Tucked away in in Place de Clichy and housed in an airy former ballroom, Le Bal is the newest addition to Paris’ mass of photography venues. Dedicated specifically to documentary photography and video, it’s opening exhibition Anonymes – L’Amerique Sans Nom moves away from the classic French photography so often seen in Paris, bringing together work by American pioneers (Walker Evans, Lewis Baltz, Bruce Gilden) of the medium alongside their contemporaries (Sharon Lockhart, Jeff Wall).
From Walker Evans’ photos of New York Subway commuters, taken with a hidden camera © Walker Evans
Walker Evans’ intimate photographs of people on a New York underground train, immediately acquaints us with the theme of the exhibition – making otherwise anonymous or everyday subjects appear extraordinary by offering freedom to gaze at them. In this case, it’s a reflection of a real life act usually prevented by not wanting to be caught out, but much of the other work here, Lewis Baltz’s walls for example, reflect elements of life otherwise not given much thought.
In Lunch Break, Sharon Lockhart choses to frame the everyday American environment and citizen of industry. Appearing at first to be a large format photograph of a factory corridor being zoomed in on, it’s only in the minute twitches of the hands of a man standing in the distance that the fact of it being a single take, fixed position film slowed down to epic proportions becomes clear. It’s an antidote to the frenetic pace normally experienced and one which ensures that attention is grabbed and maintained. If the film were to be played in real time, there would be little time to take in the details and little time to connect with the people inside the image or to (echoing Edward Muybridge) notice the beauty and value of their every movement.
Another highlight, Arcara & Santese’s Detroit: a self-portrait is a collection of found photos from the 80s and 90s, Polaroid mug-shots and hand scrawled notes which hint at a story of crime and gangs in Detroit, a city in which the factory of Lockhart’s film could well have been found. Unlike much documentary photography of the same subject, this piece is unglamourous and profoundly sad; the Polaroids scratched and destroyed and the notes bearly ledigible offer a poetic metaphor for the difficulties and suffering of the people they portray.
The well considered unity of the American criminals and workers, transport and homes that is Anonymes, situated in a Parisian area not known for it’s Art galleries, cleverly and brilliantly illustrates one of the most important aspects of documentary photography – it’s ability to connect humankind. It’s a wonderful taste of what is to follow at Le Bal.