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