Annie Ernaux & la Photographie,
Until May 26,
MEP (Maison Européenne de la Photographie), Paris



Annie Ernaux in 2022 became the first French woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature after producing a body of work that charts her progress from working class origins, feelings of shame during her years being educated at private school that she was not sufficiently bourgeois, to her career as a teacher, then full-time writer.

Largely autobiographical, her writing also documents those she meets in encounters, poignant because ephemeral, whose context we are left to imagine.  Her world is urban and unsentimental.  She craves social justice and marvels at the resilience of a status quo in which people for the most part meekly accept the condescension of those in power.

In her work “Journal du dehors” (“Exteriors”), part diary, part chronicle, Ernaux tells us she aimed “to preserve the opaque and mysterious nature” of chance meetings in the way photography can.

The explicit comparison makes her the natural subject for an exhibition that marries extracts of her writing with photographs from the MEP’s collection, curated by British writer Lou Stoppard during a residency at the museum.

While the Journal is focused on scenes of daily life between 1985 and 1992 in Cergy-Pontoise, a nondescript new town on the outskirts of Paris, where Ernaux lives, the exhibition underlines the universality of Ernaux’s character studies with photographs spanning 1940 to 2010 from Italy, Japan, the United States as well as France.

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, « Où qu’c’est
qu’elle est passée ? », Carrefour,
Villiers-en-Bière, (“Where did she go?”,
Carrefour, Villiers-en-Bière), 1973
Gelatin silver print
MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the author in 1984.
© Estate of Jean-Philippe Charbonnier

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier’s dapper shopper, hand on hip, captioned with words to the effect of “where has she got to?” (1973) underscores Ernaux’s view that the supermarket is as valid as the concert hall as an arena for insights into the human condition.

Equally, public transport is a vehicle where we can observe our fellow humans and wonder what is in their hearts and minds.

Hiro, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, 1962. Gelatin silver prints. MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the Elsa Peretti Foundation in 2008.
© The Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi

Hiro’s shot of Shinjuku Station, Tokyo (1962) confronts us with the numb faces of commuters, while Gianni Berengo Gardin’s “On a Vaporetto” (1960) immortalises the haughty and handsome and immaculately dressed, redolent of the glamour of Venice.

Dolorès Marat, La femme aux gants
(Women with gloves) (detail), 1987
Fresson four-colour pigment print
MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2001.
© Dolorès Marat

Dolorès Marat’s “The Woman with Gloves” (1987), which harks back to painters who used the same title, juxtaposes the elegant and the mundane that is Ernaux’s stock-in-trade.

For all the passive endurance of much of daily life, the MEP’s exhibition does not shy from the violent and disturbing.

Marguerite Bornhauser, Untitled, 2015,
from the series ‘Moisson Rouge’.
Cibachrome print
MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2019.
© Marguerite Bornhauser

Marguerite Bornhauser photographs one of the glass panes that was shattered in the 2015 Bataclan attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds injured, while William Klein confronts us with what could be the highlights of ordinary lives – such as a night out for a typical family – except garish lighting has the force of satire and makes the faces of those involved look strained.

Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du
Luxembourg, Paris, (Luxembourg
Garden, Paris), 1979
Pigment inkjet print
MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2014.
© Marie-Paule Nègre

Marie-Paule Nègre’s apparently foggy “Jardins du Luxembourg,” 1979, by contrast portrays people mostly amused and relaxed, or perhaps bemused, while Janine Niepce captures the moments of calm suspension that can be part of the strangeness of being alive.

Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère
et son enfant (Social housing in Vitry. A
mother and her child), 1965
Gelatin silver print
MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1983.
© Janine Niepce Roger Viollet

“HLM à Vitry” (social housing at Vitry) (1965) depicts a mother and her baby looking out the window of a council flat.  They face dozens more windows like theirs, perhaps with lives just like theirs behind them.

The theme of class also pervades “The waiter”, taken in 1957, in a restaurant dating from 1900.  It shows a waiter made to look diminutive and bent, but commanding our sympathy, as he mounts a staircase, balancing trays, while a man we may assume to be his upright, unencumbered supervisor looks on.

Janine Niepce, Restaurant époque 1900.
Le garçon de café, (Restaurant in the
1900 style. The waiter), 1957
Gelatin silver print
MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1983. © Janine Niepce / Roger Viollet

It’s the achievement of so much verbal and visual observation that we emerge blinking into Le Marais, home to the MEP, viewing the world as subject matter.

On the day, I visited with friends, we were blessed as two Russian-speaking young women in skimpy pink wedding cake dresses of purple and pink net frills modelled, shivering on a zebra crossing.

Like the photographer behind the lens, or Ernaux, who gazes without interrogating or judging, we were left to imagine whether they were an overspill of Paris fashion week, tourists messing about in Paris or lost bridesmaids.

Barbara Lewis © 2024.