkwardness (Zero Books), 2010.

16. Valerie Jouve, Centre National de la Photographie