Back in 1966, Chris Marker made a 49-minute film called Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (If I Had Four Camels) in which an amateur photographer (Marker incognito) and his two friends muse in voice-over at the portfolio of stills the globetrotting lens man has brought back from his ten years of travels in 26 countries. “Photography is like hunting, it’s the instinct of the hunt without the desire to kill”, the photographer observes. “One stalks, aims, shoots and – click! – rather than killing someone you make them eternal.” If I Had Four Camels is entirely made up of photographic stills and, as such, can be seen as of a part with other Marker films, most famously La Jetée (1962), as well as Le Souvenir d’un avenir (‘Remembrance of Things to Come’, 2001). This latter, co-directed with Yannick Bellon, comprises photographs taken in the 1930s by Yannick’s mother, Denise Bellon, a pioneering French photo-journalist whose vocation Marker’s aphoristic commentary sums up thus: “Being a photographer means not only to look but to sustain the gaze of others.”
This reciprocity – looker and looked-at locked together in the eternity of a still – fascinates Marker and keeps sending him back to the photographic archive, both his own and others, to examine these moments plucked from time. It’s precisely this fascination that is at the heart of Staring Back, a major new exhibition of Marker’s photographs mounted at Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts and whose magnificent accompanying publication is an indispensable addition to the libraries of Marker adepts.
The 200 black and white photographs selected for the show collect fifty years of faces in an anthology of gazes that Marker’s cameras – still, film and video – have captured between 1952 and 2006. Some are famous faces – Signoret, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Dali – some will be familiar from his films, others are portraits of friends and collaborators. So it’s a matter of Marker not only having raided his own vast photo-library but also of having extracted stills from his other works.
As Wexner Center curator Bill Horrigan relates, the idea for Staring Back emerged from some stills Marker sent him in March 2005. These were images taken of demonstrations against the contrat de premier embauche (CPE), an ill-advised piece of legislation allowing employers greater ‘flexibility’ in hiring and firing young people taking their first jobs and which had been proposed by the then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (to whom Marker ‘humbly dedicates’ the exhibition). But, as Marker pointed out in his e-mail exchanges with Horrigan, these images were not bona fide photographs but stills extruded from video footage he had shot of the demonstrations and then “somewhat manipulated through the jujucraft of Photoshop and Painter” thereby extracting “THE real photogram” that would otherwise remain invisible in the stream of moving images. As Molly Nesbit indicates in her essay, the decision to print black and white images from colour sources causes shadows to increase and light to quicken, transforming the sense of depth in the images.
The first collection of stills, entitled I Stare 1, includes images from demonstrations in Paris in 1961 and 1968, at the Pentagon in 1967 (a rare, though blurred, glimpse of Marker himself can be seen, here in the hands of the Military Police) and Paris again in 2002 (from footage for Chats Perchés [The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004] the English language commentary for which is included in the book) as well as the anti-CPE demos of 2006. This is a superb sequence of images whose combination of crowd shots and individual faces – joyful, defiant, pensive – and the sense of movement and progression within and between the stills irresistibly reminds one of a Marker film, all the more so when one reads the seven short texts scattered throughout the section. The quality and diversity of images is high throughout the three other sections (They Stare, I Stare 2 and Beast of…, in which some of Marker’s beloved animals take a turn) and makes the book an engrossing tour of his memories as well as an invaluable visual companion to the travels of this most protean of creators. So, how to judge Staring Back?
On one hand, as another of Marker’s many collaborations; this time with Horrigan and the Wexner Center under whose commission in 1995 Marker made Silent Movie, a major installation and without whose role as sympathetic sounding-board it’s doubtful that Marker would have rummaged quite so thoroughly among his archival treasures. On the other hand, Staring Back might also be seen as the most recent presentation of possible elements for Owls at Noon, the ongoing project “to extract a subjective journey through the 20th century”, as Marker describes it. While we await the arrival of the Owls, this will do nicely.
Chris Marker’s Staring Back is at the Wexner Center for the Arts , Ohio State University from May 12-August 12, 2007. The catalogue Chris Marker: Staring Back is published by Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University & The M.I.T Press (ISBN: 978-0-262-08365-2). It is available from September. The exhibition will also be shown at the Peter Blum Gallery, NYC from September 2007 and at the Gestaltung Museum, Zurich from June 2008. It is hoped that it might appear in London in Spring 2008 (watch the Vertigo website for details).
Chris Darke is a writer and critic. He has published Light Readings (Wallflower Press), Alphaville (I.B. Tauris) and Cannes (Faber), the latter with Kieron Corless