France’s Best Advocate for Fine Art Photography
PARIS–By now the world knows that one of the most barbaric acts took place on November 13, 2015 in Paris. But how many of you know that the following day, the Grand Palais finally paid tribute to one of France’s most unique talents–a man who was the first to photograph gypsies, bull fights, artistic nudes on the beach of Camargue, and abstract photographs that reveal the hidden treasures of nature in black and white. He was also a man who was one of the first in France to see photography as an art form, to create the most prestigious art photography event–Les Rencontres d’Arles– in the sleepy town of Arles, putting it on the map with guest workshops and shows with the likes of Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Elliot Erwitt, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, and more.
He is also probably the first man to obtain his Doctorate in Photography only through his work–letting the images speak for themselves, without any text or pictures. The jury that awarded him the degree in 1979 included Roland Barthes, one of the 20th century’s seminal thinkers on semiotics. In 2006, he is the first photographer to be elected the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris; the following year, on October 10th, he is inducted under the Dôme of the Institut de France. What’s even more remarkable is that in 2013, this humble man whose house was bombed by the Allies in 1944, who took care of his sickly mother until her last breath, who never had a chance to pass his baccalauréate exam, was appointed President of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts in 2013.
This man was Lucien Clergue, and if you are in Paris until February 15, I urge you to visit his haunting and moving exhibit in the Hall H of the Grand Palais, where you will see the first seven catalogues of his earliest work that were uncovered after his death, and which originally contained advertising materials and sample fabrics that the penniless Clergue replaced with contact sheets. You will also discover Arles after it was bombed and the savage beauty of Clergue’s photos of the Pierrots and harlequins playing among the ruins. Or you may prefer his sensuous photography of the local “Venuses” rising from the sea–some of whom represent the Golden Mean of classical beauty. Naturally, you will be impressed by the striking portraits of an intimate Picasso at La Californie or of Jean Cocteau during his filming of Testament of a Poet.
Do stay for the fascinating documentary made only months before Clergue died, explaining how he discovered art through Bach’s Sonatas as a child violinist, and how he moved onto to the beauty of photography, notably inspired by Man Ray and Edward Weston. He is funny, honest, articulate and surprising. He was clearly a people person, and you can see why the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen were enchanted by his talent and delighted in his company.
Naturally, a blog article like this one cannot begin to do justice to a man of the caliber of Lucien Clergue. But I still believe it is important to recognize talent such as his and learn from it as much as possible–especially in these barbarous times.