25/03 - 31/05/20

Fr | NL


© Pierre Toussaint, series Tel, 2017-2019, 120 x 80cm

“What appears most beautiful to me, what I would like to write, is a book about nothing, a book with no external attachments, which would support itself by the internal strength of its style, [...] a book which would have almost no subject, or at least an almost invisible subject, if that were possible.”

Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, 16 January 1852

About Nothing

Ever since Métronome, a 2013 portfolio where each of the people in the images had their backs to the camera, or their faces were not shown, Pierre Toussaint seems to have wanted to turn away from humans. Sāo and Black Snow, his next two portfolios, could give the same impression. With their barely sketched silhouettes of passers-by, it was a little as if he were trying to move away from his first years as a photographer, which had been dedicated to showing us, up-close and in-our-face, people living on the margins of society. City Of also seems to confirm this distancing of himself from the living: in this portfolio of photographs taken in New York, we find at most two or three ghostly traces of some of the eight million inhabitants of the mega-city. We also glimpse almost unrecognisable places and objects, in fact not much at all. So little that we must admit that nothing remains of what is normally expected of photography.

However, there’s no nothingness, but rather, in part, that “nothing” about which Gustave Flaubert hoped to write, that (apparent) emptiness in trivial real life outside novels. That “nothing” that Walker Evans conveyed in his brilliant photographs of ordinary Americans going about their daily lives, rejecting the indecency of dramatic, staged newspaper images. This “nothing” of real life that has become so prized among contemporary photographers, but, I repeat, only partly, to the extent that Pierre Toussaint thinks that triviality has too much to say.

Tel, his most recent portfolio, reveals a radical approach to this quest: at first in the lack of a subject as such, as if it was a study of nothingness, then in the avoidance of contextualisation. For there is no indication of place – how could we guess that these photographs were taken in Vietnam? – and no indication of period, apart from the fact that they were obviously taken in the age of photography. Finally, in the modest form, even if we could believe that it is, by default, at the centre of the photographer’s preoccupations: there are no spectacular aesthetics, no exaggerated contrasts and no giddying high-angle or low-angle shots.

In short, we find no story, no will to describe what has happened, and, moreover, no will to draw attention to forms. So what can we find? Without any doubt whatsoever, an attachment to the syntax of photographic images, to the relationship between the blurred and the clear, to their respective textures, to the difference between blurred focussing and the disturbance caused by movement, to shades of grey, to the specks of silver and their reflections, to the paper and its glossiness.
All of these attachments show that the photographer is in love with the material intimacy of traditional film photography.

Thus it’s not by chance that Tel, the concise title of this portfolio, makes a reference to “Fragments d’un discours amoureux” by Roland Barthes: “I would be like a new-born infant who is happy to use a meaningless word to indicate something: ‘Ta’, ‘Da’, ‘Tat’ (as in Sanskrit). ‘Tel’ says the lover; you are like that, precisely like that...”. Of course, this is a direct means of indicating a will to remain well short of the indicated object, as in a haiku, which - according to Barthes in “L’Empire des signes”- “narrows itself down to a pure and single designation”. The portfolio certainly teeters on the edge of amorous fascination in all its fragility.

But this does not prevent it speaking out loud and clear, in the imposing prints and the sculptural third dimension of their metal frames. Much more than a simple aesthetic, this presentation should be seen as a coherent and definitive achievement of a style.

Did I say “style”? That brings us back neatly to Flaubert to end: “That is why there are no good or bad subjects and why we can almost establish an axiom, placing ourselves at Pure Art’s point of view, that there are absolutely no subjects at all, because style alone is an absolute means of seeing things.”

Jean-Marc Bodson

Translation: Chris Bourne

Website: www.pierretoussaint.be