The Skein of the Archive: Denise Bellon and Remembrance of Things to Come

Janet Harbord

Tags: Chris Marker

Reviews / 23.03.2010
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In photographer Denise Bellon's archive, there is an image of a woman reclining, the top half of her body naked, the bottom half clothed in what appears to be trousers buckled with a leather belt. She lies back in the sun, her lips parted, one arm covering her eyes and the other folded under her head to reveal a soft down of under-arm hair. At first glance, she could be an icon of the emerging leisure culture in France between the wars and a celebration of a liberatory nudism. But look for longer and the image is not so readily classified. From the sparkling textured crests that form the background of the photograph, she appears to be lying not on sand but snow. The contrast of a warm naked body against cold snow is a key to other contrasts in the image - the soft skin enclosed by the metal buckles and thick leather of the belt, the covered face compared with the full exposure of breasts and torso, a body in repose and yet potent. The photograph is not simply a woman at leisure in the sun, but a woman eroticised in an image of conflicting sensual cues.

Denise Bellon worked for the Paris-based Alliance-Photo agency, a precursor to the Magnum Agency that was created in 1934. The film begins in 1935 and completes its tale in 1955, covering two decades critical for world politics. In parallel with military events, the Surrealist movement gained national presence with an exhibition in Paris in 1938, and again in 1947. Bellon was friends with the Surrealists, from Andre Breton to Dalí and Duchamp. This double lineage of politics and art is the stamp-mark of her work, not as two separate influences, but as forces always already forged together. Bellon seems to acknowledge that the terms 'realism' and 'surrealism' imply a separation of what cannot be split apart. So many of her images perform a coupling of light and dark, playful and sinister, plain speak and elaborate detail. The surrealists are there, in the archive, as the subjects of portraits and as performers in masks. And yet this posturing, which turns the playful into the troubling, seems almost gauche, an exaggerated inversion of forms.

In the years between the two world wars of the twentieth century, Bellon's images speak of a radical inversion. The faces of soldiers, broken and disfigured by the first war, are turned towards her camera. These are not masks - there is no deeper truth but a surface engraved by events. In another image (they are all untitled and undated), Bellon photographs a model of a flayed figure, the vulnerable sinews and veins bereft of skin, recalling James Joyce when he wrote that 'modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul'. And photographs, perhaps, are a kind of skin, a surface on which impressions leave their mark, as well as skein, the surface patterns that coil and loop their significance.

In 2001, Bellon's daughter Yannick collaborated with Chris Marker to make the film Remembrance of Things to Come. Photographs selected from Bellon's archive are layered with a soundtrack, a voice that cross-threads the connections and inferences that appear to lie dormant in images shot between the wars. A scrap-metal yard bears an uncanny resemblance to the war wrecked roads of Ypres, amateur parachuters prefigure military paratroopers to come, and Marcel Duchamp's unrelenting stare appears to foresee his later misappropriation by the art world as the voiceover states: 'He wanted to reveal the vanity of art. One day he'll be used to vindicate the art of vanity'. Somewhere between haunting prophecy and encrypted script, the narrator continues, 'each of her photographs shows a past yet deciphers a future'. And yet - as is often the case in Marker's films - it isn't clear if there is a distinction between that which the photographs reveal, and what is retrospectively attributed to them. The film so eloquently braids a knowledge of the context of images with interpretation, with the sense of fingering and handling these objects from the past, that we might ask instead, what is it that we want with photographs and what is it precisely that they keep for or from us?

Take for example an image of a bathtub full of film canisters stacked high, nearly tumbling over the edges. The pipes from a boiler line the wall behind. The image speaks not only of an incongruity of placement, but also of a terrible vulnerability in the suggested relation between heated water and film stock, of possible ruin and decay. In Remembrance, we are told that this is the cinématique française, a museum and archive founded by Henri Langlois, Jean Mitry and Georges Franju, to preserve rare French films. During World War II, it existed clandestinely, shipped from home to home, transported in the disguise of a pram pushed through the streets. The knowledge delivered by the narrative secures the image with a context and a meaning, roots it in time, place and purpose. But this knowledge of context is often not evident with these photographs, despite the dates and the inferred locations. In the teeming array of images that Marker's hour-long film presents and moves through at a varying rate, there are many that remain enigmatic. It is not simply that their context is not given, but rather that these images are evidence of a type of intimacy between the photographer and the photographed - as in the image of a laughing boy seated on the bare mattress of a metal-framed bed. Something, a negotiation, an exchange, an assurance, has taken place, but we are external to it. Marker's skill is to make us feel privy to this knowledge, tracing visual cues across different images, letting one image cross-fade into another. And yet, the photographs retain a type of alterity, a resistance to the filmic trope of narrative and the culminative devices of editing.

There is an image of two women that Bellon has taken in the restricted red-light district of Tunisia. The narrator tells us that this is colonial Africa, offering us another image of a coloured map of the extensive region of North Africa that was part of the French Empire, and states that these two women were prostitutes servicing French soldiers. Bellon 'returns the beauty of soldiers' whores', the voice says. The two women are looking at the camera, one is half-smiling, leaning back in a posture that emphasises her breasts and belly. The other, her hair stylishly rolled up and lips coated in colour, seems to look through the camera at Bellon. The look is unreadable, it could be defiant or proud, or perhaps the closed mouth suggests a purposefully mute expression? The photograph raises more questions than it answers in its status as a record. How did Bellon, operating in 1936 as a female photographer, enter a restricted district of colonial Tunisia, and negotiate this photograph? What are the cross-currents of eroticism in display as these two women arrange their bodies for her camera? The image, like many in Bellon's archive, evidences a type of intimacy that remains a secret. Here is another image from Africa, another body set in relation to Bellon's camera. The back of a child's head, shaved but for a small plait that hangs asymmetrically from the crown, a body turned purposefully to display the adornment, or a child caught off-guard? The photograph discloses so much, and no more. This, it seems, is our relation to the past: we have evidence of an event, but we remain outside of it.

The Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser, writing in the 1980s, distinguished between historical and post-historical images, and, perhaps surprisingly, the photograph belongs to the latter category. For Flusser, historical images are those that have been used to illustrate written texts, that are drawn into the linearity of the written word, but which oppose writing's chronological sequence with magical consciousness. In a description that seems to predict the ubiquity of photographic images in the decades to come, he says 'photographs are dams placed in the stream of history, jamming historical happenings'.2 Photographs, for Flusser, retain an agency that resists temporal mores, and despite the careful concern of Remembrance of Things to Come to place these images in 'their' historical context, they also float free of its confines. For there is a double movement at work in the film, which, on the one hand, proffers photographs as a record, a documentation of what has occurred in front of the lens: here is an event, a singularity located in time and place. On the other, these are images gathered and threaded together anew, subsequently framed, doubled up as superimpositions, and brought to life by a story from the present.

The forcefulness of Bellon's work is that it offers us both of these things, a record and a post-historical reinterpretation, realism and surrealism. Faced with these images of fact and enigma, one irrupting inside of the other, we enter the space of alterity and fill it with our own stories. we double this. The image of the woman that seems to me so sexually potent, lying half-clothed, half-exposed to the snow, appears in the film stripped of this power. The image is cropped so that the lower part of the body, the belt and clothing, do not appear.3 Here, she is part of a sequence of nudist sunbathers celebrating the body after the humiliations of World War I, a narration that re-writes the more complex sexual nuances of the image. But each telling will do what it will with photographic images, which includes selective 'forgetting' of its parts or its chronology. Remembering and recording speak the necessity, conversely, of forgetting and remaking, which recalls Nietzsche's comment that 'there could be no hope, no future, without forgetting'.4