Michel Tournier and photography

Michel Tournier with his camera, 1977. Getty Images.

Michel Tournier with his camera, 1977. Getty Images.

In the recent series of deaths of legendary figures, yesterday was the turn of Michel Tournier, one of the most interesting French writers and also a very influential, passionate lover of photography. To get an idea of how influential: he is the co-founder of Les Rencontres d’Arles, the famed photo festival in France.

Although he has published books with photographers’ bios and discussions of selected photographs, his most interesting writings are actually the novels and short stories in which photography is a subtle theme, a subject, plot driver and protagonist. I am fascinated with the ways the two arts intertwine.

Take his short story “Veronica’s Shrouds”, set – coincidentally – in Arles, that tells the story of Veronique, a photographer who is in fact a participant in the photo festival. It is told so matter-of-factly it almost feels like a journalistic account of the festival. Veronique becomes  so obsessed with one of the models in her photo workshop that she starts photographing him incessantly and envelopes him in sheets soaked in developer to make better prints out of him. Hector’s skin peels, he withers away and is reduced to a shadow of his former handsome self. Surprisingly, with his appearance fading, this is when Veronique finds she can take better pictures of him. In the end he disappears, but that’s ok – his pictures are enough to replace him.

Of course, there are so many literary and cultural references here – the Shroud of Turin or St. Veronica, celebrated as the patron saint of photographers, the myth of creation, Pygmalion, etc. But one is clear: Tournier sees the photograph as a “vampiric operation” that destroys its subject just as it immortalizes it. It proposes beauty beyond beauty: as Hector (the model) whittles away and loses his looks, the pictures of him actually become better.

It is indeed difficult to photograph perfection. What do you capture? How does it become yours? Commercial photographers will certainly disagree with me, but this short story actually tells my evolution, over the years, from a contentious “yeah, it’s easy to take nice pictures of something that is pretty in the first place” to consciously seeking raw Bulgarian countryside to escape from the sterile perfection of Texas suburban development where everything is new, polished and, well, just too perfect. My sister didn’t understand my complaint that I can’t find anything interesting to photograph in Texas. Of course, now I know better. I guess I’ve learned to find the imperfect in perfection.

But the other Tournier’s novel – The Golden Droplet – is even more fascinating in its relationship with photography. It’s about Idris, a Berber shepherd in Algeria whom a blonde French tourist photographs by chance on her trip to Sahara. As the promised photo never arrives in the mail, to the laughs of the mailman and everybody else in the village, humiliated Idris starts off to Paris to find it. En route, he finds a golden droplet in the desert, which is a perfect sign detached from its representation, differently from the lost photo. The novel ends as he finally arrives to The Golden Droplet, a North-African slum neighborhood in Paris.

I won’t bore you with literary analysis here, plus this post is already too simplified, but isn’t that such a great point about the imaging power of colonialism, the yearning of representation  (and lack thereof), and finally, the impossibility of reaching said representation. And there is a mention of a conceptual museum no less: “A fragile, provocative safe, a shop window is just asking to be broken into.”

(Can you tell I am dealing with the concept of the museum as a mythmaking mechanism for photography in my real life right now?)

What I love in the picture above is how revealing the integration of image and words is. As Tournier opens up and shows us his field camera, the words that jump  out of it: Getty Images. So telling.

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