The Real Thing: Photographer Luc Delahaye by Bill Sullivan
Luc Delahaye, "History," Feb. 13-Mar. 22, 2003, at Ricco-Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
"He was dead a few minutes lying in a ditch," Luc Delahaye said, indicating a 1994 photograph of a Taliban soldier stretched out on the ground. Dressed in a khaki uniform, without boots, the corpse has a grace that almost seems posed. The photograph itself looks like it might have been taken by someone floating high above in a balloon. All time seems to have stopped. "This is an example of fast," Delahaye continued. "In my head I am thinking only of the process. Do I have enough light? Is the distance good? Speed too? This is what allows me to maintain an absence or distance to the event. If I impose myself too much, look for a certain effect, I'd miss the photo. This happened very fast; I need to make it slow. I see the two crossing in my mind."
The work is part of Delahaye's "History," a two-year-old project of documentary-style photographs taken with a large-format camera. This project represents the latest turn in a unique career. Working on contract for Newsweek, the 41-year-old French photographer trained his eye on global hotspots -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Jenin, Kabul, Ground Zero in New York. The images that make up "History" are the ones he kept for himself. Delahaye's role as a photojournalist has allowed him to take pictures of these places and events. But he maintains that "photojournalism is neither photography or journalism. It has it's function but it's not where I see myself: the press is for me just a means for photographing, for material, not for telling the truth. In magazines, the images are vulgar, reality is reduced to a symbolic or simplistic function. . . one of the reasons for the photographs' large size is to make them incompatible with the economy of the press." Eight of these images were presented as 4 x 8 foot color last month at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York in the Paris-based photographer's first U.S. gallery exhibition.
The subject matter coupled with the commercial aspect of the project -- the photos are priced at $15,000 each, and the limited-edition artist's book at $1,000 - has caused a certain amount of controversy in the worlds of photography and photojournalism worlds [see "Photo District News," Mar. 13, 2003].
Delahaye's career as a photographer began in his early 20s when he was sent to cover the fighting in Lebanon by the SIPA agency. "In Beirut I discovered the beauty of war, the beauty of something that is deeply disturbing, but also a visual beauty that can't be found anywhere else -- it is totally unique," he said.
The experience of being in a war zone reveled to Delahaye a way of being that he has sought to retain in nearly everything that he does. "In Beirut I felt clearly and entirely present in the world for almost the first time; you have this very clear and simple understanding of things. Your understanding of reality is not complex. It is very simple. And this is something that I have always tried to repeat."
After Beirut came the conflicts in Romania, Haiti, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Yugoslavia and Rwanda. From Rwanda, Delahaye returned with grisly images of mass burial. "After Rwanda, I changed. I'd seen madness, absolute evil, and I didn't want it to rub off on me, but it had affected me deeply none the less."
Delahaye's photos from this period began to evolve into images that elude easy interpretation. His work began to reveal a state of mind caught somewhere between clarity and confusion. "In war, there is a visual disorder, something extraordinary that works on appearances. Often in a devastated city, one has the impression that the forms are released. A building is not locked up any more in its function, it is not any more this beautiful object designed by an architect. It starts living again in a kind of insane way, before final collapse."
And much of his work from that period attests to that feeling. A 1995 photograph taken in Chechnya shows the reflection of a man looking out at the photographer through a mirror that leans against a tree. His head is shaved and he wears a green uniform. But the precise situation remains unclear; it only seems certain that things are serious. Another of Delahaye's photographs from this period is similarly vague. Fighting the Taliban (1996) shows not much more than a cloud of dust and leaves thrown up in the air in an open space between some trees.
But not all of Delahaye's photographs from the 1990s are this abstract. A picture taken in 1995 in Bosnia shows a pained woman lying on the ground, looking out at the photographer, her white blouse covered in blood. Her dog lies in front of her, also covered in blood and apparently dead. A bomb has just exploded. In the distant background, a man stands frozen. "She looked at me for six seconds," Delahaye said.
"I always tell myself that the risk is my entrance ticket," Delahaye said. "I don't wear a bulletproof vest, or drive around in an armored car. I undertake the same risks as the people I am covering. . . . The majority of photojournalists tell themselves they do this work because it is important, that if people can just see these problems in these parts of the world they will do something about them. I have never believed this. I even think that that is a con. You ask yourself if you have the right to be in such a crisis area. Is it legitimate to bend over someone who is about to die? Is it correct to photograph a dying woman?. . . I restore (the suffering) more effectively if I am able to adopt a certain detachment."
Delahaye marked the end of his work in Bosnia by producing a small book, called Mmo, of 80 rough half-toned photos copied from the obituary pages of the daily newspaper in Sarajevo. The project is reminiscent of the work of Christian Boltanski's on the Holocaust. "I wanted to symbolically close this part of my life," Delahaye said. "I wanted to forget, and I wanted others to remember for me. Mmo is. . . a small monument that fits in your pocket."
At around the time Delahaye joined the venerable Magnum photo agency in 1993 he had began to question many of the aspects of his practice of photography. "I had lost my faith in photography and I wanted to understand what it really is about. So I decided to see what would happen when no photographer is there, just the subject and the camera." His answer to some of his questions was a project called "Portraits/1." With this project he entered the more idiosyncratic world of contemporary art for the first time. In it he sought to dramatically simplify his practice of taking pictures by removing himself as much as possible from the process. Delahaye randomly asked homeless and destitute Parisians he encountered in the Metro to have their picture taken alone in a photo booth. "They sat in this cramped booth while I was looking away; in the solitude of their experience they were confident in the machine, they knew its power of revelation. Those who have lost everything in life have nothing to hide, they are naked." The resulting images were pure intensity. Ten of the images were blown-up large and shown in a gallery as well as published in a book.
Delahaye continued this process of attempting to remove himself as much as possible from the act of taking a picture in his next project. For the series "L'Autre," published as a book in 1999, he attempted to very nearly transform himself into a photo booth. For almost two and a half years, working with a strict protocol, Delahaye secretly photographed his fellow subway riders. Controlling the shutter from his pocket he quietly took each photograph precisely the same way of whoever entered his frame as the doors of the subway came to a close. A photographer whose profession was based on the skill of his movement and his eye, willingly turned himself into a machine that had neither. He said about his protocol that, "it was a type of nihilism, a zero point that I couldn't do any less than."
Delahaye cropped the resulting images tight leaving only faces and a hint of the subway around them. They are surprisingly modern. Each face, beyond stoic, seems locked in a mask, eyes glazed, they look more like the industrial buildings in a photograph by Bernd and Hilla Becher than the citizens of Paris. "We are very much alone in these public places and there's violence in this calm acceptance of a closed world." Delahaye said about his experience and the pictures somehow reveal that state of mind.
He said he began the project as a utopian exercise in trying to allow a photograph to be as close as possible to what really is, a chance to be true. But in the end "I think it was an experiment designed only to show its own obviousness. . . a depressing report, intended to prove its own uselessness".
"More than anything I wish to disappear" Delahaye has often said about his work. So for his next project for four months in the winter of '96 he decided to become a fly on the wall in Siberia. Delahaye said he needed a break from the strict protocol that he had followed in the subway series. "I wanted to unsettle my eyes, distort the vision," Delahaye said. "It was made easier as I was doing it in Russia, the land of fiction, grotesque and distorted reality." He rode the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok with a translator stopping along the way, knocking on doors, seeing if people would let them come in. Usually easing himself into a corner, Delahaye silently crafted a series of real, unstaged pictures. The result was the book Winterreise which came out in 2000. It is a small masterpiece. Designed by Delahaye himself, It shows a society caught in the death grip of a drunken stupor." Winterreise somehow manages to be never hard to stomach or overly estheticized. Rather, it has an extraordinary stoicism which seems to characterize much of Delahaye's work.
"History" is Delahaye's most recent project . For the series, he moved from the typical 35mm camera of a war photographer to the Technorama, a large-format panorama camera that produces negatives that are 12 times larger than the 35mm format. The images in the series are from places that we see every day in the newspaper. Corpses, blown-up cars, and crowds of troops are all par for the course in the daily stew of the news. But with a wide format and blown up to near life size his prints he show us a world that is usually cropped by the press.
Delahaye said of his photographs that "it is just true that there are beautiful landscapes in Afghanistan where there is also death. To not show this complexity? Reporters in the press see the Afghan landscape but they don't show it, they are not asked to. All my efforts have been to be as neutral as possible, and to take in as much as possible, and allow an image to return to the mystery of reality."
In "History" Delahaye appropriates the actual scenes of these newsworthy places back for us in order to make objects of art. In some ways he has created a kind of Pop art for adults -- with the places in the news substituted for cartoons. And like Pop art he does it in a style, the documentary style, that often seems to have nothing particularly special about it. "I have no style, that is my style," Delahaye said on the subject. He simply believes that by trying to become as clear a medium as possible something important occurs, a kind of alchemy, that is not simply the truth.