One afternoon near the end of May, I visited Bernard Faucon to speak of a suitcase of forgotten Polaroids. He had returned that very morning from a trip to Asia with bags full of all kinds of wonders gathered in out-of-the way bazaars: mangoes, coconut milk, sticky rice. He made a marvelous afternoon tea out of these, seating us at a large wooden table while he carefully peeled each fruit and brewed smoked tea. Between images of Provence hanging on the near wall and a strange fish trap made of turquoise nylon dangling by the window, a large Cuban flag served as an inadvertent backdrop to the story of how these Polaroids had been rediscovered: various corners of the world reunited in the heart of Paris amidst odd exotic keepsakes. The artist Gao Bo, at table with us, was the first to speak.
Some time before, Gao had visited Bernard with Mr Z., a patron of photography who wanted to see unpublished work. Staying in a hotel just down the street, they came back the next morning. In the meantime, Bernard had found in a corner of his room a package wrapped in old newspapers and fastened with half-spent rubber bands: inside was a mass of Polaroids, test shots for his photographs, secrets he had forgotten to erase, little enthralling glimpses into the making of his images. There used to be many more of these. At the time, he would destroy them as he destroyed the sets he built for his photographs. Everything had to be obliterated immediately after the click of the magic split-second: discard the chaff, the tedious traces of how images are made. To what strange occasion do we owe the survival of this handful of Polaroids? To distraction perhaps, to a guilty conscience, a memory.
As soon as they returned to China and framed these Polaroids, Gao Bo and Mr. Z recognized how exceptional were these “little slivers of mise-en-scène,” as Bernard called them during one of our conversations. Even though they cover nearly all the periods of his work, the series which they constitute holds something marvelously fragmented and arbitrary. A little later, when he saw the book Instant Light, which collects Tarkovsky’s location-scouting Polaroids, Gao suggested to Bernard that he publish a book to celebrate this chance rediscovery.
The principal characteristic of these Polaroids is their square format, which for Bernard Faucon is the format of his origins. His first photographic camera was a square-format Semflex, and he has always stayed true to this ratio: “Square format is the preeminent mise en scène format. It has a circularity and a fluidity that don’t exist in rectangular formats, which are formats of predation, of reporters. With a rectangle, you frame; with a square, you allow things into the frame.”
In time, to improve the image-quality of his photographs, he bought a used Hasselblad camera with a 50 mm lens – another characteristic that would never vary. There are many things he has never called into question, for example the Ektachrome which the shopkeeper in Apt used to sell him, and which gave his photographs a slight blue cast. People sometimes tried to convince him to use other material but he always returned to Ektachrome. “One way to master technique is not to choose,” he says.
He learned of Polaroid’s existence after one or two years of work, at the end of the 1970s. Not the playful camera of our childhood snapshots, but a Polaroid back attached to a Hasselblad body. It reframed the rectangular Polaroid film into a 6×6 cm square. Fashion photographers were already widely using this technique.
In Jean-Claude Larrieu’s short film, Bernard Faucon (1986) we witness preparations for The Cliff, a photograph from the Summer Camp series (1976-1981). We see Bernard Faucon accompanied by two boys holding a water tank. They walk through Apt’s surrounding hills in what we imagine to be scalding heat. Slowly, almost arduously, the scene takes shape, preparations for the perfect split-second. A boy spray paints fruit. Bernard Faucon stands behind the camera. He takes Polaroids, pulls them, and places them curiously beneath his arm to warm them a few moments so they develop faster.
In our old vacation snapshots, Polaroids offered the magic of immediate development, but for Bernard Faucon this surprise quickly reached its limits. In 1979, it was startling to see an image appear so quickly, but the results weren’t very good. Stores often ran out of film. There were many botched images. And it was ruinously expensive.
Even though Polaroids allowed Bernard Faucon to make preparatory sketches – he claims not to know how to draw – still, there was something tedious about the medium, swift like a drawing, but with none of the simplicity: “I would gladly have done without Polaroids; there was nothing fascinating about them; I didn’t have any passion for them, but I found that they were useful to determine the frame of the mise en scène, and then afterwards while placing the objects.” Polaroids – or “polars” as we used to call them, like the French slang for swots – served to instruct. Bernard Faucon never had the impression of gaining a newfound liberty. Rather, he was checking the edges of his images, their limits: it wasn’t creative; it was a way of putting things down on paper and seeing if he had gone astray.
And yet today it is touching to realize to what extent these are original images, a little bit like daguerreotypes, he says. Unlike our holiday Polaroids which represent tangible forms, these images retain only impressionistic form, which makes them more stable. Imperfections remain nonetheless, lending them a surprising painterly quality. At the same time, these small stains, smudged emulsions, little nicks show where reality has claimed its due.
1 – MANNEQUINS AND IMAGES
The phrase itself, “summer camp,” calls up the most marvelous stories, childhood memories and promised delights. Now, an unexpected narrative has been superimposed on the Polaroids that make up the Summer Camp series: the story of the survival of these archeological fragments of a lost corpus. By an odd coincidence, there is even some affinity between the subject of these images and the material of the Polaroid film itself: a certain faded, melancholy color scheme they both share. It was for this project, Summer Camp, that Bernard Faucon first started taking Polaroids.
Each series of Polaroids might be seen as a tiny flip book, or the images of some forgotten form of pre-cinema, ready to file past in an old praxinoscope. And yet, preoccupied with the gap between realism and fiction, Bernard Faucon has always rejected the idea of using moving images to imitate life. Instead, he sought fixed forms, “images from the unconscious, from the arcana of our imaginations.” To play the analogy game, these Polaroids are like x-rays of his photographs, penetrating the time strata of his images. But if such a figure holds for painting, it becomes paradoxical when applied to the flatness of a photograph. These Polaroids disassemble what Bernard Faucon calls “the perfect instant”; in other words, they bear witness to the passage of time.
During my second visit, while we were having a cup of tea in which a ball of flowers unfurled, and applesauce seasoned with an Indonesian plant that made a taste of roses magically appear, he took out a few images rediscovered the night before in a photomontage he once offered to his mother, Mady Faucon. Preparing this book gave rise to a form of treasure hunt or scavenger game: after the rediscovered suitcase of Polaroids, each week a few more images would resurface from the past.
Bernard Faucon was born in Apt, a charming but unexceptional town in the Vaucluse. There’s an archeology museum; the cathedral is dedicated to Sainte Anne, and Anne of Austria once arrived there as a pilgrim. The surrounding countryside evokes at once domestic sweetness and a savage harshness rolling from the mountains. But what specifically defines Apt is its light: dazzling at noon, slightly violet in the evening. This light is also what best characterizes Bernard Faucon’s landscapes. He couldn’t have shot them anywhere else and still kept this tonality, at once joyful and grave. Except for the shores of the Mediterranean, the entire world is sad, he says. Beautiful, but sad. Elsewhere, there’s nostalgia all around. On the Mediterranean there’s none. It’s the only place that’s livable – landscapes where gods have left their trace, where you can perceive the world’s metaphysical reality.
Now, it was precisely here, in this light of the Pays d’Apt, that Bernard Faucon shot the entire Summer Camp series, using these landscapes and a whole flock of mannequins hauled all over France. He shot countless location-scouting Polaroids, many of which remained as test shots, without ever leading to the photograph they were supposed to prepare. With its stucco column beneath a cascade of green, this Polaroid recalls the ambiance of a fête galante – not a very typical Provençal theme. While they were preparing to shoot, a brushfire started in the surrounding countryside.
For The Ship (1979) Bernard Faucon contrived an immense stage effect of which no trace remains. He wanted to pour a sheet of fake fog between stalks of lavender. He picked up blocks of dry ice in Marseille, hauled them back in a refrigerator van and melted them down in a huge pot over a blaze in a field. A few slides of the scene probably exist, but no Polaroids; time was of the essence. The results were unconvincing: too cinematographic, too heavy handed. He decided to do away with this grand mise en scène and replace it with something much more allusive: simply a few strips of typing paper unrolled among the lines of lavender. The sea foam became sea foam’s image, something like the unbridled waters of black polyethylene in one of E la Nave Va’s final scenes, directed by Fellini a few years later.
The Polaroids that led to the making of The Ship are very close to the final photograph, save a few discrepancies that bear witness to the films’ fragility and the passage of time. Round forms seem printed at the image edge, as if a sprig of lavender were escaping on a gust of wind: that’s the way the emulsion dried. Slivers of material also composed the white forms at the Polaroid’s base; they were torn away when the film’s self-adhesive cover was peeled off. The texture resembles that of decals, those gummy and ghostly images that stick to your fingers, magical and unnerving. Another sliver appears in front of one of the children on the ship: one might almost take him to be holding a fan or a mirror. It’s a random shape. And finally in the sky a little red spot forms a sun, unless it’s a tawny moon, fate’s little astrological error.
One might take Bernard Faucon to be a loner, and yet his houses are filled with friends stopping by for ten minutes or three hours, and his images are often the work of many hands. Of course, he is always the shepherd, the conductor, the director. In the Polaroids for The Cliff (1981), the figure in the foreground is the filmmaker Jean Claude. He isn’t standing on one leg, but rather behind his own film camera.
The explosion on the mountainside will only happen for the real photograph. Gradually the image’s general frame takes shape, followed by the tree’s unreal painted fruit. Are those little balloons, or melons painted red? The question arises precisely as we are eating slices of melon on rue des Arquebusiers, in Bernard Faucon’s Parisian studio, bent over the Polaroids.
These Polaroids show us what lies off-camera. The work of creating a mise en scène often becomes, in these photographs, an image within an image. As, for instance, in Shot (1978), in which we see a couple kissing in the straw beneath projectors before the watchful eyes of a film crew composed of mannequins. Bernard Faucon’s life itself is a kind of huge “making of” documentary about his work.
The Flying Child
He flies thanks to nylon strings. Once his position has been determined, the frame tightens in on the clearing where other mannequins are arranged. Then the foreground of The Flying Child (1979) is sketched in. The objects, a plastic gourd and swimming goggles, will shift again in the final image, and the flying child will hold a kind of paper airplane in his hand. By the end of the Polaroid staging, the clearing is so overexposed that we can see hardly anything at all, but the final image is there, waiting to be captured in an instant.
Each Polaroid has a black border around its top-justified square image. One of the Flying Child Polaroids has jagged edges, a little like the old black-and-white photographs in family albums. Bernard Faucon simply tore the edges off by hand, just as he would sometimes cut up the Polaroids with scissors, to get a clearer idea of the frame without being distracted by the adjoining black. In the end, the prints that haven’t been cut up are perhaps the ones he paid least attention to; they are perhaps the most neglected ones of all.
Fire, for Bernard Faucon, is a kind of “family malady.” His father wounded himself with explosives as a teenager. On every great occasion of their lives, joyful or sad, the men of the family have always lit enormous blazes. To him, fire is less a sign of purification than of sublimation, alchemy even. He evokes the Gospel verse that says that everything shall pass through the fire, and only essences remain. Now, in Provence, fire is dangerous. In the Fireball (1981) Polaroids, which show a field of half-dry grass, we imagine the flame between marks of old tape on the image. And yet there won’t be anything of the sort: the fireball becomes an apparition, falling from heaven on Pentecost.
To stage a fire requires a predilection for risk and a taste for magic. Bernard Faucon’s fires have something of the lightness of a child’s wonder face to face with a magic trick. You’ve never seen flash cotton? No problem. Bernard Faucon gets up and grabs a box from the table; he takes an ashtray and lights a wrinkled white ball of paper. A bang and a flame. Nothing remains. Not a trace. This is nitrocellulose. Today, it’s regulated. Pyrotechnics buy it. Magicians use it when they need to create a distraction. It’s an abstract fire: it leaves no ashes.
Bernard Faucon’s whole life is a fire: “I do everything at top speed, that’s my personal folly, without ever losing hold of myself. The thing I want is always out in front and I run after it. I cook at top speed, I eat at top speed, I clear the table at top speed. And from an artistic standpoint, I believe in the instantaneousness of photography. It’s a kind of equivalent to the satori Barthes speaks of in regard to Summer Camp, borrowing a term from Zen Buddhism. It doesn’t matter what was experienced in the moment, as long as there’s a perfect trace.”
Two Modest Images
The Tribune (1981) and The Golden Waterfall (1982) are among those slightly indefinite images whose existence Bernard Faucon has never made much of, perhaps because he considers them less inspired than the others. By a twist of fate, their preparatory images figure among the recovered Polaroids, which lends them a new interest today.
Plaits of laurel fill the foreground of the test Polaroid for The Tribune; a tribune appears, but there isn’t a soul in front of it. While the landscapes of Provence usually lend themselves to intimist themes, The Tribune, by a curious inversion of public and private spheres, expresses the idea of a crowd in a deserted field.
Here again in this Polaroid we notice little image burns at the edge of the black border. We wonder about an arc section suspended against the sky, curious if it might be a cable to hold the detonators of the many flames that will explode from the hillside in the final photograph, or if it was to serve another special effect, discarded along the way. As in Antonioni’s Blow Up, examining these images could easily turn into a police investigation. In fact, they are simply an emulsion’s reaction to the surface of a landscape.
The Golden Waterfall is also a tinkered-together image, a landscape on the verge of abstraction, an experiment in fire and gold. It’s a neglected image; in regard to Bernard Faucon’s oeuvre, you might compare it to those less-used muscles that are nonetheless essential if you want to stand up.
The Young Orator
Most of Bernard Faucon’s images come out of nowhere; he simply invents them. As he himself says, each one begins as “the portrait of a sensation, of something abstract, neither sentimental nor narrative, the image of buoyancy, of speed, of something tearing itself apart.” And then progressively he “descends into narration.”
The Young Orator stands as an exception. It’s one of the rare Summer Camp photographs that held a narrative element from the beginning. The scene was inspired by a newspaper photo of one of Bernard Faucon’s friends. This young man had taken a position as a ministerial advisor in 1981. Would it have been possible to guess this detail? Probably not. But in that case, why does one ask oneself a little more insistently where this image comes from? It must be the slightly mocking tone.
The mannequin of the orator appears first, as if he were haranguing the deserted hills. Then the journalists are added at the base of the image, with a bouquet of microphones, as if a crowd had slowly emerged from the underbrush to bask in this figure’s words, in a ray of sunlight.
The Island Party
This time it’s not a fire; it’s a party. It’s the invisible party of Le Grand Meaulnes or The Embarkation for Cythera, and you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, with a table and some empty chairs. In this Polaroid, which served in making The Island Party (1983), the mystery created by our distance from the scene remains as pervasive as in the final image. It’s as if the place didn’t exist. Come to think of it, there aren’t many islands in Provence, nor much water. Near Apt there’s the “Trou de Gargas” water hole, the Saint Saturnin public swimming pool, the Partage des Eaux by Fontaine de Vaucluse, and, a little farther, the Île de la Barthelasse on the Rhône near Avignon, but there aren’t any islands close by, unless you count a few rocks amidst the dried-up Calavon.
When this Polaroid was shot, the festoon of Chinese lanterns that lights the final image wasn’t set up yet. By an odd inversion of time, the bleak light gives the impression of a morning-after scene, whereas in fact these are preparations for a party that hasn’t yet begun. The image belongs to The Probable Evolution of Time (1980-1994) series, a heterogeneous collection in which images of fire, parties and rooms lie scattered pell-mell, and, as the name implies, you don’t know too well where you’re headed.
Apt was his mother’s world, and Forcalquier his grandmother’s: Bahé Faucon, or Tatié for short. She didn’t have much money, but what she had she spent on paint. Her house was a nexus in this region of Haute-Provence where many artists lived at the time. For all its associations with the world of his childhood and adolescence, this house could have been a haven of freedom for Bernard Faucon; but it pained Bernard Faucon to leave Apt and its Luberon landscapes, his true place of origin, and the source of what he calls an inescapable destiny.
Indeed, as though in recognition of this ambivalence, all of the images shot in Forcalquier are interiors – with the exception of one photograph from the The Scriptures (1991-1992) series, After So Many Deaths Life Slipped into Sleep and Dreams. Tatié’s house is also the only place that Bernard photographs without modifying it, as if there were nothing to do in these rooms already “fictionalized” by Tatiés pictorial and poetic world. He added nothing, moved nothing, neither the paintings on the walls nor the house’s many beds.
In the sole Polaroid, the living room is devoid of any human presence. In the final photograph, mannequins seemingly installed at the last minute stand visibly preening themselves. This is exceptional, as the other Summer Camp images show amusing experiences, moments of action and tension. To do nothing is an activity curiously out of step with Bernard Faucon’s principles.
On the way to the “perfect instant,” here again there’s a lot of movement in Flying Papers (1980). “Mais oui Mais oui l’Ecole est finie,” as the song goes … And the notebooks fly into the air, though a little sparser than in the final photograph. We see the pages come alive like Marey’s and Muybridge’s horses, little testaments to the passage of time.
This also reminds us that these Polaroids serve a role akin to that of drawings and sketches. From the outset, Bernard Faucon knows what he wants to do. He creates a frame, then makes his adjustments. The two dangers of this preparatory work are, first, that he let himself get carried away by the scene, by Provence, by the mannequins, or, second, that he remain too removed from these and make a photograph that smacks of advertising, that could have been manufactured in a studio. “Between these two extremes there’s a chance to make an image that’s alive, that adapts itself to the actual landscape. A photograph works when it carries its own life, in equilibrium between the preliminary vision and the process of staging it.
The Flute Player
Bernard Faucon sometimes describes Summer Camp as an equation that came to him once, and whose factors were the Provence landscape, mannequins, children, and stagecraft. These elements aren’t all systematically gathered in each Polaroid, which is more like a dress rehearsal for the photograph, a little touching practice scale or tender snapshot along the way. Only a few elements appear, not always the same ones. These are fragmentary images.
In general, these Polaroids depict only mannequins and not real children, with the exception of a few photographs in which the two are combined, the children opening little tears in the fabric of the mise en scène, like an irruption of passing time into the fixed image. “Children are a little like the light from the Luberon; you have to come to terms with them on the spot; no need to determine anything about them ahead of time.” Life gets added at the last minute, “like a sting that disturbs the fiction.”
Alternatively, another explanation for the lack of real children in these Polaroids comes to mind: it might be the children themselves who, at the end of the shoots, took all the Polaroids in which they appeared, and that’s why there aren’t any left today. “That’s quite possible,” says Bernard Faucon, smiling.
But all his rational and obsessional systems have their exceptions: for instance, this young Flute Player (1980), alive and well and captured on Polaroid. In the final photograph, he mingles with mannequins in the distance. In the Polaroid, he stands in the center of a clearing that appears to be licked by flame, but it’s only the image itself that’s been burned by the passing years.
Capture the Flag
The rediscovered treasure of these unpublished photographs invites tall tales and anecdotes: one might almost give oneself over to gossip. The Polaroids which served to prepare Capture the Flag (1980) mirror the approach of these young people whom we imagine in the countryside playing this traditional boy-scout game. A banner planted in the middle of a field floats in the breeze. Slowly, heads emerge from the blades of dry grass, stealthily, gaining in number till the final image.
The Polaroid is slightly burnt at the edge of its black border, as if the film were about to melt. One might take this as a reminder that photography is born of light. Now, in these Polaroids, Bernard Faucon never takes the colors of the Luberon into account; he never plays with light, only with forms and framing. These Polaroids have a tendency to shift towards acidic tones; they aren’t faithful enough, aren’t obedient enough to the photographer’s intentions. And yet pretty effects emerge from these green-tinged images whose tones would perhaps never stray from the violet hues of the spectrum, if it weren’t for their blue skies.
This image presents another exception, this time for its subject, especially in the first Polaroid: a gallows in an empty field, surprising in its stark violence. Little by little, the field will fill with children. They appear first in the foreground, watching and watched, then a little farther on, arranged in rows like sentinels in clouds of smoke, softening the initial image. In Summer Camp, sometimes you play Cowboys and Indians, sometimes you play with fire: you have a good time giving yourself a fright, but you don’t play around with hanging yourself.
“It’s strange, it’s as if there were something there that didn’t come from me,” says Bernard Faucon. Something about The Gallows (1980) seems more “American” than Provençal, like the lynching images from the Jim Crow American South towards the end of the 19th century. Perhaps the image also evokes religious themes, such as the crucifixion, which appear here and there in Bernard Faucon’s images. But the photograph certainly jars with the rest of his work.
The Probable Evolution of Time, to which this image belongs, often resembles a catalogue of melancholy. After the mannequins have been sold in Japan, after the Last Portraits have immortalized them for their great departure, their newly washed garments dry in the open air. Clothes Lines (1982) presents a colored constellation in which fabric positions show the movements of the Mistral – as in Capture the Flag, with its banner fluttering atop a mast. The wind lapses and rises, like this abundant and changeable series. In the final image of Clothes Lines, a fireball lights the landscape, as if to dye these garments in a little magic.
And then these shorts, tank tops and t-shirts will be folded away in a room of the house in Apt, for winter or forever. For it’s the end of summer. Bernard Faucon cites La Madrague, not the house but the Brigitte Bardot song from 1968; he even plays it for us, from the depths of his computer: “On a rangé les vacances / Dans des valises en carton / Le mistral va s’habituer / A courir sans les voiliers / Et c’est dans ma chevelure ébouriffée / Qu’il va le plus me manquer . . .” (They’ve folded away the holidays / In many a pasteboard suitcase / The Mistral will have to learn / To run without the boats / And it’s in my tousled hair / That I will miss him most). This song is perfect, he says with amused satisfaction. Perfect indeed.
In Laundry, the room progressively loses nearly all the little paintings that adorn its walls. Oddly, the clothes aren’t stored in closets or on shelves but in cardboard boxes: that’s because the mannequins aren’t being stored away but rather packed up, like unsold goods at the end of market day, cruelly ignored and abandoned by passersby. Only a single loose little pile of old clothes leaves one untidy corner, for the form’s sake.
In the principal room of rue des Arquebusiers, there’s a table covered with objects, generally brought back from Asia. It’s like a market stand covered in treasures, in which guests can select marvelous gifts: sequined socks, little radio-shaped purses from the 70s, miniature fans that plug into a computer’s USB port . . . For Bernard Faucon, hoarding isn’t a rich impulse; it’s a poor, generous one. In his family they have always given each other many gifts. And if you want to give him a gift in return, you can contribute to this tabletop display, and add to it an object that might please a guest to come.
To put it otherwise, this display is the stand of a street magician, parading his tricks before captivated pedestrians. When he first came to Paris, Bernard Faucon says that at exhibition openings he had precisely this impression of being “a street performer with his scents of Provence and candied fruit, a travelling salesman and dreamer.” But curiously he’s never made a photograph of a market.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper (1981) recalls Leonardo da Vinci, but for Bernard Faucon it’s first and foremost simply the Last Supper itself, Christ’s last meal, with the bread and the cup. These images were taken in the small hours of morning, in Apt. Only traces of the feast remain. This is the device par excellence of The Rooms of Love: the most intense moment of our western mythology is represented only after the fact, by a few leftovers, perhaps those of the thirteen desserts traditionally prepared in Provence for Christmas – an exotic touch both authentic and fitting. The flower in shadow is a thistle – an artichoke flower – which recalls the crown of thorns; it just happened to be there. In the final image, a butterfly perches on it as on a memento mori.
Above the table hangs a painting that Bernard Faucon painted to put in the photograph; he was bent on doing this. Images within images, fairly common in his photographs, at times give his work an unexpected Dutch aspect. With its grey highlights, The Glass of Sugar Water (1984) wouldn’t look out of place among the still lifes of Heda. “Van Gogh did end up in Provence” he says – it’s an amusing idea, and true. This painting looks a little like the landscapes one sees in the background of Dutch and Flemish paintings, disproportionate to the action in the foreground. It also has Patinir’s blues.
The Window (1984) was made in Forcalquier, at the house of Lucien Henry, a school friend of Bernard Faucon’s father. Bahé Faucon considered Lulu her spiritual son after the death of his parents. She passed on to him her taste in art and in artists, to such an extent that they opened a gallery together, Le Clou, regularly frequented by such notable artists and patrons as Louis Pons, Bernard Buffet, Pierre Bergé and Marie Morel, among others. A little later, at the urging of Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane, Lulu created an exhibition space in Forcalquier, the Centre Contemporain Boris Bojnev, named after a Russian painter who was a refugee in the region, and who made Art Brut auras out of little paintings he found in flea markets.
In the first location-scouting Polaroid for The Window, Bernard Faucon carries out an experiment that later gets left aside: he probably wanted to gauge the depth of the chiaroscuro, by setting a painting on the floor in a spotlight’s beam. A boy stands in the dark. On the wall, one divines the somber presence of a painting. Then the frame and orientation change: two silhouettes appear against the walls. Soon the open door will close again, one of the children will leave the frame, and ashes will cover the terra cotta floor-tiles. The original lighting will have nothing to do with the final photograph; it will be broad daylight.
This photograph vaguely resembles The Apparition (1984), in which an image is projected onto the floor of a Parisian apartment, and The Eighth Room of Love: First Time, where a single ray of light creates an image in a corner of the room. In Bernard Faucon’s work, images within images are often made of light and shade, fragile and ephemeral, on the point of disappearing. In later photographs, these images within images reappear simply as drawings traced on the wall with crayons, a little like shadow puppets in fact, or projections of a magic lantern.
The walls of Lulu’s house held many paintings, some recognizable, others less so, like this painting of a sink, visible in the first location-scouting images for The Watermelons (1983). It seems that Bernard Faucon took it down to replace it with a painting by André Queffurus, a Marseille-born artist whom he greatly appreciated and whose works Bahé had collected. Queffurus, trained in Provence in the early twentieth century, moved to Paris and was gradually influenced by Dutch and Flemish paintings, in particular portraits of Jan de Witt and William of Orange that he would often go see at the Louvre.
Dutch still lifes rarely depict watermelons (with the exception of a few paintings, as the Dutch did bring watermelons back from Brazil!), and yet here too there is something Dutch about this image. Its atmosphere of odd exoticism, however, belongs to Morocco, where Bernard Faucon spent long childhood holidays: he considers the country “his second Provence.” The crates in the background also lend themselves to the idea of a long journey.
During one of our afternoon teas, rue des Arquebusiers, Bernard brought out a small watermelon on a terracotta dish; I almost thought it had rolled from the image, it was so close to these little green and yellow spheres that, hacked up a little, reveal a pinkish red dotted with black pips.
As the Polaroid test shots go on, the number of watermelons multiplies. In the final image, like a treasure amidst these marvelous objects, a child lies on his side beneath the painting – another gash in the fabric of this slightly bloody image.
The Apparition (1984)
In his Goutte d’Or apartment, where Bernard Faucon lived at the beginning of the 80s, and which he used as a setting for numerous photographs, a blank wall holds a cloth screen. An image is projected onto it: it’s Pierre Faucon as a child, Bernard’s brother. He stands against a blue sky in a 1950s sailor’s outfit; from afar, one might almost take him to be a Norman Rockwell painting.
Then the image disappears. All that’s left are three darts, planted in the wall. In his current apartment, Rue des Arquebusiers, we lift our eyes from the table at which we are working: it so happens there’s an arrow planted in the wall that gives onto the courtyard.
Next to the vanished image – which, like a stolen painting, has left traces of dust and time around its lost frame – height markings line the doorframe. This is how families would measure their children, each with a different color, the date and height written in little letters beside a pencil mark. Perhaps there was indeed a forgotten array of height marks here, which Bernard Faucon extended, or perhaps this was simply another idea that crossed his mind and that he created out of thin air.
As in The Eleventh Room of Love (1985), the projected image slips onto the stained carpeting that overlays the parquet floor: an apparition.
2 – ROOMS
When he started working on The First Room of Love, Bernard Faucon knew he had found his theme, and that he could keep on making these images indefinitely, because he had “in a way arrived at the ground of his art.” The mannequins had only been a detour to lead him to this. The twenty Rooms of Love unfurled before him and received their names. He couldn’t bring himself to finish. But the series would nevertheless come to an end, by the power of an old, self-imposed, psychological constraint: always begin anew; always remain in motion.
The seasons played a role: winter came, and Bernard Faucon ventured a few more rooms which he called Rooms in Winter. It was a kind of withdrawal after the escapades of summer. Then came gold, in spaces transformed into jewel cases. Rooms of Gold and Rooms in Winter hitched themselves onto the series like extra unforeseen travelers who, for that matter, had trimmed the definite articles from their titles, perhaps to take up less space.
The original French title of this series, “Les Chambres d’Amour,” immediately calls to mind photographic chambers. But that isn’t what guided Bernard Faucon in his search, even if, in a little nod, he did draw a few photographic cameras on the walls of The Eleventh Room of Love (1985). If one looks for further associations, one might recall a gun’s “firing chamber,” that place of instant ignition comparable to the capture of a photographic image. Or one might also think of court chambers, banging out their verdicts. Finally, one comes to painting and “Raphaël’s Rooms” in the Palace of the Vatican. As Bernard Faucon tells it, these didn’t strike him half so much as the spaces Fra Angelico conceived in the frescoes of the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Bernard Faucon’s rooms have something very intimate about them and yet, at the same time, they aren’t his rooms.
The Little Penknife
In The Little Penknife (1983), the object in question, that dangerous adult tool of every child’s dreams, lies in the foreground. And yet, by some mischievous diversion, we barely see it because our eyes are first drawn to the patches of lively color in this white image. Then we notice two paintings on the wall, one of which is a small landscape by Bernard Faucon. They speak of something beyond the frame: perhaps they are the contents of this child’s dreams. In the interim between the Polaroid, in which he rests on his elbow, and the final photograph, in which he lies down fully, he seems to have drifted asleep.
One often finds pieces of fruit in Bernard Faucon’s images. They have a fairy-like aspect, almost magical: a quartered orange and some peels lies on the table of The Last Supper; a whole fruit dish of mandarin oranges appears in The Little Penknife. In a photograph from the previous year, entitled The Manderines, a field in Provence lies littered with paper bags out of which dozens of precious oranges seem to have slipped, as though a group of humans had frantically dropped its treasures to flee before an all-devouring fire.
Towards the end of The Probable Evolution of Time, Bernard Faucon gets a hunger for living things. The Little Penknife is one of his forays in that direction, but the image is a little too well-behaved, a little too full; it’s a well-organized mess. He gropes about in the dark, about to find his subject for several years to come. Soon, he will begin The Rooms of Love.
The First Room of Love
In Summer Camp, the children were minor characters compared to the clowns and acrobats; they were little disturbing interludes among the staged mannequins. Now, The Rooms of Love say farewell to the mannequins. The children move into the foreground and don’t prank around anymore: sometimes we see them and sometimes we know they are there, like ghosts or visions.
Eight Polaroids accompany the preparations for The First Room of Love (1984). The depth of the image increases slightly from one frame to the next. Gone are the variations. The French window stands behind a curtain, as in The Seventeenth Room of Love. Little baby diapers line the floor, which creates a padded feel, the impression of a comfortable cocoon, isolated from the world.
A painting disappears from the left wall – we couldn’t see it clearly anyway. Another one appears on the right wall, a rare reminder of the tumult of the world: it’s a seascape, hung very high. The window through which the sun shines looks like a monochrome; the light comes from the left, as in paintings of the Annunciation. Two children’s bodies dwindle to pieces of a dream: a cardboard yogurt pot and a wrinkled piece of silver foil commemorate them to the land of the living. With a trifle, they express the intensity of life.
The Fourth Room of Love
Making The Fourth Room of Love took a while. Bernard Faucon first chose a hallway between two rooms, in the Goutte d’Or apartment. In the early Polaroids, we see a gutted brick wall, a little painting near the top of a door, two tiles extending onto a wooden floor. Then the wall is redone, the painting is taken down, the shelves are emptied, the curtains and carpets removed. As the window fills with iridescence, the tiling flows into the next room to unite the two spaces.
Then a drawing appears on the wall, a kind of fanciful landscape with blue-ringed clouds. A flower branch enters the composition from the side, planted in an invisible vase, as if suspended. Another flower, painted on a canvas this time, gets wedged into the top of the lintel: “it’s one of those slapdash paintings we’re so good at making,” Bernard Faucon says. Colored confetti litters the floor.
In the room next door, a child passes, like a tumbler spinning a cartwheel whose movements lie broken down image by image. He’s at once a magician and just a child, who finally leaves the frame, to give way to the space. It was better without him.
The Seventeenth Room of Love: Fever
With its large, draped curtain, The Seventeenth Room of Love (1986) is a theatre. It’s the story of the appearance of a child’s reflection, a spectator or actor who has crossed the limits of the stage to end up in a mirror. Except for The Gypsy (1990), mirrors are rare in Bernard Faucon’s photographs.
Unlike theater, photography and literature don’t need to have recourse to theatrical conventions, because they have all the time in the world. In that light, The Seventeenth Room of Love could be taken as a deconstruction of the stage, as a kind of examination of the grounds of theatre. For Bernard Faucon, theatre is a matter of tragedy and of absolute necessity, at odds with entertainment. And yet, in both stage plays and films, he has always had misgivings about the question of reality versus verisimilitude. He doesn’t accept theatrical conventions. That was the reason he began using mannequins at first – in a way far different from, for example, Tadeusz Kantor’s use of them on stage. Only a few performances have found favor in his eyes: Beckett’s Happy Days, played by Madeleine Renaud, or Hervé Guibert’s last role, reading his texts – a scene that, in fact, never existed, as he points out.
At the beginning of the location-scouting Polaroids for The Seventh Room of Love, the curtain holds pride of place. Then two mirrors come into position, one on the floor and the other against a wall. Like a mistake, a flowery band appears in the curtain’s translucent fabric, only to disappear in the following image; one might almost have taken it for a Chinese lantern or a stained-glass window. On the bed, which the framing has allowed into the image, a blue quilt gives way to a more delicate white sheet. Then the floor fills with paint stains to suggest the Romantic notion of a painter’s studio. The depth of the scene and the flatness of the painting lose themselves in the photograph’s flat surface.
A rag and a flask of red syrup, good for all childhood ills, rest on the ground. Fever, from which this image takes its title, drips its hallucinatory vapors on the mirror. This is where the child appears, a little apparition passing through the reflected door. One might think of Orphée, Cocteau’s film, and, by association, of the game of childhood Paul and Elisabeth play without end in Les Enfants Terrribles.
The Last Room of Love
In regard to the Rooms of Love series, Bernard Faucon readily speaks of the “Grotte de la chambre d’amour,” a natural site in the Basque Country, by Biarritz. In the nineteenth century, two young lovers are said to have died in this rock cavity that fills with the rising tide. He learned of its existence right as he was finishing his work on these images.
The Last Room of Love (1986) is in Apt, in a room that starts out completely empty. One of the walls is prepped and painted, then the framing closes in on this section. Sand fills the image’s foreground, then rises in waves. A drawing is traced on the wall: an androgynous body lying prone, reminiscent of the young people sleeping in the large bed in the First Room of Love. Or else it might be a bather, stretching out on the beach. It’s also a drawn counterpart to The Sixteenth Room of Love: The Pharaoh’s Room – here, the ashes on the floor have been replaced with sand, and the true body has become a sketch on the wall.
Bernard Faucon isn’t the one who made this drawing. It doesn’t much matter who did: it has no value in itself, and it will be destroyed like all the other scenery. For him, drawing is an evocative force, an instrument of suggestion. This new image-within-an-image is like a daydream, a hallucination, a projection or an apparition. The Rooms of Love closes on this: in the end, there are only images.
The White Flowers
Was the original plan to photograph piles of sheets instead of these white flowers? Were the piles of sheets supposed to line the walls, as they do at the edge of the image? When you question him about the origin of The White Flowers (1983), Bernard Faucon says that he probably wanted to make a photograph of piles of sheets, and then changed his mind along the way.
So as not to waste the Polaroids, he transformed his plan with a felt-tip pen, on the surface of the image itself, where he roughly sketched in branches by hand. Photographs on which he has drawn by hand are few and far between: at most, in his youth, he might have transformed a few family snapshots into paintings. Unlike painters or architects, he has never had the reflex to take out a pencil to preserve the memory of a given image, or to prepare the next one.
However, as in The Last Room of Love, he often makes use of wall drawings. In general you can only just barely make them out: you almost have to know they are there. He is interested in traces as such, in their immemorial quality: it’s the apparition of details that marks the passage of time, the lives that have followed one after another.
The Tenth Room of Love
Bernard Faucon once received a commission from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes – the kind of project you accept without really knowing why. To fulfill it, he covered the surface of the museum’s collection of Italian primitives in scotchlight, that material which, on road signs at night, reflects the headlights. These paintings, ranging from Cosimo Tura to Perugino, hang in the salle carrée, one of the museum’s most prestigious rooms, which holds a part of the collection the city of Nantes bought from the Cacault brothers – one a painter, the other a diplomat – in 1810. These works thus modified became windows, at once blank screens reflecting every projection and sources of light in themselves.
Far from Nantes, The Tenth Room of Love (1985) is a poor little empty room. But it has an open window, a print of white light drawn on the wall. Here, there’s not a trace of scotchlight, only the stark sun of Provence. Looking at this image, one might also think of Fra Angelico, or James Turrel. A breeze blows through the room, amidst a magical cloudburst: a rain of feathers. It’s the tongues of flame of Pentecost, falling in a blaze of glitter.
Bahé’s Bouquet (1986) presents another explosion of wild flowers in the shade of closed shutters. Bernard Faucon pays homage to his grandmother, whose house in Forcalquier – already mentioned in regard to Summer Camp – was a reassuring and yet slightly disquieting refuge.
The household world mingles here with wilderness. The bouquet is full of a grandchild’s fondness for his grandmother, and yet, by a curious ambivalence, the close-up and the slightly high angle shot also give these flowers a threatening air.
This image serves as a kind of prologue to The Nineteenth Room of Love (1986), shot in the same room, with the same bouquet, only with the vase knocked over on the floor and the same mattress lying in another corner of the room. Bahé’s Bouquet is also close to The Room in Winter (1986), in which an armload of flowers obscures a window, darkening the room in a constant tension between effusion and restraint.
The Raft of Flowers
The Raft of Flowers (around 1986) isn’t included in most books on Bernard Faucon, as he considers it a slightly failed image. “The final photograph is nothing to write home about, and the series looks better as a Polaroid sequence.” The planned operation was sophisticated, perhaps too much so.
The raft, suspended on nylon strings, was supposed to float on 4 inches of water. The room was flooded – not without causing significant damage, in fact. We can see the raft’s shadow all right, but we don’t feel the presence of the water. Perhaps waves should have been added, to create a more effective illusion.
Why such a strange motif? One thinks of Moses’ basket, or else the balls of tea whose flowers unfurl when you pour boiling water on them, and which Bernard Faucon sometimes produces from his cupboard to impress his guests. But it was mostly an idea that came out of nowhere, referencing nothing.
The Raft of Flowers is Asia before his trips to Asia. But already he bears a kindred spirit. At the time, Bernard Faucon wasn’t familiar with Japan, nor Thailand, to which he would travel the following year, with its ceremonies in which one lights candles on baskets to send them floating down the river. In the images here, we feel that this monastic cell is inhabited by a kind of strange magic, but we can never quite grasp its mystery, and that’s what saves these Polaroids.
The Twelfth Room of Love
In the wake of The White Flowers, the Twelfth Room of Love (1985) introduces an ocean of wild grass into an empty room in the Apt house. From afar, the scene might recall Walter De Maria’s Earth Room (1977), installed on Wooster Street in New York: a white-walled room, seen from the entryway and entirely covered in a thick coat of black dirt which is watered daily and whose odor immediately grabs you by the nostrils when you visit. American Land Art is far from Bernard Faucon’s sources of inspiration, and the Twelfth Room of Love is as packed with vegetation as the Earth Room is barren; nevertheless, both of these works share an interference between inside and outside, intimate and universal, which paradoxically gives them a certain common ground.
The Twelfth Room of Love is the result of a happy artifice. This green expanse has nothing natural about it, and the wind that rustles through it has been drawn in blade by blade. The grass stands straight because each stem is held by invisible cardboard sheets, like school-notebook dividers. As a finishing touch, for the final image a vaporizor was installed so that water droplets would refract the light and give the impression of a luminous apparition beyond the window.
There’s something slightly embarrassing and a little crude about telling the secrets of these images, as though one were immodestly displaying their undersides. But finally that isn’t the case: first and foremost, these are complex games, elaborated by trial and error.
The Nineteenth Room of Love
The Polaroids for The Nineteenth Room of Love (1986) create a veritable sequence of images, like a little flipbook. We see the tests, the backpedaling and advances in the mise en scène. At first, the room is empty; then, the shot-angle changes slightly, as the camera looks down from higher. A portrait is hung at the very top of the wall, then finally comes down and is replaced by a starfish. A mattress appears on the floor, the very same one we have seen in Bahé’s Bouquet. A fly-swatter is dropped with studied negligence, as if to lend the room a sound of summer. Now we can see the slats of the Persian blinds, which have probably been closed, and the window shifts from abstract to figurative, from James Turrel to Matisse. A curtain is added as a counterweight to the new image. Bahé’s bouquet lies scattered on the ground.
Whether wild or domestic, contained in a house’s walls or set in an open field, Bernard Faucon’s spaces are always rooms of one kind or another. In the period of these staged photographs, he cultivated an obsession with bringing the outdoors inside, to explode personal space, while also dragging interiors outside, to short-circuit the personal with the universal.
As he has often recounted, this fixed idea is based on a very specific event in his childhood. “Around the age of ten, I had invented a game that consisted of gathering, only when I was alone, all that was dear to me and making a ball of it, a little monad. Once I had a good hold of this little private core, I would picture infinite space. And in a few moments, this would give me the most terrifying and delicious vertigo.”
Marked for years by this very Borgesian memory, Bernard Faucon might well ask himself, like the narrator at the end of The Aleph: “Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it when I saw all things, and have I forgotten it? Our minds are porous, and forgetfulness seeps in [. . .]”
The Third Room of Love
The Third Room of Love (1985) is the image of a disaster; of all the rooms, this is the only one that was the product of an accident. It happened in the “cabanon” – as stone sheds are called in Provence – Claude Lévêque’s room, where there was a large foam bed and an electric blanket. Bernard and Claude went to dinner; when they returned the room caught fire in a split-second. They formed a human chain to bring water from the well and extinguish the flames. That was the end of the shed, which was in the countryside, a little removed from the house; it was sold later.
The next day, Bernard Faucon reflected that this was a room he hadn’t thought of but that was inevitable. He barely re-staged it. In the Polaroid, the backlighting creates a blank white space that bars the window. This is corrected in the final photograph, where one can make out the vegetation beyond the pane – a signal of our return to the real world. It’s almost a ready-made, one of the few ready-mades in his work, alongside Late Room of Love, another forsaken scene, before moving house. By its slightly uncanny violence, The Third Room of Love might be likened to The Gallows in the Summer Camp series: both are images of death, for pretend or for real.
The Sixteenth Room of Love: The Pharaoh’s Room
Bernard Faucon repaired the burned shed to shoot The Pharaoh’s Room in it. Five Polaroids follow one another in this partly underground room near the house in Apt. The framing defines itself over the course of the images: at first the window is partially cropped; we can see a bedside rug. A remarkably commonplace striped sheet gets replaced by a white quilt whose soft and tender aspect recalls The First Room of Love.
Ashes are poured on the floor, interspersed with little leaves, later deemed an awkward touch and removed. A little object disappears from its perch on an outcrop of the rock wall. And two bodies appear on the bed, fragmentary and lost in dreams, as in other Rooms of Love.
Pharaoh is Tutankhamen. But this Sixteenth Room of Love speaks less of a tomb than of the discovery of something marvelous, a treasure sheltered from time. In the final image, only a single leaf remains on the floor, and a little piece of silver paper.
The Room of Gold
The Room of Gold (1987) is the first in a series of the same name, which concludes The Rooms of Love. As a result, it still belongs a little to the latter, whose intimate atmosphere we recognize here.
The window is blacked out, and the walls are covered in gilded paper. The idea of gold came to Bernard Faucon during a Kabuki performance he saw in Japan in 1987, and later in visiting Thai temples during an ensuing trip to Southeast Asia. He had stopped at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, and that’s where Asia took hold of him. It’s also where The Rooms of Love, which he hadn’t been able to finish, transformed into the Rooms of Gold, in a moment which he personally considers a kind of acme of his existence.
Back in Provence, he shot some tests in a room of the house that he hadn’t yet photographed. He strewed the floor with flowers, then set down three little heaps of cherries. Finally he kept only one, perhaps in memory of the cherry trees in springtime. Like The Raft of Flowers, these are offerings to various gods.
The Wall of Gold
Silhouettes lie projected on The Wall of Gold (1988); this is Plato’s cave, where you don’t see real beings, only their tremulous shadows. The Polaroid is very close to the final image; in fact, it’s the only one.
We recognize the gold and fire often used by Bernard Faucon. The Idols series, like icons on a gold ground, will begin the following year. This might be a portrait of out-of-the-way Provence or of the Eternal City. The scene also recalls the moment in Fellini Roma (1972) when a group of persons goes down into the catacombs during the construction dig for the metro: there, they discover ancient frescoes, which gradually disappear as the light hits them.
The Cupola of Gold
This photograph (1987) takes its title from the cupola of a Romanesque church that lies on one of the roads leading from Apt to Saignon. It used to belong to an Apt tax inspector who had a house on the same property. The mise en scène for the photograph drastically transfigures it.
The first Polaroid shows the cupola bare, with a breached roof and ivy crawling through a gaping window. Then the walls are entirely cleared and covered with gilded paper. Sprigs of lavender are added at the edge of the image, as in The White Flowers, eliminating the distinction between inside and outside.
Looking at the The Cupola of Gold, one thinks of Byzantine churches and the Ravenna mosaics, as if the Christian architecture were too strong to submit to the photographer’s intention. And yet his inspiration for this image came rather from Asia, even if references to Catholicism in his work are never accidental – in his youth, he studied theology for several years. “It keeps turning up like a bad penny,” he says, resigned to his fate, and a little amused as well.
On Rue des Arquebusiers, as we are waiting for a Swiss gallery owner coming to pick up a train ticket he couldn’t print at his hotel, the aroma of tea fills the kitchen and evokes the world of Asia. It’s Genmaicha, a Japanese green tea mixed with grains of grilled rice that give it a taste of hazelnuts. It even seems to affirm Asia’s influence on The Cupola of Gold.
The Little Buddha
The Little Buddha (1988) kneels before a basement wall in the Apt house, decked in splashes of gold. He’s the brother of one of the Idols, lithe and at rest, wrapped in a loincloth at first, then entirely covered in gold, transformed into a statue or mannequin, a hybrid being, half child, half object.
Bernard Faucon gilded him with the same little leaves of gold one buys in Southeast Asian temples to cover Buddha statues. Packed in little bags, they tremble and shimmer in the wind when you start to detach them.
One imagines the preparations for this scene, which Bernard Faucon describes thus: “It was cold. We sealed off the room’s openings with plastic tarps and prepared big alcohol blazes to light. In the meantime, the brother of the Buddha, too irritated that his brother was getting all this attention, carved his brother’s name – and not his own – on the wall.” The idol rebels against the Buddha.
The Fire Basket of Gold
The Polaroids associated with The Fire Basket of Gold (1987) are particularly damaged because they were glued in a little photomontage that Bernard Faucon once gave to his mother – in his family one had to invent and make gifts, rather than buy them. It’s a kind of slightly irregular mosaic of images, now time-worn, of the Pays d’Apt.
Over the course of these five images, the composition evolves slightly. The quantity of branches increases till they form an immense pyramid. Most of the Rooms of Gold are made with large rolls of gilding paper: here, little bits of it have been applied directly to the pieces of wood. Earlier fire landscapes are a kind of interlude, in which the flames’ power of fascination replaces that of the mannequins. Bernard Faucon’s gold is that of the alchemist and of transmutation. Above all, it’s a blinding light, the last pure surface before white.
3 – FIGURES
Bernard Faucon’s images are always peopled with children, visible or invisible, and the same goes for his houses, where you see them sitting in a room finishing some work they have started, or stopping by on a whim to return a book or share a meal.
“Photography’s fundamental subject is living beings, even if they are also the most difficult thing to capture on film,” he says. And yet, until the Idols series, Bernard Faucon never systematically photographed people: only a few children here and there, as little “short-circuits” amidst the mannequins that had led him to discover photography and stagecraft.
When he developed the desire to explore the two major photographic genres of portraits and landscapes, he began the series Idols and Sacrifices, starting with Idols. Here, he wanted to represent young boys whose beauty was such that it resisted being captured in a photograph. In the absence of living beings, he decided to photograph gods.
Idols and Sacrifices is also a ritual of self-emptying, in which the image trembles on the point of disappearing. The Scriptures (1991-1992) and The End of the Image (1993-1995) would come a little later, tending towards an even harsher banishment of photography.
Parco (1987) is a little thirty-second film that was commissioned from Bernard Faucon by a chain of department stores in Japan. It was intended for a television commercial and a poster campaign in the metro. The slogan was: “Shut your eyes and see.”
In the preparatory Polaroids for the film, a few handwritten notes in the margins of the images indicate right and left, or the edge of a forest that will serve as a counter-shot to a window in the final version. Some of the boys photographed on this occasion also served to cast the Idols.
The film was such a hit that television viewers would call in to know its broadcast times. So the company commissioned another film the following year, on the theme of summer. Bernard Faucon suggested a kind of slightly Rimbaudian “Sleeper in the Valley”: a boy asleep in the lavender with a drop of blood at the edge of his mouth. The idea was to film him from the sky, in a crane-shot atop a mountain that also holds the plateau of Contadour, the setting of Jean Giono’s Harvest.
The sponsors replied that this was perfect, but they requested that the boy be replaced by a girl, or by a girl who looked like a boy. As Bernard Faucon himself says: “In the end it could very well have worked. But I said that it wasn’t possible because I had imagined the scene with the brother of the Little Buddha. They never called me back and never told me the project was off.”
To prepare Idols, Bernard Faucon held a big casting call in Paris and beyond, for a year or two. With some friends he would wait around high schools at the end of class. From time to time, a student who might be an idol would catch their eye. They would give him an appointment at the “Barbanègre,” the apartment in the 19th arrondissement where Bernard Faucon moved after he left the Goutte d’Or. The shoots would take place in front of a white wall, a draped sheet, or a stone wall on the street. There were also less-planned occurrences, for example his encounter with a Canadian in the market of Apt who came up to the “cabanon” with his family to have an aperitif, and then was photographed, though not chosen in the end.
The test consisted of photographing the boys from a low angle in the beam of a big 2-kilowatt spotlight to catch their beauty in full glare. They posed in jackets, t-shirts, or bare-chested. Details such as a beauty mark, a dreamy or stubborn look, a gold chain, tousled hair or awkwardly gelled bangs betray the touching variety of these young bodies.
Today, certain Polaroids bear the marks of the years over these Christ-like forms. In general, their name and a date are noted in marker at the edge of the Polaroids. The majority of the frames aren’t cut, because the protocol was consistent enough for that not to be necessary.
A few interlopers have weathered the years among these recovered casting-call Polaroids: a boy standing before a landscape in Provence; a portrait resting on an armchair, chosen as well, but not to become Idols; chance encounters, random memories.
Location-Scouting for Sacrifices
Over time, the principle of the Idols came to seem a little dry to Bernard Faucon, and he decided to counter them with the blood of the Sacrifices (1987) in the wilds of Provence. Unlike the Idols, this new series has few Polaroids to its name, probably because these landscapes, unlit and not yet staged in their décor of blood, are slightly disappointing. They nevertheless hold an almost silver light that recalls solarized prints and plunges these images into an imaginary past, redeeming their monotony.
As in the fire images, there’s neither violence nor cruelty in the Sacrifices. They are not the death of the idols but rather their negative image, a game within a fanciful symbolic system. “It’s also a testament to desolation, to the passage of time which leaves nothing, to the insufficiency of photography,” adds Bernard Faucon.
At around this moment in our conversation he rises and goes to the kitchen to fetch some deep-red strawberries, sliced and prepared ahead of time to soak up the sugar, and then a box of those cream puffs that have recently begun to be sold in the Marais, covered in well-drawn disks of candy-colored almond paste. These, too, remind us that the fake blood of Sacrifices could also be scored to the tune of a children’s song.
The casting call led to the selection of twelve Idols (1989-1991) – reminiscent of the twelve apostles, an association Bernard Faucon confirms. But the test was so rigorous, he specifies, that in the end there really remained only six or seven Idols out of the twelve. Religion, of course, is close at hand; one recalls the Holy Face of Jesus on Veronica’s Veil. This series records the search for an impossible image: the faces could be superimposed one upon the other without end, and never reach perfection.
In fact, the scarcity of Idols was such that, cheating a little, he photographed two of the boys again a year later. With one of the boys, this is obvious, as he hasn’t changed much: he’s only a little less childlike, slightly more refined than the year before. The other boy, who is the brother of the Little Buddha, changes so drastically that the hoax is barely detectable, not just his haircut, but his entire bearing and expression have been transformed.
Once the Idols were selected, the shoots took place outdoors, in the environs of Paris and, for the last images, on the construction site of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. They were lit with Bengal lights, enormous flares favored by the military for their very dense, five-foot-high flames. To avoid wasting the Bengals, the Idols Polaroids were mostly lit with spotlights, except the images that prepared two portraits shot against the gold backdrop of the ramparts of Marrakech.
Not always visible in these Polaroids, The Idols’ shadows lie separate from their bodies, giving these images an almost abstract quality. From afar, these bust-length portraits against a gold ground recall the starkness of Eastern Orthodox icons. And yet, by exhausting and saturating this motif, the Idols evoke the disappearance of images. “A snapshot is a fragment of reality, and as such it is always at once incomplete and too dense,” says Bernard Faucon. “In that respect, painting will always have the upper hand.”
He had planned to leave the series open-ended, to complete it when new idols appeared, but he never worked on it again.
Sacrifices : The Basin
The Sacrifices are not merely a counterpart to the Idols. They are also the first landscapes in which human forms are completely absent. These two Polaroids served to prepare The Basin, which recalls surrealism or the metaphysical paintings of Chirico far more than it represents a real bloodbath. These Polaroids bear strong witness to this sudden absence of bodies.
Before the blood has been poured, we are still a long way from the final image. Wooden boards compose a large platform on what appears to be the terrace of a house. Once this has been covered in plastic to hold the red fake blood, it becomes an empty stage above which we seem still to hear the echo of voices, a theatre abandoned by its actors.
4 – LANDSCAPES
Bernard Faucon’s photographic work originated among the landscapes of the Luberon; at the beginning of the 1990s, when he wanted to transform his work and focus on moving images and words, he turned to other landscapes. In their pull towards emptiness and absence, The Rooms of Love, Rooms in Winter, and Rooms of Gold, and subsequently Idols and Sacrifices, led him to his two final photographic series, in which words are inscribed on barely recognizable fragments of landscape and bodies: The Scriptures and The End of the Image.
While most of his previous landscapes were imbued with a distinct intimate quality, with little tangible presences, these two series arrive finally at a kind of abstraction of landscape and of body. It’s no longer a question of combining outside and inside, but rather of combining words and spaces. Outside is all that’s left.
My Little Darling
Often in any given photographic series of Bernard Faucon, an isolated image presages a series to come. The Last Supper, in The Probable Evolution of Time, heralds The Rooms of Love; The Little Buddha, ahead of its time, resembles the Idols. Made in 1981, My Little Darling foretells, ten years in advance, the Scriptures series.
In the very tenderness of its title, one finds this now familiar combination of an intimate interior, almost padded, and a more exposed outside, an entanglement which will progressively disappear over the course of such Scriptures as “We Knocked Hard and the Door Opened on the Void” or “We Remember What We Used to Remember When Spring Would Return.”
Most of the photographs that Bernard Faucon has sold are Fresson prints, which have a fairly heavy grain, because he used to think there was too much realism in the images of this period. Today, it’s moving to rediscover the realism that lies in these old slides and Polaroids.
It so happens that there’s a piece of the photographer or painter’s hand at the edge of the test shot for My Little Darling, a little like those images one sees reflected deep in the mirrors at the back of Flemish paintings. By an accumulation of such details, these Polaroids don’t merely teach us about the construction of the photographs they served to prepare, they come to compose a self portrait made of fragments, an unintentional journal.
All the Guardrails
The texts of the Writings series were created beforehand, specifically for each image, or else simply came from daily notes made without relation to any project. In that case, it was necessary to find places in which to inscribe them, an open landscape or a stone wall hermetically sealing the horizon. The location-scouting Polaroids for Writings are dry; they could almost have served the previous year for the Sacrifices series.
Words came daily to Bernard Faucon, lines of Writings that follow the ridge of a landscape, the top of a wall, the base of a mountain. In general there is an obvious link between the text and the image. For example, the 1992 photograph, “All the guardrails have fallen” takes its title simply from the fact that it was shot at the top of a cliff – The Cliff which Bernard Faucon photographed, which Jean-Claude Larrieu filmed, and which stands next to Lioux. There is an enormous void, a sheer drop, right behind these rocks.
Elba and Brittany
These Elba and Morocco landscapes were originally shot in preparation for Writings. The scenes of Elba that we see in these Polaroids weren’t finally photographed as they appear here, but rather from slightly different angles. Hervé Guibert is now buried in Elba: his friend Hans Georg owned a house there, as well as a monastery he had restored. At that time, Bernard Faucon would often come and stay there with both of them. He also went to Morocco with Hervé Guibert, who narrated their wanderings in Voyage avec deux enfants (1982).
The Writings words were made with pieces of wood covered in scotchlight, then lit at the moment of the shot. On rue des Arquebusiers, our conversation at the table pauses, and we rise to see a demonstration of this act; as it happens, a word is affixed above the entryway door: “lovely,” which lights up beneath a telephone’s photo flash.
The last Polaroid of this series, the only one that stages the words within the scene itself, wasn’t taken in Provence. “It wasn’t so long ago that we could still have fun scaring ourselves,” it reads. It’s a Breton heath – just this once – that almost looks like an image of Elba. We had planned, reader, to deceive you and pass this image off as a shot of Provence, but finally we preferred to resign ourselves to this improbable reality.
From Morocco to the Roads
Bernard Faucon first started travelling to Morocco as a teenager. This had nothing to do with those wine-growing families who settled near Apt upon returning from Algeria or Morocco in the 1950s. Rather, the king had commissioned from his grandfather, who was a potter, one of those mixed-clay dinner sets whose trade secret an old assistant of the Faucon family still conserves in Apt. A workshop was created in Rabat, where they would travel one after the other for work or holidays. Bernard Faucon’s taste for certain color arrangements dates to this period.
In the Polaroids brought back much later from Morocco, we see the walls of the houses of the pottery village of Tameslouht and a gold rampart of Marrakech, which also served as a backdrop to some of the Idols. We recognize the framing of two photographs from Writings: the large diagonal of “Yes everything was spelled out in black and white and perfectly accessible” (1992) and the play with the horizon in “Diversity isn’t infinite; every journey comes to an end” (1992).
Long after his creation of Writings, made out of the scotchlight that one finds on roadsides – fittingly enough – Bernard Faucon began a long-term work with moving images and words, sometimes synchronous, sometimes not. In it he shows roads he has traveled throughout the world and, in a voice-over, narrates his autobiography. “It’s a voyage through time applied to space, a testament to grandiose monotony.” It holds still more landscapes, and it’s called My Roads.
Translation by Peter Behrman de Sinéty