The Image Document and the Real: An Interview with Diane Dufour

Foam #25, "Traces," Winter 2010

You have just opened Le Bal, a new space devoted to the "image-document" in Paris. How did the idea to open Le Bal first come about?

I wanted to create an independent venue devoted to representations of the real through all kinds of images: photography, video, cinema, new media. In 2004, I discovered by chance a magnificent but ruined ballroom (dancehall) in Paris, which had been a meeting place for Italian immigrants in the 1920s. We set up a non-profit association to support the project, with the photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon as president. The Paris Mayor decided to purchase the building, and then we involved other partners and  private donators in the project to fund the renovation of the space and its program. Le Bal finally opened on 18 September!

What are the aims for Le Bal?

Le Bal is a platform for exhibitions, production, publishing, talks and debates around the multiple ways of interpreting the real: essays, typologies, pamphlets, reports, chronicles, investigations, albums… We want to make people think about the relationship between the real and the possible ways of representing it; we also want to bring the public to discover artists who are concerned and aware of the political and aesthetic stakes of their work at a time when the endless flow of images is creating ever more opacity and confusion. The birth of Le Bal actually comes at a point when, more than ever, artists are questioning the conditions of production, distribution and reception of images: is the world readable at face value? How can we show phenomena that profoundly affect our society but which are far removed from the photogenic qualities of an event? As Marc Augé , the French ethnologist puts it, how do you "record a world defined by representation, which never stops recording itself, or even recording itself recording itself?" Le Bal takes on these questions and presents works which deliberately put the documentary genre to the test. Our understanding of what is going on beyond appearances is on the line.

You have spoken about the changing nature of the representation of the real today. Are there any artists working today whose work you see as dealing with the changing nature of the image in an interesting way?

The list would be too long, but I can mention four artists who are contributing to our first publication in a series called Les Carnets du Bal, around the theme "The image-document between fact and fiction": Susan Meiselas, Johan Grimonprez, and Khalil Joreige together with Joanna Hadjothomas.

Le Bal’s focus on the ‘image-document’ places it in quite a unique space within the cultural and artistic sphere. I am not aware of any other museums that have this focus. What made you think there was a space for Le Bal in Paris, a city with many existing venues exhibiting photography? What differentiates Le Bal from other photography venues in Paris?

Le Bal’s creation was a gamble: to open a space on a human scale that is independent, cross-disciplinary, open, mobile and reactive to all the contemporary forms of the document. In a non-institutional spirit, it aims to uncover new ground, to pass on and to reveal. We invented Le Bal to create a free zone, a territory of images shaped, put to work, etc. by the historical, social and political stakes, so that experimental or off-beat documentary works can find a place and so that curators, critics, and artists can propose unexpected exhibition projects.

Installation view from  Anonymes

Installation view from Anonymes

The diversity of the work included in your first exhibition, Anonymes, L’Amérique Sans Nom: Photographie et Cinéma suggests that your definition of the ‘document’ goes beyond the traditional conception that is associated with photojournalism or classical documentary photography.

Yes, we want to cover a large spectrum, that of the visual ‘document’ in all its states, still or  moving, with the complexity of a historically fluctuating notion and  the diversity in artistic practice: from Eugène Atget’s Documents for Artists to the "near-documentary" of Jeff Wall, going through the documentary style of Walker Evans, the visual anthropology of Gilles Peress or the critical realism of Allan Sekula, to mention just a few examples. These are all different hypotheses about the world, different positions, different constructions of the human experience.

Le Bal’s opening exhibition Anonymes allows viewers to discover ten historic and contemporary works, all questioning the place of the individuality in the American public space, from Lewis Baltz to Anthony Hernandez, from Standish Lawder to Sharon Lockhart. Since the 1930s, North American culture has celebrated the individual and individualism, while nearly all its great creative minds had expressed the growing feeling of anonymity, banality or narrowing of everyday experience. This has been America’s twin gifts to world visual culture contradictions can be seen everywhere. How can the image take that into account? The exhibition shows the work of young talents to echo their predecessors. New writing, developed in a spirit of mobilization and experimentation, is perpetuating the approach of the great figures of history for whom the documentary form has always been a challenge to to take an object to continually redefine and reinvent.

Through the technological evolution of the past ten years, the role of photography as tool for documentation is increasingly being questioned. Do you think that photography still has an important role to play in the documentation of today’s world?

Of course it does, but the most  significant and meaningful propositions today come into view most often outside of the immediate news event, before, after or alongside hot news, or as reactions to long-term economic, social and political phenomena. Freed of the illusion of objectivity and of the limitation of immediacy (video has replaced photography in delivering images for news), documentary photography is experimenting with alternatives to the famous ‘crisis’ of the representation and it is reinventing itself as a language. How do you capture the real in all its complexities, its opacities, its paradoxes? How does the photographer or filmmaker produce an image that is fair, which takes into account what he/she has learned and experimented? The document is an object to think all together the status of reality and its representations.

Given what you have said about the fall of photography within the realm of news media, do you think that photojournalism still has a role to play in today’s environment?

There are many co-existing forms of photojournalism. Professional news photojournalism is being challenged on one side by amateur pictures (Abu Ghraib, pictures of the Iranian opposition, the tsunami in 2004) and royalty-free images, by long-term projects , incompatible with the economy and speed of the media, and also by a near-impossible access in many areas due to censorship, the lack of interest of the mass media etc , the absence of reasonable security, or the illegality of photographing in many public spaces, etc. And let’s not forget a more insidious form of control by the distributor, who often favours very poor visual stereotypes to illustrate rather than to report on a situation.

Today photojournalism is being forced to find other means of access and financing and other channels of distribution, and often combining them (like the Web, books, exhibitions, selling prints, prizes and grants.). Above all it’s seeking a freer but more demanding visual language which also implies a deep understanding of the subject (historical, geopolitical), an unparalleled tenacity to overcome the obstacles on the scene and a keen awareness of the consequences of the chosen form and means of diffusion. Only a few, scattered across the globe can achieve that.

With Le Bal, you will not only be dealing with photography, but also with film and new media. How do you intend to balance these different forms of media? What can we expect from the first year of your exhibition program?

What is important is not so much the balance of media as the strength and singularity of the visions presented. Le Bal aims to show all kinds of documents, films, videos, installations, books. We also have a partnership with the Cinéma des Cinéastes, just near us, and we program films every Saturday morning, what you might call the UFOs of historical and contemporary documentary cinema, which extends the thinking around the exhibition. Le Bal also co-publishes several books a year, with a leaning for young talents, reference works and artists’ books. For example, we’ve just co-published The Makes by Eric Baudelaire, which juxtaposes never-filmed scenarios written by Antonioni with anonymous photographies from post-war Japanese cinema. Some of Le Bal's projects are: the work by Gilles Peress on the conflict in Northern Ireland (Power in the Blood, 1970–1990), 60 years of the best photography books from South America, and Japanese protest photography in the 1960s and 70s.

On the subject of books, we appear to be going through a particularly interesting period in photobook production. From a situation a few years ago where photobook publishing seemed to be under threat, over the past year or two, a huge number of photobooks have been published independently. What is your view on the current explosion in self-publishing?

The digital revolution offers numerous new options, both technical and economic, including the web documentary, self-publishing, interactive installations, etc., but the format does not make the message, more relevant, just as freedom is not a guarantee for talent. Yes, Wang Bing wouldn’t have made A l’Ouest des Rails (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks) without a lightweight autonomous video camera, Mohamed Bourouissa Temps Mort (Dead Time) without mobile phones and Doug Rickard A New American Picture without Google Street View. But really distinctive ideas are still rare, regardless of the increased ease of use. Look at the hundreds of photobooks presented each year at Arles: it seems that everything gets published, the best and the worst! Sébastian Hau, who is in charge of Le Bal’s book store and who worked for 10 years with Markus Schaden in Cologne, is on the look out for the best books published every year, whether self-published, published by small houses or major publishers. His selection is stunning, from the book of photocopies to the artist’s book, because it comes from a passion and thinking about the specificity of the medium of the book.

Latin American Photobooks

Latin American Photobooks

Your upcoming programme shows the desire to introduce your audience to lesser-known areas of photography such as Latin American photobooks. Are there any specific areas that you find interesting and would like to introduce to a broader audience?

I haven't at all got a thematic approach to programming at Le Bal. The most important thing for me is to work together with curators, artists, and historians, to produce exhibitions that are free and daring. I really loved working on the current exhibition with David Campany. He wrote a very good essay, around which we built the book accompanying the exhibition. I wanted Le Bal to be a medium-size space, and try to avoid the inevitable ‘big name’ show designed to draw masses of people and balance our budget. My priority today is to co-produce quality exhibitions with French and foreign institutions around remarkable yet-to-be-discovered (or rediscovered) talents and to get people thinking about what’s at stake with the image-document.

Le Bal also has an educational department, La Fabrique du Regard. What are the aims of La Fabrique du Regard and how does it integrate with the rest of Le Bal’s programming?

Today images circulate in an immediate, uninterrupted and non-hierarchical flow. La Fabrique du Regard, Le Bal’s educational platform, is training young people to make their way through this jungle of images, and look critically at them: the image as thinking machine. Since 2008, we’ve been developing experimental programmes for kids between 8 and 18, especially kids from disadvantaged areas, of Paris and its troubled suburbs. We have four specific programmes that allow us to reach 4,000 young people each year. Our objective is to educate "citizen observers," to make young people understand how images are made and what shapes our looking at them.

Can you tell me about your background, in particular, how did you start out in the world of photography? You were director of Magnum Photos for many years. How did that experience inform the direction that you are giving to Le Bal?

I came to Magnum at the age of 20 in 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was fascinated by the capacity of photographers to represent a tipping point, to give form to the world’s chaos, to influence our perception of History. Magnum was a place of tensions and interrogations, housing opposite approaches: "les temps faibles" or uneventful moments of Raymond Depardon, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dazzling take of the instant, the stinging realism of Martin Parr, the dramatic poetry of Josef Koudelka, etc. I felt the excitement of a sensory experiential laboratory of the real, in tune with the movement of the world. In 2000, I became Director of the Paris office. In a decade the world had changed: the digital revolution, the omnipresence of the image as product, but also the art world’s acknowledgement of the necessity of politicizing the aesthetic. In 2007, I curated the exhibition L'Image d'Après (The Image to Come) at the Cinémathéque de Paris and at the CCCB in Barcelona. I wanted to show how cinematographic stances influenced documentary approaches. How does the image-document position itself at the boundaries of the true and the false, the certain and the uncertain, legibility and enigma? Creating Le Bal continues this line of thought.

The theme of this issue is ‘Traces’. Are there any specific moments in your experience with photography that have left a strong impression on you?

Traces can be part imaginary. I was looking for photographs of our dancehall from the 1930s, going to collectors, dealers, the City of Paris’s historical collection, etc. There was not a single photograph of the place from that era! This insolent absence of images drove me to imagine a slightly crazy project: to collect original images of dancehalls from all over the world from the same time. At the opening a month ago, we published these Archives du Bal: an imaginary incarnation of Le Bal’s past, with its hoodlums, its brothel, its cabaret and even an incredible dance marathon during which the exhausted couples are still standing by leaning on each other under a sign "They danced for 466 hours!" As Nietzsche said, "the real world finally becomes a fable." 

Interview by Marc Feustel