A day like any other …A day without end


Contemporary photography of the urban landscape has broken the aesthetic and historical relationship established with the big city, the metropolis. We are now far removed from those passionate exaggerated descriptions in praise of those conglomerations of monuments, buildings and squares. When John Erskine wrote the introduction to Andréas Feininger's New York he quite rightly stated: "Andréas Feininger, who made these splendid pictures, chose his subjects, we must suppose, for their photographic values. But either by intention or by happy instinct he has stressed the circumstance which gives New York its quality and causes it to be distinct from other cities." [1]
The modern city had appealed to photography to give it an identity and thus mark its differences; its break with the country (nature and the wild), its superiority over rival metropolises.
The tribute that photography paid to the triumph of the city and urban planning was simply its willing and enthusiastic submission to the machine, to "progress" and the nation. These are the main reasons that brought photography and the city together. Both of them identified with modernity, to such an extent that this generated the metaphor of an organic and autonomous body verging on the absurd. [2]
The megalopolis has destroyed this euphoric relationship. Today's imaging techniques are not good at modifying awareness, and suggest disenchantment rather than visions of prosperity. And we who observe, seeking to understand and not merely submit, how can we not be disturbed by the recent convergence of new images and megalopolises, by the uninterrupted flood of all kinds of images and the mushrooming of incredible and uncontrollable cities.
Castoriadis, Hanna Arendt and Debord had warned us of this. Technology, feigning indifference, rears up as the mother of all catastrophes. The repetition of these same facts, their generalization on a global scale, definitively closes the question of the mechanical autonomy of these inventions, which are photography and the city. There is no more room for chance. What time now writes in the book of history, the consequences that we will have to face, are but a dialectic of accident and resistance.

Claire Chevrier's photography cannot be reduced to these two words. But they are part of the logic of Paysages-Villes, whose subject is the megalopolis. A subject that presents itself to everyone as the supreme sham, the much disparaged leviathan, the subterranean place [3] predicted by Jean Baudrillard.
In effect, the megalopolis teems with transitory rejects, it recycles familiar objects. There where man seems condemned, the urban structure opens onto anarchy, the uncontrollable, the obscene, the community and its secrets. Faced with this photographic record of a levelled landscape that oppresses us, faced with the poverty of the materials used, our "good taste" is revolted. But if we take a closer look, we glimpse an insignificant object in the margins of each image, an olive tree, a terrace taken over by squatters, and sheet metal everywhere. Towards the edge there is a patch of vegetation, a path opens up. A fence made of salvaged materials creates spaces in the postmodern leviathan. Insignificant situations that recount micro-events, arrangements made with brutality, adaptations to reality.
The current terrifying, continuous, fractured outward appearance of the city is inseparable from all forms of making do and has to resign itself to coming to terms with pre-existing mentalities and social structures. Going beyond the admission of impotence, the megalopolis recreates traditional systems at its core. In a situation where nature regresses and inequality is accentuated, the picturesque disappears. It is replaced by notes that are obscure hints to be discovered; the signs spotted by Claire Chevrier. It is essential to seek them out if we do not want to share the stunned gaze of the amateur taking holiday snapshots, the eye that never rids itself of the picturesque and which sees only contrasts where dissymmetry, opposition and distortion exist. Because it wants to see only brutal mutations, to make a moral judgement, it cannot see the permanence of the garden, the enclosure and the fence.
The rich photographic history of the modern city in Europe and America has obscured the reading of the postmodern city and created a misunderstanding of its contemporary forms, which are often non-European. We think everything looks the same in an informal composition, where nothing has any value because the verbs to complete, to finalize, to embellish have lost their meaning. The sole culture shared by the inhabitants of those cities described unimaginatively as "sprawling" and "inhuman" seems to be that of abandonment.
The ordinary gaze and the practised eye share the same negative viewpoint, Claire Chevrier rejects it.
The urban landscapes captured here combine the magical world of hemlock and uncontrolled development. Between pre-logical thought and accounting mathematics there emerge elements that accentuate a rejection of and rebellion against hyper urban conglomerations that lead populations to prefer configurations that often resemble traditional forms; before the reign of merchandise.
Photography brings us face to face with things. We have to accept them. In the image a horizontal line separates two incompatible worlds one of which possesses a relentless logic, that of encroachment and appropriation. A permanent evil, the urban conglomerate extends its confines every day and one cannot imagine any alternative to urban development except this constant horizontal and vertical erosion.
When the city wanted to conquer the sky, it wanted to be photographed from a high angle or from a low angle because that accentuated its power. The camera made it more precise, authorized inventories and counting. Small formats suggested movement and speed. They captured the energy that had to be expressed. [4] This city that no longer exists sealed the pact between the architect and the building firm, an alliance that revealed their shared attraction to all kinds of structures and constructions: illusory Taylor planning, five-year plans, precepts of the Athens Charter … The gigantic proportions of the skyscrapers marked the ambition not of a restricted community but of a small group of businessmen and planners who worked for the good of all. Towers and buildings, well planned streets and avenues, pylons and electric cables, geometric theories on windows, the list of "materials" – those formal elements that abundantly supplied photographers with angles and perfectly straight lines – were wonderfully combined in a spatial order organized by a meritorious elite.
American photography enthusiastically backed the splendid modern city. The natural intermingling of all social groups within the urban setting became the focus of photographic production. The photographer's task was to reveal what was hiding behind the apparent contrasts. But in the end, as happens in musicals, despite the irreconcilable opposites, the urban contradictions were resolved in a harmonious cosmopolitan and universal whole: "I have tried very sincerely to present a carefully balanced mixture of grandeur and misery, of human life and lifeless stone, of streets and docks, of panoramas and close-ups, of pictures by day and by dusk and by night, of gay and tragic situations, including the men on the Bowery and the pleasure-bent crowds on Broadway." [5]

Paysages-Constructions, Villes-Constructions free us from many influences and feelings that generally obscure the subject. The mystique of industry has disappeared and with it the attraction of signs of modernity. Bridges are no longer symbols of progress, their structures are "poorly" presented as mere necessities. "Rigour" and "necessity", those gods worshipped by architects, have been banished. The purity and impurity of the city and the search for its truth have been rejected. Nowhere in Claire Chevrier's photographs does the concept of territory dominate. While others have sought to elaborate an image of the urban landscape so that it can be identified by including instantly recognizable signs, this photographer organizes her reconstruction by using the technique of juxtaposing samples and fragments. She refuses to characterize or psychologize the record.
Hers is an attempt to establish a series of elements whose connection may be seen as significant. Claire Chevrier proceeds methodically; she moves from the exterior to the interior of her subject in order to capture its signs and signals without referring to the model of the exemplary city (centrality, controlled traffic flow, peripheric circulation, construction techniques, functional housing units). The journey into uncertainty is the sole possibility in a world without rules and regulations feeding on solids and voids, namely, the constructed (solid) and the constructible (void). Penetrating this subject – we repeat, without characterizing it – is a difficult operation. The suburb only possesses a transitory reality since the outskirts in this new configuration go on forever. A panorama is pointless. Every day we witness the spread in real time of a body forced to ingest the massive rural exodus, [6] the organization of life in conurbations with imprecise limits that swallow up the remains of the rural world. The postmodern city is a structure that is not projected into the future. It devours the planet's resources. It is unable to control anything. It can't control itself …
This, in effect, excuses the megalopolis from providing itself with enclosed public spaces. And since the state has disappeared, it reinvents the wall and imposes a new visual order that can be understood by everyone without icons, without street signs and signals. [7] The unwritten law is understood by everyone.
Hence being inside does not mean anything, and the expression becomes inappropriate. In a circumscribed field of vision, proximity creates a promiscuity that is reminiscent of the medieval town. The state's disappearance has produced a novel situation, the juxtaposition of areas that can no longer be called neighbourhoods. [8] From now on the only meeting places are football stadiums, which receive every care and attention, because communication between one area and another has been interrupted. Connections have broken in a territory where rich and poor fight to survive. The megalopolis does not seek to present a reassuring and consensual image of itself, as did the capital cities of the past. It rejects functionality and, apathetically, only guarantees the essential, safety. [9]
Various signs (satellite dishes, street lighting, pavements, public parks, useful spaces, vegetable gardens, orchards, pastures etc.) distinguish private neighbourhoods protected from their surroundings (suburbs, slums, shanty towns etc.). Steel and glass for some, concrete, rubble stone and iron for others. Financial transactions and shady deals, building sites and odd jobs, street hawking, limousines and taxis, these worlds do not touch and no longer see each other. The absence of public services is countered by brand names and advertising hoardings. The language of signs has become impoverished and reduced to publicity; it shamelessly encourages consumption. What weakens this megalopolis of images is autism.

This polarization is not new and it is reminiscent of the class violence that was rife in London during the nineteenth century and described by Flora Tristan [10]. History falteringly repeats itself in the global cities of China, Thailand, India, Brazil and Nigeria, countries that Claire Chevrier has visited. Human beings have been reduced to slaves, they are condemned to hard labour and sexually exploited. Every neighbourhood is a fortress, a huge workshop, a prison, a brothel.
But unlike the COED (Cities Of Exacerbated Difference), in the reign of Queen Victoria, the capital of the British Empire assigned to architecture the role of representing power. Postmodernism has condemned emblematic construction of the city. São Paulo does without decoration and ornament.
Elsewhere, in Cairo, the concept of embellishment no longer makes any sense. And the "beautiful sight" that made you feel you belonged to a place and, despite everything, made you a member of a large community has gone. The "crooks" used to stroll through "their" city. They knew the names of all the streets. Antonio Balduino "… was free in the religious city of Bahía de Todos os Santos, the Bahía of all the saints and the candoblé magician Jubiabá. He lived the great adventure of freedom. His home was the whole city. He owned it." [11]
Now everyone walks like a foreigner in his own city, he is a refugee or under siege in his own neighbourhood.

Pollution, corrosion, dust, smog; the great absentee in the postmodern city is the sun. It has not left … It has been chased away. Industry has erased it from the image. The photographer who depends on it has nothing to reproach himself for in this case. Perhaps the photography of the new millennium should immortalize not the transformation of cities but the departure of the sun? The digital camera does not regret this disappearance of light. Its raison d'être is based on this premise, this absence. The urban experience for more than one person in two has acquired a definite shape. That of a world where the concepts of near and far no longer have any meaning. Geography oscillates between the safety of familiar objects and the fear of the close dividing line between the recognition of one's nearest and dearest and the inconstancy of light.
Claire Chevrier's global œuvre can be seen as the fruitless search for islands of colour in opaque areas, These islands of colour, these patches, are the makeshift adaptations and small instances of resistance that elude statistics, planning, financial interests. These small visual objects are, in effect, marks made on the landscape by people who have adapted their view of and approach to the urban environment. The past is merely a background devoid of references and only family, clan and tribal ties are able to draw from it new forms all the more hallucinatory as life without the sun clouds the gaze.

"A hallucination is not a perception, but it has the value of reality, it only counts for the hallucinated." Maurice Merleau Ponty


[1]New York, photographs by Andréas Feininger, with an introduction by John Erskine, picture text by Jacquelyn Judge, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1945.
[2] "This work on a living, evolutional scale, beginning with architecture is also to be found in some artistic approaches. Two young artists from Marseilles, Christophe Berdaguer and Marie Péjus, have, for example, developed a "hormonal city" and a neurodomotics project together with the architects Décosterd and Rahm. They have also taken the passing of time into account in the Dying Houses. And have made the characters in the photomontages of Archizoom and Superstudio look older …" Marie-Ange Brayer, ‘Des Champs Actifs' in Le Bati et le Vivant, Semaines européennes de l'Image, Paul di Felice & Pierre Stiwer, 2002, p. 116.
[3] " Later cities will become more sprawling and uncivilized (Los Angeles). Later still they will wake up and have forgotten even their name. Everything will become infrastructure cradled by artificial light and energy." Jean Baudrillard, Amérique, Editions Descartes et Cie, 2000, p. 49.
[4] Recently the fascination for the energy of the big city was still expressed lyrically and enthusiastically: "Why do so many people live in New York? They have no relationship with each other. But an inner electricity that springs from their mere proximity." Jean Baudrillard, Amérique, Editions Descartes et Cie, 2000, p. 40.
[5] New York, photographs by Andréas Feininger, with an introduction by John Erskine, picture text by Jacquelyn Judge, 1945, pp. 97-98.
[6] Dealing with the influx of peasants and transforming them into industrial workers. This is the task facing the megalopolis. In China, Shenzhen and Chongqing were still small towns twenty years ago. Today they have a population of over ten million.
[7] "According to the ideology of the free market, the decision-makers of Calcutta have opted for a radical retreat. Deregulation has assumed proportions that far outstrip Thatcher's and Reagen's craziest dreams. The traffic lights bore the brunt of budget cuts and they were privatised – in the literal sense of the word …" Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, ‘Calcutta now!' in Cities on the move 2, art et architecture en Asie, capcMusée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux, arc en rêve centre d'architecture, exhibition 4 June to 30 August 1998, p. 62.
[8] "In Jakarta, the brutal contrasts and antagonisms of the global city are glaringly obvious. The landscape is dotted with tall, gleaming, air-conditioned skyscrapers, often designed by famous foreign architects. Each building is isolated from its neighbours by fences, gates and security guards, but linked to the great capitals of Asia, Europe and the Americas by its computer network. Inside there are telephones, faxes, computers and televisions with satellite and CNN links. Outside, among the skyscrapers and polluted canals millions of people live in incredibly squalid urban villages." William J. Michell, ‘Le Kampong planétaire', in Cities on the move 2, art et architecture en Asie, capcMusée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux, arc en rêve centre d'architecture, exhibition from 4 June to 30 August 1998, p.37.
[9] Unlike what one may think it is not the megalopolises that hold the most catastrophic record in terms of "lack of safety". The statistics for cities such as Port Moresby, Cape Town and New Orleans are far more alarming.
[10] "The contrast between the three social classes in this city is what civilization shows us in all major capitals, but in London it is more striking than in any other. You pass from the active population of the City whose sole ambition is financial gain, to a haughty arrogant aristocracy, who spend two months a year in London to escape boredom and display their unbridled luxury or to indulge in a feeling of superiority at the sight of the people's poverty! … In the poor neighbourhoods you encounter the thin and pale working-class masses, whose dirty, ragged children look pitiful; then there are swarms of brazen prostitutes with lustful eyes, and gangs of professional thieves; and finally troops of children, who, like birds of prey, come out of their lairs every evening to launch themselves on the city and fearlessly pillage it, throwing themselves into crime, they are sure to escape the pursuit of the police, who are too few to arrest them in this vast metropolis." Flora Tristan, Promenades dans Londres, Editions Gallimard, collection Folio, 2008, pp. 24-25 (first edition 1840).
[11] Bahía de tous les Saints, Jorge Amado, Club Français du Livre, 1954, p. 49.


François Cheval


Decorazione e documento - Jacinto Lageira


La proliferazione, all’interno di immagini e costruzioni disparate, di segni urbani, paesaggistici, naturali, seminaturali o completamente artificiali ha raggiunto nell’epoca della globalizzazione una tale saturazione che la si potrebbe assimilare a quel trionfo dell’ornamento che Adolf Loos considerava un delitto . Questa inondazione di immagini, forme, loghi, insegne, escrescenze architettoniche d’ogni genere, catapecchie miserevoli, ripari effimeri quanto i loro occupanti, è la realizzazione del delitto perfetto che consiste nell’ornare l’esistenza avvilendola con l’antiestetico, degradandola con il cattivo gusto, livellando tutto verso il basso. Il kitsch è lo standard cui tendono sia le megalopoli dei paesi emergenti o avanzati che i pacifici borghi delle nostre campagne. Nessun oggetto, costruzione, parco, o corso d’acqua sfugge più al disfacimento, al punto che sono ormai gli abitanti a essere divenuti gli ornamenti viventi di spazi ritenuti in grado di elevare la qualità della vita, mentre ospitano criminali la cui passione per la distruzione è divenuta una seconda natura. Se vi si presta attenzione si resta sconcertati di tutti i quotidiani e definitivi orrori progettuali fra i quali viviamo. Qui un’insegna, là un percorso pedonale, più oltre il restauro di un antico edificio, un arredo urbano o delle immense tubature in aperta campagna, tutto ciò è sicuramente funzionale, serve a tenere sotto controllo i costi della manodopera e dei materiali, ma non si capisce perché debba essere brutto, ripugnante, schifoso. Redditività e rapidità, efficienza e immediata “consumabilità” sono i principi che presiedono all’occupazione degli spazi, che ci si trovi a Lagos, Aleppo, Los Angeles, Bombay, Damasco o Roma, che i poveri stiano o meno a contatto con i ricchi, o addirittura ne infestino il territorio, proprio perché poveri, insinuandosi negli interstizi periurbani come un’erbaccia umana. Gran parte delle fotografie di Claire Chevrier parlano di questo, piuttosto che mostrarlo, rappresentarlo o svelarlo. Non era però sufficiente sistemarsi in un punto a caso per scoprire aspetti incongrui, inaspettati o sinistri; anche se non si tratta di immagini eccessivamente costruite, le inquadrature e la composizione sono chiaramente meditate e si mostrano come tali, come a raddoppiare l’effetto di uno sguardo concentrato sulle cose e sugli esseri, attestante la presenza di chi ha scattato le foto. Ma la realtà non è qualcosa di amorfo che attenda solo di essere captato nell’atto di fabbricazione dell’immagine.

Ecco uno degli elementi di interesse di queste fotografie tanto gradevoli e sorprendenti quanto inquietanti. Esse suscitano un graduale malessere e ciò che stimolava la nostra curiosità incredula – come l’immensa distesa verdeggiante in primo piano cui fa da sfondo una parte della città del Cairo, o le piccole capanne dagli strani tagli a Lagos – si rivela invece ansiogeno. Non vorremmo abitare e vivere in quei posti, anche quando si tratta di quartieri tranquilli, di edifici decorosi – almeno da quanto appare dalle fotografie – di luoghi così ordinari che non prestiamo alcuna attenzione alla violenza fisica e visiva che instaurano. Numerose fotografie di Claire Chevrier ci presentano quel “lato oscuro delle città” di cui parla l’architetto Christian de Portzamparc, un aspetto che ci affascina proprio in quanto tale. Siamo attratti dalla visione di cose e oggetti in completo abbandono perché li teniamo a distanza, non ne facciamo parte, non ne siamo assorbiti che in modo passeggero. Ammiriamo delle nuovissime costruzioni sorte dalla terra come fossero già rovine perché le contempliamo da un tempo e da un luogo che ci appaiono più solidi. Proprio perché ci sentiamo protetti fisicamente e psicologicamente riusciamo a discernere un qualche pregio nel deperimento, nello sfacelo, nel sordido.

L’“edificio verticale” di un quartiere di Mumbai, per come è stato fotografato da Claire Chevrier, ci appare di volta in volta come scenografia, dipinto, astrazione, schizzo architettonico o triste emblema di povertà. In strana risonanza con il “reale scenario” di Cinecittà, questa costruzione indiana – come alcuni altri luoghi fotografati – tende ad assumere le caratteristiche di uno spazio fittizio, non tanto a causa dell’intervento della fotografa quanto perché il mondo di chi vi vive è già concepito come artificioso, contraffatto, come scenografia di una vita messa in scena. Abbiamo l’impressione che anche quegli uomini, come il protagonista di The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), prigioniero fin dalla nascita di un mastodontico scenario interamente progettato per lui a sua insaputa, vivano in una scenografia a scala umana o meglio a scala disumana. Distinzione irrilevante dato che essi non contano affatto, sono lì solo per decorare la progressione del sistema. Gli “accampamenti” nei pressi di Roma sono d’altronde percepiti dai turisti proprio come una sorta di scenografia giacché la loro autenticità è così grande da sembrare simulata. Il titolo di una delle serie di foto, “Lo spazio della rappresentazione”, sottolinea bene l’ambivalente interazione tra lo spazio rappresentato dalla fotografia e quello della rappresentazione ricomposto nell’immagine, il primo dei quali risulta accessibile allo spettatore solo attraverso questa configurazione. Risulta indeterminato lo scarto tra edifici, spazi, città e paesaggi organizzati essi stessi come delle immagini, già allestiti come rappresentazioni sociopolitiche, economiche, religiose, e la loro resa plastica (ma non estetizzante) da parte di Claire Chevrier che, a dispetto della difficoltà dell’impresa, ha saputo cogliere il momento della transizione dal rappresentato alla sua rappresentazione. I luoghi inventariati dalla fotografa tendono alla teatralità, ovvero alla drammatizzazione del reale, e traggono la propria forza di persuasione dalla loro più o meno grande capacità di auto-rappresentazione. Quella capacità – sfruttata splendidamente nel Rinascimento da Roma e Siena – che la megalopoli contemporanea ha trasformato in una vera e propria arte di massa, nel senso che le città come Mumbai, Hong Kong o Los Angeles plasmano in senso psicofisico le masse come fossero argilla – il sogno di tutte le dittature finalmente realizzato – in maniera pressoché meccanica, attraverso la strutturazione urbana.

La sovrabbondanza di immagini, forme, reti e circolazioni, destinata a svanire regolarmente a blocchi per continuare a sopravvivere e a crescere ancora, non è equiparabile che all’entropia che le è connessa. La banale constatazione della violenza urbana strutturata – concetto tra i più ambigui ma nondimeno realtà psicofisica – dall’architettura e da ciò che essa impone allo sguardo e ai movimenti dei corpi si ritrova in queste fotografie di Claire Chevrier, allo stesso tempo irreali e rivelatrici. Documenti meno veridici di quanto però si potrebbe pensare: il grado di realismo di qualsiasi fotografia va infatti giudicato con prudenza giacché ciò che si osserva non è appunto niente di più di una fotografia, un’immagine, il risultato di un’operazione formale e non la mera restituzione del soggetto rappresentato. La relativa bellezza o, almeno, la plasticità delle fotografie conserva nondimeno traccia delle esperienze concretamente avvenute e di quelle possibili negli ambiti raffigurati, la porzione di spazio-tempo che esse ci rivelano coincide d’altronde spesso con l’effettiva esperienza della teatralità di quei luoghi. E piuttosto coerentemente, data la quasi-realtà della rappresentazione, i vari “dietro le quinte” che ci mostra Claire Chevrier sono ancora e sempre scenografie, espandono l’irreale attraverso una moltiplicazione di dettagli, di elementi troppo veri per essere falsi. Tra il superbo pavimento di una cattedrale e il fondo di un’immensa falesia di pietra non si sa cosa sia in ultima analisi più vero, più verosimile o più scenografico. Tali luoghi hanno certo in comune il fatto di essere stati creati, ricomposti, modellati dal lavoro degli uomini, ma collocandoli nei medesimi spazi di rappresentazione Claire Chevrier stabilizza, per così dire, la plasticità del rappresentato, come se si potesse passare da un’immagine a un’altra in quanto immagine. Non che l’immagine sia falsa o si presenti come ingannevole. Essa si mostra semplicemente per quel che è: qualcosa di fabbricato, composto, organizzato. In questo senso l’immagine potrebbe riverberare qualche scaglia di realtà. Che si tratti di spazio rappresentato o di spazio di rappresentazione esso è sempre il risultato di un’organizzazione del reale, della nostra azione nel mondo, delle intenzioni pratiche che ci fanno esistere e, in ogni caso, ci inseriscono al suo interno.

Jacinto Lageira

Decoration and Document - Jacinto Lageira


The proliferation of natural, semi-natural and completely artificial urban and landscape signs in images and diverse structures in this period of globalization has reached such a saturation point that we could compare it to that triumph of ornament that Adolph Loos considered a crime. This flood of images, forms, logos, signs and architectural excrescences of every kind, miserable shacks, shelters as transitory as their occupants is the realization of the perfect crime that consists in adorning existence by debasing it with the unsightly, degrading it with bad taste, levelling everything to the lowest common denominator. Kitsch is the standard that governs both the megalopolises of developing and advanced countries, and our peaceful country villages. No object, building, park or waterway escapes decay to such an extent that it is now the inhabitants who have become the living ornaments of places considered capable of raising the quality of life, whereas they accommodate criminals whose passion for destruction has become second nature. If we take a closer look we are horrified by all the everyday, permanent, design eyesores we live among. Here a sign, there a pedestrian walkway, a restored old building, urban furniture, enormous pipes in the open countryside, all this is certainly functional, it keeps the cost of labour and materials down, but we don’t understand why it has to be so ugly, repulsive, hideous. Profit and speed, efficiency and immediate consumption are the buzz words that govern the occupation of areas in Lagos, Aleppo, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Damascus or Rome, whether the poor are in contact with the rich or not, they invade the territory, precisely because they are poor, they creep into the cracks of the outlying suburbs like human weeds. Many of Claire Chevrier’s photographs speak about this, rather than show it, represent it or reveal it. It was not enough for her to pick a spot by chance to discover incongruous, unexpected or grim aspects. Though her images are not over-constructed, her frames and compositions are evidently planned and it shows, which accentuates the effect of an eye concentrated on things and people, evidencing the the presence of person who took the photo. But reality is not something amorphous waiting to be captured in an image.

This is what is intriguing about these photographs, which are as pleasing and surprising as they are disturbing. They gradually make us feel uneasy, and what aroused our incredulous curiosity – the vast stretch of green in the foreground with part of the city of Cairo in the distance or the strangely shaped little huts in Lagos – creates a feeling of anxiety. We don’t want to live in those places, even if they are quiet neighbourhoods, or decent buildings – at least as far as we can tell from the photographs – such ordinary places that we don’t notice the physical and visual violence they create. Many of Claire Chevrier’s photographs present us with that “dark side of the city” that the architect Christian de Portzamparc talks about and which is fascinating precisely for that reason. We are attracted by the sight of these derelict things and objects because we keep them at a distance, we are not part of them, we are only briefly involved in passing. We admire the brand new constructions that have emerged from the earth as if they were already ruins, because we observe them from a time and place that seem to us more solid. Doubtless because we feel physically and psychologically protected we manage to discern a certain quality in the decay, the dilapidation, the squalor.

The “vertical building” in an area of Mumbai, as photographed by Claire Chevrier, appears to us alternately as a stage set, a painting, an abstraction, an architectural sketch or a sad image of poverty. In strange resonance with the “real sets” of Cinecittà, this Indian building – like some other places photographed – tends to take on the characteristics of a fictitious place, not so much because of what the photographer has done, but because the world of the people who live there is conceived as being artificial, rigged, like the set of a staged life. We have the impression that, like the protagonist of The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) who has lived ever since birth in a huge stage set entirely designed for him, though he doesn’t know it, those people live in a film set on a human scale, or rather on an inhuman scale. Not that it matters because they don’t count, they are simply there to decorate the progression of the system. Moreover, the “encampments” near Rome are seen precisely as a sort of stage set by the tourists since they are so authentic they seem simulated.

The title of one of the series of photographs, Representation Space, underlines the ambivalent interaction between the space represented by the photograph and the representation space recomposed in the image, the former being only accessible to the viewer through this configuration. There is a very hazy dividing line between the buildings, spaces, cities and landscapes organized as images, already arranged like socio-political, economic, and religious representationss, and their plastic rendering (without aestheticizing) by Claire Chevrier, who, despite the difficulty of the task, has succeeded in capturing the moment of transition from represented to its representation. The places chosen by the photographer tend towards the theatrical, towards a dramatization of reality, and they draw their persuasive power from their great capacity of self-representation. That capacity which was so magnificently exploited by Rome and Siena during the Renaissance, and which contemporary megalopolises have transformed into an actual art of the masses, in the sense that cities such as Mumbai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles psychophysically shape the masses as though they were clay – the dream of all dictatorships has finally come true – almost mechanically by urban structuring.

The excess of images, forms, networks and circulations, destined to disappear regularly in blocks in order to continue to survive and grow, is only matched by the entropy inherent in it. The banal fact of urban violence – one of the most ambiguous concepts but nonetheless a psychophysical reality – structured by the architecture and what it imposes on our sight and bodily movements is to be found in these photos by Claire Chevrier, which are both unreal and revealing. Though they are less true to life than one might think, since any photograph’s degree of realism must be judged with caution, given that what we see is nothing but a photograph, an image, the result of a formal operation, and not a direct rendering of the subject represented. The relative beauty or at least the plastic quality of the photographs preserves the trace of the concrete experiences one has had or can have in those places, the slice of time and place that they give us often coincides with the actual experience of their theatricality. And this is only logical, given the quasi reality of the representation, the different “behind the scenes” that Claire Chevrier shows us are still always stage sets they extend the unreality through an over abundance of detail, of elements that are too true to be false. In the final analysis we don’t know which is the truest, the most convincing or the most theatrical the magnificent flooring of a cathedral or an immense stone cliff. What these places certainly have in common is the fact that they have been created, recomposed and shaped by man’s work, but by placing them in the same representation spaces Claire Chevrier establishes, so to speak, the plastic quality of what is represented, as if we could move from one image to another as image. It is not that the image is false or is presented as an illusion. It is shown simply for what it is: something created, composed, organized. In this respect the image may reflect a sliver of reality. Whether it is represented space or representation space it is always the result of an organization of reality, of our actions in the world, of practical intentions that make us exist, for better or worse, in reality.

Jacinto Lageira



"La città generica è la città affrancata dall'asservimento al centro, liberata dalla camicia di forza dell'identità. La Città generica spezza il ciclo distruttivo della dipendenza: essa non è nient'altro che il riflesso delle necessità del momento e delle capacità presenti. È la città senza storia"

Rem Koolhaas, 'La ville générique', 1994

Nel 2000 Claire Chevrier ha visitato Hong Kong, la megalopoli del sud-est asiatico paradigmatica della sfrenata espansione urbana che contrassegna il nuovo millennio. Quel viaggio ha dato modo alla fotografa di rinnovare la sua prassi, abbandonando il rapporto con la memoria su cui aveva lavorato fino ad allora per concentrarsi sullo spazio contemporaneo di città che affrontano uno sviluppo esponenziale e caotico. Secondo Rem Koolhaas quella crescita inghiotte in effetti qualsiasi forma di passato e conduce alla creazione di città amnesiche, prive di identità o qualità specifiche[1]. Esse divengono città generiche – come le chiama l'architetto olandese – spazi multirazziali e multiculturali, ad alta densità demografica, il cui sviluppo è dovuto all'ammassamento di elementi eterogenei. Rio, Bombay, Istanbul, Il Cairo e ancora Los Angeles e Lagos fanno parte dell'elenco degli immensi agglomerati esplorati da Claire Chevrier: luoghi sovradimensionati e instabili in cui, specie nei paesi emergenti, gli uomini si concentrano sempre più numerosi.

Gli scatti realizzati da Claire Chevrier in quelle anonime incarnazioni della globalizzazione si organizzano in una tipologia particolare. Le varie categorie (paesaggi-città, limiti, spazi + costruzioni, incroci-città, viali ed edifici) si presentano come una sorta di zoom dalla periferia di ciascuna megalopoli in direzione del suo ventre privo di centro; esse evidenziano in ogni caso un progressivo avvicinamento al nucleo urbano grazie a inquadrature strette cui si associa in maniera regolare una riduzione del formato. Le foto di Claire Chevrier si presentano allo stesso tempo come raffigurazioni e come oggetti: i rapporti di proporzione e i giochi di scala vi sono congegnati con accuratezza per favorire la massima leggibilità, sostenuta dalla materialità delle immagini, dei luoghi rappresentati. La profondità prospettica di Avenue 03 a Lagos o l'orizzontalità di Avenue frontale 01, questa volta a Rio, sottolineano – proprio come la variazione di formato delle stampe in funzione del soggetto – la volontà di organizzare il reale in maniera non sistematica.

In effetti la classificazione di Claire Chevrier non si basa sul rispetto di un protocollo troppo rigoroso al momento dello scatto, nella tradizione dei Becher e della scuola di Düsseldorf. Anche se alcune caratteristiche si ripresentano (come il punto di vista panoramico o i registri orizzontali che ritmano la composizione), esse non si pongono come parametri immutabili volti alla definizione di una serie rigorosa in cui l'obiettività tecnica si spinge fino all'astrazione delle vedute. L'adattamento, preferito all'insistita ripresa di tratti specifici, riflette una realtà urbana essa stessa flessibile e in perpetua trasformazione. Lungi dal costituire un corpus dalla riconoscibilità immediata, Claire Chevrier adotta un punto di vista che rispecchia la perdita di punti di riferimento propria di quegli agglomerati in cui l'arte di arrangiarsi crea un vocabolario universale dell'habitat, come il telone blu presente in tante bidonville ad ogni latitudine.

Tale flessibilità rivela il desiderio di reagire agli ambienti attraversati, senza applicare una griglia di lettura restrittiva che ne regoli l'interpretazione. Nonostante la loro disordinata uniformità Claire Chevrier non cerca di stabilire una classificazione valida per tutte le metropoli di oltre dieci milioni di abitanti nella prospettiva di un assetto trasparente che rassicuri sulla potenziale padronanza dell'ambiente umano. Al contrario, le categorie in cui sono suddivise le foto – dal paesaggio agli edifici isolati – testimoniano il tentativo di ricondurre questi territori alla misura dell'individuo, in un'epoca in cui tale soggetto sembra destinato a scomparire. L'adattamento è quindi al centro della strategia della fotografa che si è interessata anche a concentrazioni umane meno colossali. È il caso di Paysage-ville 05 che mostra in lontananza, dietro un filare di olivi, gli edifici di Damasco sulla collina, seguiti da innumerevoli costruzioni di fortuna. Quell'urbanistica precaria che si confonde con la roccia è il segno che il confine tra cultura e natura, tra la città e i suoi dintorni, non è poi così netto.

La "deterritorializazione" di cui stiamo parlando e che finalmente chiamiamo per nome obbliga a tornare sulla celeberrima nozione di aura introdotta da Walter Benjamin[2]. Riprenderla oggi in uno scritto sulla fotografia potrebbe sembrare davvero tedioso giacché essa è da sempre associata a questo mezzo di comunicazione. Tuttavia la perdita dell'unicità diagnosticata nel 1930 dal filosofo tedesco offrirebbe la possibilità di comprendere che le "città generiche" sono state raggiunte anch'esse dall'irreversibile declino dell'hic et nunc, del qui e adesso. Per Benjamin lo stigma dell'autenticità distingueva l'opera d'arte nella misura in cui quest'ultima era depositaria di una tradizione (identificabile nel suo corpo materiale) che la riproduzione meccanica annientava con un doppio intervento di decontestualizzazione e di attualizzazione. Oggigiorno l'insieme dei nuovi spazi urbani andrebbe interpretato come il prodotto di questa trasformazione. Va però rilevato che la distinzione di Benjamin non è più totalmente operativa: "l'apparizione unica di una lontananza, per quanto possa essere vicina[3]" non si è risolta in una mera promiscuità con le cose. Che l'influenza della banalità sia aumentata è fuor di dubbio. Tuttavia ciò non comporta il totale annullamento di ogni distanza.

Nelle fotografie di Claire Chevrier tale distanza si materializza spesso sotto forma di un esteso spazio vuoto in primo piano. Esse accostano un familiare lessico architettonico che rimanda a una sorta di modernismo internazionale a dettagli pittoreschi, come i sari indossati dalle donne di Bombay in Paysage-ville 03. Pur senza focalizzarsi su questi tratti esotici le sue immagini sottolineano il rimescolamento topografico di insolito e ordinario, di varietà e uniformità. Le opposizioni nette vengono rimpiazzate dall'ambivalenza per descrivere una contemporaneità in cui il diverso e l'identico divengono intercambiabili. È proprio questa indefinitezza che fa sì che l'aura non si eclissi mai del tutto. Nell'epoca dell'amalgama continua a resistere "un singolare intreccio di spazio e tempo", segno che lo sguardo continua a essere sinonimo di un'esperienza ben distante dalla purezza.

[1] Si rimanda in particolare a La ville générique, articolo di Rem Koolhaas tradotto in francese e pubblicato nel volume Mutations, ACTAR, Paris 2001, pp. 722-757. [2] Walter Benjamin, L'opera d'arte nell'epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica, Einaudi, Torino 1966. [3] Ibid., p. 70. [4] Ibid.

Fabien Danesi



"The generic city is the city liberated from the captivity of centre, from the straitjacket of identity. The generic city breaks with the destructive cycle of dependence: it is nothing but a reflection of present need and present ability. It is the city without history."

Rem Koolhaas, 'The Generic City', 1994

In the year 2000, Claire Chevrier went to Hong Kong, megalopolis of South-East Asia, typical of the urban expansion now escalating so rapidly at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This journey was an opportunity for the photographer to renew her way of operating by abandoning the relationship with memory she had worked on till then to focus on the contemporary space of those cities that have experienced chaotic exponential development. According to the architect Rem Koolhaas, this kind of growth actually swallows up all forms of the past and leads to the creation of amnesiac cities, without any identity or specific quality (See the article by Rem Koolhaas, 'The Generic City' in S, M, L, XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1994.). These generic cities – as he calls them – establish multiracial and multicultural areas that are extremely densely populated, which proliferate by assembling heterogeneous elements. Rio, Bombay, Istanbul, Cairo and also Los Angeles and Lagos are instances of this. They make up the list of sprawling conglomerates that Claire Chevrier has surveyed, exploring those oversized unstable places, in which more and more people live, especially in developing countries. Claire Chevrier's photographs of these anonymous sites that are the embodiment of globalization are organized according to a particular typology. The defined categories – landscapes-cities, limits, spaces + constructions, intersections-cities, avenues and buildings – are virtually zoomed in on from the periphery of the megalopolises towards their interior, which is devoid of a centre. They bring closer the urban network by favouring tight framing that is regularly combined with a reduced format. In fact, her images are as much representations as objects. The proportional relations and plays on scale are organized with precision so that the territories observed are sharply interpreted and this is underpinned by the material quality of the images. The strong perspective of Avenue 03 in Lagos or the horizontality of Avenue frontale 01, this time in Rio, underline a concern with organizing the real without systematizing it, as does the variation in the size of prints according to subject matter.

In effect, Claire Chevrier's classification does not obey an extremely strict set of rules when taking a shot, as in the case of the Bechers and the Düsseldorf School. While certain features recur (such as the high angle shot or the horizontal registers that give a rhythm to the composition), they are not fixed parameters aimed at defining a rigid series in which technical objectivity is combined with abstract views. Adaptation, chosen as opposed to the insistent recurrence of specific features, reflects an urban reality that is itself flexible and constantly changing. Far from creating an instantly recognizable corpus, Claire Chevrier adopts an approach that translates the loss of geographical landmarks typical of these cities, where the ways of survival create a universal vocabulary of living conditions such as the blue tarpaulin to be found in countless shanty towns, in all latitudes.

This flexibility indicates the desire to react to the environments visited without imposing a restrictive perspective that would condition interpretation. Despite their haphazard homogeneity, for Claire Chevrier it is not a question of establishing a valid classification for all cities with a population of over ten million, with a view to finding a transparent arrangement that would give reassurance of the potential mastery of the human environment. On the contrary, the categories – from landscape to isolated buildings – evidence an attempt to grasp these territories on a human scale, when this concept seems doomed to disappear. Adaptation is thus the keyword in this photographer's approach, since she has shown an equal interest in conurbations that are not so enormous. This is the case of Paysage-ville 05, which shows the buildings of Damas in the distance, beyond a row of olive trees, countless makeshift constructions stretching over the hillside. This precarious urban growth can be mistaken for a rock, a sign that the dividing line between culture and nature, city and surroundings, is not clear cut.

The deterritorialization at issue here obliges us to refer back to that very famous concept of the aura defined by Walter Benjamin (Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in Illuminations, trans. by H. Zohn, Schocken, New York, 1969.). Returning to this idea today in a text on photography may seem somewhat hackneyed, since it has been endlessly associated with this medium. However, the loss of uniqueness diagnosed in the 1930s by this German philosopher may offer the possibility of understanding that these generic cities are merely an inevitable extension of the decline of the hic et nunc, the here and now. For Benjamin authenticity was associated with the artwork insofar as the latter is the depository of a tradition (visible through its material presence), which mechanical reproduction annihilated in two ways by decontextualizing and updating it. In our day, all the new urban areas are to be interpreted as the product of this transformation. But it also underlines that Benjamin's dialectic is no longer totally effective: "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" is not resolved in a simple close relationship with things. There is no doubt that the hold of banality has increased. But this does not always mean an elimination of distance.

In this respect, Claire Chevrier's photographs very often maintain a distance that takes the visual form of an empty area in the foreground. They combine the familiarity of an architectural vocabulary borrowed from a kind of international modernism with picturesque details, like the saris worn by the Hindu women in Bombay in Paysage-ville 03. Without focusing on exotic elements, her images show the topographical intermingling of the strange and the ordinary, variety and uniformity. Ambivalence replaces these precise opposites to give a picture of contemporary life where the diverse and the same become interchangeable. It is this lack of distinction that perhaps saves the aura from being totally eclipsed. At the moment of mixing, "a singular web of space and time" subsists, a sign that the gaze continues to be the synonym of an experience, far removed from all purity.

Fabien Danesi



During her residency at Villa Medici, Claire Chevrier sought to map the city of Rome through her photographs. For nearly twelve months she surveyed the territory of the Italian capital and its environs in order to render the different spaces that constitute it, far removed from the tourist clichés generally confined to the historic centre. Without aiming at being exemplary, the places chosen determine an identity – in an elliptical and fragmentary fashion – which evokes the complex diversity of an urban environment and the outlying areas more or less under its control.

These photos include the interior of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano; the modernist Corviale public housing complex, designed by the architect Mario Fiorentino in the 1970s; the Olympic Stadium built in the centre of the Foro Italico in 1953; a gypsy encampment near the Tiber; and a travertine quarry. Each and every one of these environments has its own specific geography and history. But together they hint at a partial rendering of the cultural topography of Rome. Thus Claire Chevrier’s work could be read from a descriptive angle. Provided that this dimension does not imply that it is a literal recording of reality.

Spazio di rappresentazione: representation space. This is the general title used for most of her images and it explicitly translates a distancing from reality, which is observed through empty foregrounds. This area free of objects permits detachment from the subject or scene that is visible in the distance. It invites the viewer not to become fully involved in the image. This rejection of empathy – part of illusion – is evidence of Claire Chevrier’s desire to reject the transparency of photographic reproduction in favour of the affirmation of a visual construction. The photograph is here understood as a structured composition, and not as a simple document of what has been perceived and recorded. However, this organization of the picture does not appear glaringly obvious. Claire Chevrier’s images do not seek to impose strict objectivity by favouring the digital technique and its ability to record fragments of the world with relentless graphic precision. They reject any artificial manipulation and eschew fascination replacing it with an indifference foreign to the human eye.

These photos become neutral, but it is a neutrality that means first and foremost detachment. In other words, the prime quality of Claire Chevrier’s works is their discretion. A hurried glance would see something trivial in them. And it is true that her images shy away from the anecdote or the event. At a time when we never cease to note the escalation of visual production, resorting to a striking image, a well-aimed “blow”, often remains an easy way to attract attention and avoid disappearing in the constantly expanding flow of global images. Claire Chevrier has chosen a certain banality that we would be inclined to place outside the field of the mass media, whose overvisibility results in images becoming mere nervous stimuli.

Let us take, for example, the two photographs of that makeshift architecture of salvaged materials developed by the gypsies who rent out their houses between the ring road and the river to Philippine and Rumanian refugees. The first shows a dirt road running through quite dense vegetation. Only a single detail indicates the concrete existence of these precarious shacks. On the right we see a door made of a bedstead and a green plastic cover. There is no possible attempt at a story. There is just a hybrid space somewhere between nature and culture, poor materials and ingenious construction, discrete presence and desolation – in this it approaches indeterminacy. The second photo shows the inside of a construction where the ramshackle furniture indicates how it is integrated with the surrounding vegetation, which can be seen through the canvas that serves as a roof. Here too the photograph does not make a powerful statement. What is at stake is not the communication of a message. On the contrary, Claire Chevrier seems to point up the need to let things happen.

The representation spaces are not merely her compositions. They refer to the reality that has been staged before the photographer confronts it. In this respect, the world is a stage set. This conception does not inevitably support the concepts of simulacra and simulation, used by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard and normally understood as synonyms of derealization. If the world is a stage set, that is because it is produced and organized by man, namely by states, businesses and social groups of every order. Hence it responds to a weltanschauung that is not limited to the abstract mode of theoretical ideas, but is realized through the material transformation of the environment. These are views or ideologies that overlap and intersect in such a way that they make up what we still call reality – that physical space of daily life that contains all available images.

Claire Chevrier’s works avoid subjective expressiveness with the aim of exposing these concrete representations. The latter remain evident when the photographer lingers over a religious ceremony. But they become less evident when she takes up a position in front of a view of an industrial area, where construction is in progress. In this case, the site is interpreted as one of the arenas of the market economy where the planted young trees assume the function of ideally and invisibly integrating tamed nature and a cheap functionalism, which continues to be the driving force behind this kind of peripheral architecture. Claire Chevrier’s detachment always engages the viewer in reflection rather than contemplation. The places captured are at the same time banal and yet not obvious. The ordinary becomes a context to be questioned. In fact, the photographer’s viewpoint invites questions, though the situation presented does not reveal a state of crisis or tension. This lack of dramatization indicates a critical acuteness, devoid of any heavy didacticism or semblance of moralism.

The series of three “grounds” is significant in this respect. There is a rehearsal room with a dancer stretched out on her stomach in the shape of a cross; a high angle shot of two workmen on a slab of travertine they are cutting; and two restorers working on the inlaid work in Siena cathedral. Their gestures are not emphatic here and their bodily presence is not exaggerated. By contrast, their poses create a kind of delicate choreography normalized by practice. They respond to professional habit and remind us that places stimulate the kind of behaviour that is in keeping with them. This is a way of noting that “actors” are often conditioned by the environment in which they evolve. And if their silhouettes, in direct relation to the ground, stand out against the empty surface this is, yet again, in order to give the viewer the possibility of occupying an empty space removed from the scene.

In the final analysis, Claire Chevrier’s photographs reflect a particularly nuanced anthropological approach. They record different Italian representation spaces, not to give us a colourful commedia dell’arte scene, but with a view to capturing in all their variety the cultural ways of engaging in the world. The sobriety of her approach goes hand in hand with the avoidance of all formal overstatement. And at a time when photography sometimes indulges in the spectacular, this is all the more appreciated. The eye comes away stimulated.

Fabien Danesi, 2008

Autres articles: