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Balises | 1994 | Introduction > Français > English

Beacons: in the horizontality of signs

Photography – didn’t notice it? – presents two antinomic effects. It is both prescriptive and neutralising. The first action had long been specific to painting. The works of Corot, for example, depict the light in Rome so eloquently (and artfully) that a person strolling along the banks of the Tiber first recognises the French painter in the view stretching before him. The way we see is directed, “framed” by our culture. The second effect is more recent: the neutralisation is due to the very stream of images that inundate modern man. The more he sees, the less he really looks at things. In a way, photography guides us and loses us, as they said in the legends time. But, a little critical virtue (on the part of the viewer) and a few effects of art (from the performer) “are enough” for photography to catch the eye which will not lose or restrain its interest.

Gérard Pétremand undoubtedly uses this device in his series “Beacons”. Scrutinising his native town, the photographer sees more (and differently) than the ordinary stroller and relies on two techniques to depict it.
He squares his subject (in a fairly large format - 103 x 128 cm) and uses a quality of film that brings the colours into effect (according to the 18th century expression). The framing is concentrated and the film slightly exaggereted. This differs greatly from the fleeting attention of the passer-by who balances out the colours in his mind and never organises focal distance, perspective and field into a conscious picture. This dual artistic operation therefore forms the scene of the town as a sign or signs, that is to say, a reality that is reflected on the real without a direct translation, yet which comments on it, interprets it in the guise of an “effect of reality” (which is, of course, unknown).


And suddenly we see. A road, posts, a crossroad, arrows, road-signs, cars (always at a stand-still), signals, tree-trunks, posters, fences, inscriptions – in short, a plantation of verticals, anchored to the ground, fragmented, like many scansion marks and facets. A whole population rises in tiers in depth without ever meeting the sky. This “animation” (as one says when one speaks of macchiette, dabs of colour, to indicate the little figures that express life in Venetian views from the Enlightenment), remains human-sized but soulless in the horizon.

Vertical appearances, railings within reach. The innocent “nurserymen” of urban development lay out the contradictory but interdependent indications of signs that are actually horizontal, but which are absurd in their increasing number and their equivalence. And from this forest where bollards, trees and street lamps are difficult to distinguish from each other, Gérard Pétremand, his selection not being innocent, takes care not to make the cathedral or the transcending identifying sign soar up.
Besides, (isn’t it cold comfort?), there are no shades of grey in the thickets of this urban Babel where each person can choose their messages without raising their head! We rather have an unusually bright chromaticism, with colours that have become things, as if delivered by the plastic industry, which is so adept at producing sameness.

Is it that very sameness that we think we recognise in all these photographic views? These are themselves in accordance with the hope that the tireless repetition of a (photographic) “om” transforms a formal approach into spiritual exercises.

Rainer Michael Mason