Jean-Phillipe Poli: Atmosphere, Atmosphere
Words: Dean Brierly
From the outset, photographers set out to evoke or capture atmosphere in visual terms. This was by no means limited to France, yet the timeline of French photography reflects a perhaps unmatched number of artists for whom atmosphere was a major part of their aesthetic: Eugene Atget, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Brassaï, Andre Kertész, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Marc Riboud, Edouard Boubat, Jeanloup Sieff, to name only a few out of the innumerable.
The noted writer and art critic Charles Henry Caffin (1854-1918) was alert to this dynamic. In his book Photography as a Fine Art (1901) he wrote: “There are two distinct roads in photography—the utilitarian and the aesthetic; the goal of the one being a record of facts, and of the other an expression of beauty.” Describing various strands of the latter, he added: “Lastly, there is the photograph whose motive is purely aesthetic: to be beautiful. It will record facts, but not as facts; it will even ignore facts if they interfere with the conception that is kept in view.”
Jean-Philippe Poli is a Frenchman living in Monticello, a commune on the island of Corsica, who has began taking black-and-white photographs since 1997. Photographs in which atmosphere informs every aspect, visual and thematic. For many years he worked exclusively in black and white and printed in the darkroom, but now scans his analog negatives and prints digitally. He has also added color to his palette. In addition to shooting in Corsica, he travels frequently throughout France and other countries in search of inspirational landscapes, scenes and settings.
The work presented here is from two of his series: Sur la route du ble en Beaucé (On the wheat road in Beauce) and Errances franc-comtoises (Franche-Comté Wanderings). Both are marked by a “dead-end” effect, fashioned through conscious utilization of prosaic elements—lonely houses, deserted streets, abandoned cars, forlorn signposts—to evoke simultaneously a sense of melancholy, the passing of time and the felt presence of past and present inhabitants.
Writing on his blog about an image he took of Oradour-sur-Glane, a village destroyed by the German army during WWII, and which now stands as a permanent memorial, Poli described it as “an arpent of geography fertilized by the tears of history, a piece of territory scarred by a gesture, cursed by a tragedy, a land which, beyond the centuries, continues to radiate the echo of past suffering or past glories. It’s a landscape blessed with tears and blood. You stand in front of it and suddenly you experience a presence, a rise, the manifestation of a je ne sais quoi. It is the echo of history, the fossil radiation of an event that rises from the ground, like a wave.”
The backstories for these settings in Beauce and Franche-Comté also contain their share of turbulence. Franche-Comté suffered the ravages of invasion during the Burgundian Wars, and was one of the last regions in France to have serfdom. Beauce, the historic “breadbasket” of France, and the setting for Émile Zola’s novel La Terre (The Earth), is also not without its ghosts and past traumas.
None of this strife is evident in Poli’s images, of course, but the vague terrain, decaying structures and depopulated spaces combine to haunting effect. Each photograph has its own narrative, ambiguous yet nevertheless quite powerful.
In “Moutiers-en-Beauce (Eure-et-Loir)” a tarp-shrouded car stands on an unkempt patch of ground between two nondescript buildings. The flat, gray light casts a pall and contributes to the feeling of objects and places left behind. A similar ambience informs a pair of images made in Les Essard-Taignevaux (Jura)—one depicting a dilapidated car and trailer resting on blocks; the other (perhaps taken in the same location) showing outworn tractor tires stacked against a tree. It’s almost as if time itself has run its course.
Poli explores visual and other equivalences between such objects, as well as between natural and manufactured forms. The compositional balance manifest in these images lends equal importance to each element within the frame, whether it resides in the foreground, background or middle ground. Point, line, plane and volume are elegantly exploited in pursuit of the thematic and emotional complexity Poli wishes to communicate to the viewer.
In this regard the work challenges our sense of visual perception. People increasingly seem to be unaware of the physical environments around them, or are unable to “see” them in any meaningful way. Our overwhelming reliance on technology is a contributing factor, as everything is viewed and processed through our phone and computer screens. Poli’s images make a compelling argument that even the most mundane setting has its own story to tell, if one only knows how to look.
Recently, Poli took time to discuss these and other issues that inform and animate his creative direction.
B&W: Do you set out with a definite concept or idea for each body of work?
JPP: In my mind it doesn’t work in forms or patterns. Above all I seek subjects and compositions that evoke time gone past, but are given visual expression in a contemporary context.
B&W: Time in terms of looking both backward and forward?
JPP: It is vital to look back in order to move forward. To approach what is happening today, to imagine what will happen tomorrow, cannot be achieved without integrating what happened, what was. The passage of time is inherent in photography. Any photograph can be transfigured by this dynamic.
B&W: The careful visual balance in your photographs is also central to their ambience and meaning, as well as a sense of chronological consistency.
JPP: Composition is for me a primordial and permanent obsession. Balance creates tranquility. It also seduces and charms the spectator, perhaps without their really knowing why, even beyond the subject matter of the photograph.
B&W: Do you prefer photographing in rural villages and towns rather than big urban centers like Paris?
JPP: I have no particular preference. As a photographer you have to adapt to the subject and assimilate different contexts. Why do I gravitate to one subject and not another? I’m sure it’s because of the two aspects that are deeply characteristic of me: nostalgia and melancholy. Bu after having followed a documentary approach, I’m now more inclined to integrate the presence of people in such settings.
B&W: What was the inspiration for the images presented here?
JPP: I spent a lot of holidays in the Franche-Comté when I was young; about one month a year from age seven to 14. This series was done in about four days, while I was passing through this region during a trip in France. It was gratifying to revisit the sensations of my childhood. It was a trip back in time. Many things had changed, but I was looking for things that hadn’t changed, things over which time has no hold.
Concerning La route du blé en Beauce, one of my best friends, also a photographer, lives in Beauce, and I had the opportunity to stay with him several times. I found this agricultural area to be very cold, almost hostile, which for me made it photographically very interesting. I found there a foggy, surreal atmosphere, perfectly matching the black and white aesthetic that I love.
B&W: Cold and hostile is an interesting way to describe a landscape. Do you prefer a “cool” landscape to a “warm” one?
JPP: I am unable to reason this out in terms of preference. I photographed Andalusia under overwhelming light and heat, and the north of France in cold and fog, with similar pleasure. I start from the principle that I am unable not to photograph, whatever the circumstances. I am eager to adapt and to transcribe a concrete setting or situation, yet always through the prism of my sensitivity. Nevertheless, I recognize a preference for gray weather that I consider more evocative of a certain melancholy. I love the foggy atmospheres that lend things a certain poetry. “It is the uncertainty that charms one,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “A mist makes things wonderful.”
B&W: The photographs in these series are very much rooted in the places where they are taken, yet they also evoke similar settings in other countries. Do you consciously try to create this universal identification?
JPP: Unconsciously, very definitely. Even if I try to convey the specific atmosphere of a place, it nevertheless reflects the expression of my own sensibility towards other places that provoke similar responses from me.
B&W: These images seem not only about a sense of place, but also about the people who inhabit them.
JPP: For a long time I avoided photographing people despite a desire to do so. It was complicated; there was a lot of non-acceptance. In France, people are often suspicious when being photographed. It’s very different now. I try to show people, not for who they are, but for what they represent. I utilize them to try and humanize the places or landscapes that I photograph, to perhaps add meaning and maybe even poetry. This new approach is embodied in my series about Normandy, titled De vent, de brume et d’embruns (Wind, Mist and Spray).
B&W: What prompted this shift? Did you feel you had taken the previous approach as far as you could?
JPP: It would be pretentious to say I had achieved everything in the documentary mode, but I was becoming a little tired of photographing things in a static way: very composed, requiring the systematic use of the tripod. I suddenly desired spontaneity, to free myself from the tripod, to grasp life more effectively. My fascination with Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places” greatly influenced me in this direction. But it’s also true that I like all genres of photography, and I want to explore them. I am not one of those who indulge for a lifetime in one particular style without deviation. I’m not saying those that do are wrong; I’m just different. Regarding the human presence in my photos, I think a posteriori that I had not found my distance, the way I wanted to integrate people while maintaining a personal voice. Now, I think I have achieved what has developed into a new motivation.
B&W: I’m intrigued by how these scenes withhold as much as they reveal. They don’t give up their secrets willingly.
JPP: Absolutely! I appreciate that not everything is said or understood, that there is room for personal projection. I once photographed from behind an old woman dressed completely in black. During an exhibition, another woman turned away from this photo and began to cry. When I asked her why, she said it reminded her of one of her aunts, and that she felt a great emotion. This anecdote sums up everything that I’m aiming for.
B&W: The phrase “the eloquence of the inanimate” keeps coming to mind. Also, “mood as meaning.” Do these accord with your intentions for the work?
JPP: Yes, indeed. The goal is to make the inanimate alive, if necessary to be able to project beyond the framework to which we are bound. I don’t remember who said that photography is not to photograph the beautiful, but to make beautiful what can appear as banal or devoid of charm. It is a question of soliciting the viewer as much as possible. Once the photo is done I like that it no longer belongs to me. I like that what originally caught my attention is not totally obvious in the image.
B&W: Do you consider the word “documentary” as being less subjective than how you now photograph?
JPP: I don’t think so. A photograph is inherently subjective. It is always a frame within which the photographer selects a time and a space. In this regard it is eminently and systematically subjective. In photography and art, to claim objectivity is pretentious and vain, even useless and inadequate. There is always a sensitivity, a point of view behind a photo associated with that of its maker and its potential viewer.
B&W: Describe your technical process.
JPP: I worked with medium and large-format for years—Mamiya, Hasselblad and a Shen Hao 4×5-inch camera. Since 2010 I’ve worked digitally with a Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D850 and now a Nikon Z7, with Sigma Art lenses (35, 50 and 85mm). Most of the time I use the 50mm. My photos benefit from post-processing in Lightroom and Photoshop. They are printed with a Canon imagePROGRAF 1000 on museum-quality Canson fibre rag platine paper.
B&W: Does digital printing allow you to capture a wider range of tonalities?
JPP: Yes. From my point of view, this is how to get the best possible black-and-white results. Shooting exclusively in RAW lets me work on each part of the shot to get the exact atmosphere I’m after.
B&W: Film grain is an important part of your aesthetic, lending the images a textured warmth and ambience.
JPP: Yes, I love grain! It was one of my primary objectives when I used analog film. I remember the pleasure I felt looking at an image shot with a Leica and 400 speed film. My favorite was Ilford HP5, which is the grain I now try to reproduce digitally.
All works copyright Jean-Philippe Poli. To see more, visit jeanphilippepoli.com, as well as twitter.com/jphpoli.