Paris must have one of the highest densities of museums exhibiting photography of any major city. So it could be considered surprising that a new venue, Le Bal, has just opened behind the Place de Clichy, slightly off the beaten track for the Paris art crowd. The space gets its name from the fact that it is a reconverted ballroom; it's not huge, but a comfortable size to be able to bring together an interesting mix of work. I think it's a bit of a shame that no original features were kept from the old ballroom as this was a place with a lot of history, but I guess the white cube is used for a reason. The most interesting thing for me about Le Bal is its slightly unusual mission statement. The venue is devoted to the "image-document", which includes photography, film, video and new media, rather than exclusively to photography or to the sprawling continent of 'contemporary art'. Another interesting characteristic is that Le Bal will not be putting on any retrospective exhibitions, which given the Jeu de Paume's recent programming of blockbuster retrospectives, is something to be thankful for. Le Bal is a welcome addition to the Paris photography scene, closer to London's Photographers Gallery or to Amsterdam's FOAM rather than the more old school venues that Paris has to offer, such as the MEP.
Le Bal's first exhibition, Anonymes, L’Amérique sans nom: photographie et cinéma does a good job of putting the venue's mission statement into practice. Interestingly their first show deals with American, rather than European, photography and film, which suggests that they may be taking a global approach to exhibition programming. I've just interviewed the director, Diane Dufour, for the next issue of FOAM magazine and their programming for the first year will span from Japanese protest photographs of the 60s and 70s to a history of Latin American photobooks. Anonymes includes work by Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare, Standish Lawder, Lewis Baltz, Anthony Hernandez, Sharon Lockhart, Jeff Wall, Bruce Gilden, Doug Rickard, Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese. One of the strengths of this exhibition can be seen in the list of participating artists, which goes from the biggest names (Walker Evans, Jeff Wall) to the photographers' photographers (Lewis Baltz) to the relatively unknown (Rickard's Street View work or Arcara and Santese's archive of found photographs). I found this really refreshing considering how many major (or 'same old') name exhibitions are being put on of late, not providing too many opportunities for new discoveries.
Despite the diversity of the work on show, Anonymes retains a strong sense of coherence and focus on its subject. Group shows can sometimes be too sprawling or thematically too loose or chaotic, but in this case the exhibition strikes the right balance between the micro and macro view to flesh out its overriding theme. The exhibition also benefits from the combination of film and photography. All three films on show are very photographic (Gilden's is simply a slideshow with a soundtrack and voiceover) and Lawder and Lockhart's in particular seem to be extensions of photography, 'slightly moving' rather than 'still' photographs.
Aside from the delight of seeing Lewis Baltz's Industrial Parks prints for the first time, two groups of work really stood out for me. The first was Anthony Hernandez's black and white images of Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles from the late 1970s. Hernandez has recently been going through a bit of a revival, including a show co-curated by Jeff Wall in Vancouver last year. These images present a very different view of Los Angeles to some of his more famous contemporaries (e.g. Stephen Shore). Hernandez chooses to show those short moments of rest that punctuate the city's almost perpetual sense of movement. Shooting bus-stops in the city where the car reigns supreme is evidence of his desire to show a forgotten or invisible side of LA. Although these are large format images, the work sill retains the feel of street photography, of moments captured on the fly.
For me the highlight of the show has to be Arcara & Santese's Detroit: a self-portrait archive of found photographs from the 1980s and 90s. These appear to be taken from police archives, with mugshots interspersed with crime scene photographs or photographs providing evidence of wounds from beatings or assaults. The prints have not exactly been kept in archival conditions and the shifting emulsions and crackling surfaces resonate hauntingly with the downfall of the city of Detroit in recent years. With the odd scrawled sentence or recovered letter, this archive echoes the brutal reality of the lives of the citizens of a city that has gone over the cliff-edge.
Anonymes, l'Amérique Sans Nom, Le Bal 18 September 2010 – 19 December 2010