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


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