Corinne Mercadier

Galerie Isabelle Bongard

Corinne Mercadier’s photographs are like memories: they evoke places, times, and moods that the mind’s eye fuses into slightly faded compositions. The 20 works in this series—uniformly small, square, and untitled—offer fragmentary glimpses of a seaside town in southeastern France (the same one where Jean-Jacques Beineix filmed Betty Blue, 1986). In these unassuming views of beaches, boats, jetties, and rows of wood-frame houses, Mercadier explores and reconstitutes the private face of public space. There are no people to serve as markers of space or scale, only the ambiguous play of surface and light, an insistently planar geometry at odds with hazy colors and tones. Unlike a sweeping postcard-panorama that places the viewer at the same obligatory distance as the camera lens, the very absence of context serves here to reinforce the sense of immediacy: like a film sequence that starts without an establishing shot, the railings, rocks, poles, and random shadows that cut across the foreground project us right into the scenes we are looking at. Nor is this proximity strictly physical, for these are sites (and sights) that Mercadier has known since childhood. And it is this familiarity that she transforms into the paradoxical singularity, the ineffable particularity, of the everyday.

The transformation depends, in fact, on a technical process as artisanally elaborate as it is unobtrusive. The scenes that ultimately make their way onto the gallery wall are no less than third-generation photographs: enlargements of Polaroid SX-70 shots of regular color prints. It is the Polaroid stage, of course, that dramatically reduces the depth of field and literally polarizes the colors into a muted triad of rust, metallic blue, and misty yellow. But it is also this stage that allows Mercadier to alter the image directly, not only by re-framing the composition (into the square SX-70 format) but by introducing a separate “layer” of natural light and shadow, which, with the subsequent enlargement, fills the imaginary space behind the surface of the print with a kind of supernatural luminosity.

This essentially trial-and-error approach (“for every one I print, I ruin forty”) is something that Mercadier has been working on since the mid ’80s, when she first began experimenting with photography as an extension of her work in the more traditional media of painting and sculpture. The Polaroid, she explains, was a natural choice because she was afraid to try anything more complicated. For a time, she physically constructed her subjects by copying elements of paintings (notably Giotto’s Vision of Anna, ca. 1305, from the Arena Chapel) onto thick sheets of glass. These were combined with natural light in front of the camera to create “fictions” of volume and space that were then blown up into large-format Cibachromes. It was in 1990 (following the birth of her son, she points out) that she decided to switch to “real” subjects and, with the most recent series, to give up the Cibachrome format for a more intimate scale. Which is not to say that Mercadier’s “world according to Polaroid” is any less a fiction, with its conflated layers of space and its artificially natural light, but now it is a fiction of the real, and one that uses some of the finest mass technology of throwaway culture (“Absolute One Stop Photography,” as the SX-70 was billed when is was introduced in 1972) in order to suggest that the present is actually worth preserving. This eternalization of the everyday may be as close as the late 20th century can come to the sensibility of Giotto’s Vision of Anna.

Miriam Rosen