LUC DELAHAYE: "Michael Fried on Luc Delahaye" (2006)

Biljana Yrhovac wounded by a shell, Bosnia, 1992

By Michael Fried, Artforum, March 1, 2006

The photograph, framed without margins and behind Plexiglas, is just under four and a half feet high by nearly nine and a half feet wide. Its title is A Lunch at the Belvedere, and it depicts an actual event that took place at the Hotel Belvedere in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum of 2004. The lunch was hosted by Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, whose guest of honor was the famous American financier-philanthropist George Soros.

The diners, eleven men, sit facing the viewer--though none looks toward the camera--on the far side of a long table that runs the full width of the picture. (To take this in the viewer must begin his or her engagement with the work by standing ten or twelve feet back from it.) One has the impression that the lunch has not properly begun. For the most part the men are talking quietly with one another, and to the left a chic young woman, possibly a waitress, bends over the table as if serving or taking an order. The image is by far most arresting toward its center, where the elegant, dark-haired and mustached Musharraf is shown talking earnestly to Soros, while a third man, to Soros's left, listens in. And what is arresting is precisely the extraordinary accuracy, as it seems to one, of the depiction of an entire range of small-scale, unemphatic, but nevertheless intensely photogenic gestures, expressions, postures, and pieces of behavior: for example, the small-scale gesture--scarcely more than a tensing of the wrist--of Musharraf's partly open left hand as he makes his point; the downward cast of Soros's head and his inscrutable, almost sullen-seeming facial expression as he plays with something on the tablecloth with his left hand; and the diffident demeanor of the third man who sits with both elbows on the table and his hands clasped. (To observe all of this, of course, the viewer must by now have approached the image and perused at close range its wealth of fine detail.) Then there is the quietly eloquent fact that Soros alone of all the men in the room is not wearing a tie. The others are in dark suits, but Soros wears a lighter-colored brown jacket and a shirt open at the throat--in this context a sign of almost unimaginable power. At the same time, Soros, like all the others except Musharraf, wears a name tag around his neck, and indeed there is something in Musharraf's bearing and appearance, a quality of contained energy, that distinguishes him from everyone else at the table (except Soros, naturally, whose allure rests on other grounds). And when after a while one allows one's gaze to stray from the central group to the lesser figures seated to the right and left, there too the accuracy of gesture and expression seems almost uncanny in its quiet perfection--but it quickly becomes clear that the stakes of whatever may be taking place away from the center are much lower than where Musharraf and Soros are seated, and one's attention repeatedly returns to them. Finally, above the table two elegant but not ornate chandeliers with electric lightbulbs hang from the ceiling, and behind the diners there is a wall with gauze-covered windows to the right and drawn wine-colored drapes to the left. (By this time one has probably stepped back from the picture to take it in once more as a panoramic whole.)

Aftermath in Meulaboh, January 9, 2005
Taliban Soldier, from "History"

The man who made A Lunch at the Belvedere, Luc Delahaye, today in his early forties, is a French photographer who began his career as a photojournalist, specifically a war photographer, for Newsweek and similar publications and went on to enjoy great success in that field, winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal twice, in 1993 and 2002, and the Prix Niepce in 2002. At some point in the early 1990s, however, he began to chafe at the constraints of his trade and to explore various "artistic" possibilities for which there were no precedents in what he had hitherto done. So, for example, he organized the making of a series of pictures of homeless Parisians by asking each to have his or her photo taken alone in a photo booth while Delahaye deliberately looked away. This led to a further project, a series of black-and-white portraits shot on the Metro with a hidden camera. The reference for this was of course Walker Evans's subway portraits of 1938-41, but with a difference: Whereas Evans's subtly differentiated subjects sit across the central aisle from him and are variously framed from one shot to another, Delahaye's photos seem to have been taken at very close range, with his subjects' heads occupying most of the rectangle and their features depicted in sharp focus and strong contrasts of light and shadow as they look off to one side or the other--anywhere, we feel, but at the photographer. L'Autre, a collection of ninety such portraits, was published as a book in 1999 (Phaidon). The cumulative effect as one turns the pages is hallucinatory in its intensity: The sameness of the compositional schema throws into relief not only the physiognomic distinctness of the individual subjects but equally their uniform determination, as it comes to seem, to absent themselves as much as possible from their immediate circumstances. For still another project Delahaye traveled for four months during the winter of 1996 from Moscow to Vladivostok, photographing in garish color people living mostly sorry lives in squalid surroundings; a book gathering a selection of these photos, Winterreise, came out in 2000 (Phaidon).

Much more might usefully be said about these projects, L'Autre especially, but my purpose here is to call attention to Delahaye's latest venture, a series of panoramic, large-scale (in most cases, roughly eight-by-four-feet) photographs of subjects taken from the image repertoire of photojournalism but treated in a manner that could not diverge further from photojournalistic norms. Ten photos of that type, under the title History, were exhibited early in 2003 at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City; I missed that show, but, alerted to Delahaye's recent work by Quentin Bajac's excellent article in last summer's Les Cahiers du Musee national d'art moderne, I spent several days in Paris this past November in order to catch his exhibition of seventeen recent pictures at La Maison Rouge. On the strength of Bajac's commentary I expected to be impressed (always a dangerous state of mind)--and, in fact, I was.

Lunch at the Belverdere, 2004
A Rally of the Opposition Candidate Alexander Milinkevich, March 12, 2006
From the "Winterreise" series, 2000

As the aforementioned work suggests, what Delahaye has done in his new project is play subject matter against format and all that goes with it. Thus he seeks out subjects of a sort that would ordinarily belong to his earlier practice as a photojournalist--a dead Taliban lying in a ditch, the bombing of Taliban positions in Afghanistan by an American B-52, a handful of Northern Alliance fighters advancing in a mountainous landscape, the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank after combat between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Slobodan Milosevic about to be tried in The Hague, central Baghdad four days after the taking of the city by American forces, the Security Council at the UN on the occasion of Colin Powell's speech claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and the Musharraf-Soros lunch at the Hotel Belvedere, to name just eight. But instead of shooting each at close range with a lightweight handheld camera in pursuit of highly dramatic, compositionally arresting, and instantly legible fragments of larger situations--the photojournalistic norm--he employs large-format, frequently panoramic cameras in order to include vastly more of the scene before him in terms both of lateral extension and of sheer quantity of visual information. Although one is not made aware of the fact by the images themselves, he occasionally takes multiple shots from a single vantage point over a period of time and then digitally combines them to arrive at the final image--this, in fact, is how A Lunch at the Belvedere was composed. And by printing his photos at large scale, he ensures that their wealth of minute detail is made available to the viewer. The photographs that result, as Bajac notes, involve a balance of opposing forces. So, for example, there is in most a strong sense of distance, even withdrawal, on the part of the photographer: The viewer quickly becomes aware that a basic protocol of these images rules out precisely the sort of feats of capture--of fast-moving events, extreme gestures and emotions, vivid momentary juxtapositions of persons and things, etc.--that one associates with photojournalism at its bravura best. At the same time, the photographs in their sheer breadth and detail extend an invitation to the viewer to approach closely, to peer intently at one or another portion of the pictorial field, in short to become engrossed or indeed immersed in intimate contemplation of all that the image offers to be seen. Put slightly differently, there is in all these works an emphasis on the sheer openness of the image, its total accessibility to vision, as if the photographer has somehow managed to withdraw so as to make way for reality itself. But precisely because this is so, the viewer is given only the most minimal indications of where to look; unlike a photojournalistic image, which is effective only insofar as it makes a single vivid point, Delahaye's panoramic images in their richness and complexity (and also, in a manner of speaking, their simplicity) leave the viewer to shift for himself or herself--in the case of A Lunch at the Belvedere, to recognize Musharraf and Soros, and then by looking closely to "activate" the discreet but palpable drama at the photo's heart. This in turn is why the viewer tends to feel that the significant details he or she comes to invest with significance--the exchange between Musharraf and Soros, or in Northern Alliance Fighters, 2001, a very different work, the precise movements of the already distant Northern Alliance soldiers as they advance away from the camera over the crest of a ridge or various incidental features of the rutted and forbidding landscape--are discovered by him or her rather than delivered personally by the photographer. But because the viewer knows or at least believes that this is not the case, the ultimate effect of those details is to underscore the effect of art: hence my emphasis, in the opening description of A Lunch at the Belvedere, on what I characterized as the "accuracy" of the depiction of gesture and expression--as if the latter somehow had been delineated by the photographer rather than automatically recorded by his equipment. And in fact there was nothing automatic about Delahaye's choice of subject, positioning of his camera, or selection of a suitable moment--not Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" so much as one that allows a maximum of slow, exploratory penetration by the viewer. Not to mention whatever was done to the composition when he revised it with a computer (in that sense, there is no telling where recording leaves off and delineation begins).

One obvious term of comparison is with the reconstructive "near documentary" aesthetic of Jeff Wall, but even more telling, I think, is the contrast between Delahaye's panoramic pictures and the work of Andreas Gursky, whose large-scale and often fantastically detailed images put a similar premium on sheer visibility while simultaneously cutting themselves off, "severing" themselves, from any corporally imaginable relation to photographer or viewer: Distance in Gursky tends to be absolute, not, as in Delahaye, the dialectical other to proximity and immersion. It is as though in the end Delahaye's panoramic pictures, exactly opposite to Gursky's work, aspire to yield an imaginative experience of something like merger with the world--an aspiration that may well strike a wholly original note in contemporary photography.