A Rencontres d’Arles photographic commission
In France the portrait of the president is everywhere: in every city hall, prefecture, police station, prison and school. Running at more than 100,000 copies, this is the very emblem of the Republic and democracy.
The First Republic (1792-1804) having no president, the office did not exist until the founding of the Second Republic in 1848, shortly after the invention of photography, when Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was elected and the first official portrait made. For many years the procedure remained fixed, with the president always shown in indoor settings like his office or library, and often with his hand resting on a pile of books. A change came in 1974, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had himself photographed outdoors – by Jacques-Henri Lartigue himself – with the tricolour in the background. Since then other leading photographers including Gisèle Freund, for François Mitterrand, and Bettina Rheims, for Jacques Chirac, have been called in.
What emerges from these portraits as a whole is at best a lack of daring and at worst a monotony so pronounced as to almost negate the talent of the photographers. This is in striking contrast with the work of the greats who have successively photographed the Queen of England: Cecil Beaton, Youssuf Karsh, Lord Snowdon and others.
And so the Rencontres d’Arles asked forty photographers, most of them recent contributors to the festival, to take part in an exercise on a completely new scale: an approach to the nature and representation of the official portrait of France’s president based on the possibility that the next holder of the office could be a woman.
The photographers were given complete freedom to choose their model and were encouraged to bring their personal poetry to bear on the subject.
Some seem to have opted for an official commission stance, while others insisted on putting a specific message across. Humour and tenderness were often present and Rencontres founder Lucien Clergue opted for his vision of the eternal woman, totally detached from the presidential function.
The photographers brought greater intensity to the project than we had anticipated – an advance indication of the seriousness with which French society approached the recent election. The outcome is real variety in a group of photographs that often reflect their makers’ individual styles and obsessions.
François Hébel, curator.
Exhibition presented with the support of Dupon Digital Lab.
Photographers participating to the commission:
Daniel Angeli, David Balicki, Jean-Francois Bauret, Carole Bellaïche, Leandro Berra, Alexandra Boulat, Jean-Christian Bourcart, Éric Bouvet, Jérôme Brézillon, René Burri, Philippe Chancel, Luc Choquer, Lucien Clergue, Raphaël Dallaporta, Wilfrid Estéve, Raphaël Gaillarde, Claude Gassian, Brian Griffin, Harry Gruyaert, Arja Hyytiäinen, Francoise Huguier, JR, Erik Kessels, Xavier Lambours, Gilles Leimdorfer, Jean-Marc Lubrano, Meyer, Laurent Monlaü, Martin Parr, Marion Poussier, Félix R. Cid, Denis Rouvre, Eddy Seesing, Aldo Soares, Vee Speers, Galith Sultan, Patrick Swirc, David Tartakover, Ricard Terré, Annet van der Voort, Alain Willaume