Patrick Faigenbaum

Since 1984 Patrick Faigenbaum has been photographing aristocratic Italian families in their homes. The images reveal an attention to detail at the levels of both conception and execution—an obsession imposed, perhaps, at the expense of the models’ patience. These are stylized portraits, in which static poses, and gazes fixed directly at the camera evoke centuries-old genealogies—the permanence of names that can be traced through the history of a country or a region.

In the series shown here, entitled “Naples,” 1990-91, all of the images take the same square format, and wooden frames set them slightly off from the wall. Faigenbaum uses a silver bromide process that produces a distinctive mat quality. No reflection, sparkle, or gloss inflects the grainy, eclipse-toned surfaces of these photographs. Their dull, muted density—literally palpable to the eye—seems the very register of a kind of withdrawal before our eyes, like the ancient frescoes in the famous scene in Feliini’s Roma, 1972, the discovery of which precipitate their disappearance. (In fact, one of Faigenbaum’s photographic tableaux shows a family in front of some half-effaced murals.)

Though designated with surnames, the 39 portraits presented here were not grouped according to the families they depict. Indeed, Faigenbaum’s photographs are somewhat troubling in that they register very diverse and often fragmentary states of family: a single adolescent, a man holding a baby in his arms, two women accompanied by two babies, or, in one striking quadruple portrait (Familles d’Aquino di Caramanico, Caracciolo di Avellino, Buccino Grimaldi di Bisaccia, Sersale, 1991), four men positioned around a pedestallike table in front of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. The number of images of each family ranges from one to five, but the “personnel” in each image of a particular family is not necessarily the same; in fact, two portraits with identical titles may not have a single person in common.

Faigenbaum insidiously questions the nature of family, of familial blood ties, and the unifying function of the proper name. On an esthetic level, his work, through its references (explicit or not) to art history and the tradition of portraiture, addresses the notions of artistic affiliation, as well as of displacement and replacement: what can photography—a medium the very specificity of which is traditionally predicated on its documentary capabilities as opposed to its overtly pictorial qualities—conserve and transform from painting or from sculpture?

In a small room that served as vestibule to the gallery where the Neapolitan portraits were exhibited, Faigenbaum showed another series of small-format photographs, entitled “Lys Chantilly 1989.” These images show a family reunion (possibly the photographer’s?) in the garden of a bourgeois villa near Paris and were evidently shot without the subjects’ knowledge. The casual postures, the relaxed attitudes of his subjects, the framing, the surroundings (identical in each image)—everything here contrasts with the Italian portraits, which are composed down to the most minute detail. The only reference for these “impromptus” is that of the amateur photographer who, without any esthetic intention and without knowing exactly why, attempts to capture the trace of an ordinary moment of leisure. This series functions here like a footnote at the bottom of a page, in which an unexpected “I” appears in a text written in the third person plural.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.