Michel Séméniako

Galerie Fanny Guillon-Laffaile

Time in Michel Séméniako’s black and white photographs measures itself not in 60ths of a second but in millennia. “Les Dieux de la Nuit” (The gods of the night), who have lent their name to this exhibition, inhabit the sacred trees of Senegal, the prehistoric menhirs of Brittany, the cliffs of Normandy, the amphitheaters of Naples, the palaces of China, the temples of India. For more than a decade, Séméniako has been seeking out those deities with a large-format camera and an assortment of flashlights. The technique, he points out, could not be more “antitechnological”: he poses the camera on its tripod, opens the shutter, and for a period of 15 or 30 minutes or even longer, he literally (and figuratively) illuminates the elements that he wants to capture on film. As was the case with 19th-century vintage travel photos, the large-format camera guarantees an exacting realism, down to the last pebble, the last blade of grass, and the last wrinkle or scar on the surface of a well-worn monument. But here, there are no consistent shadows, no identifiable light sources, and, with one accidental exception, no signs of Séméniako’s own passage since he carefully avoids placing himself between the lens and the light.

The effect of this elaborate mise-en-scéne might best be described as a cross between a negative and a positive. And its aura of unreality is quite fitting, for, in fact, these glowing rocks and trees (Carnac, 1986; Casamanee, 1986), these lightning flashes that trace a path over arcades and bridges (Pozzuoli, 1989; Pekin, 1988) have no visual existence apart from their photographic images. Yet, far from being an exercise in epistemology or earth art by night, or simply another post-Modern gimmick—this fin-de-millennium travel album draws on the inherent paradox of photographic illusion to reinvest time and space with their sacred dimensions.

Séméniako’s goal, he indicates, is not to record reality (other photographers do that very well), but to “provoke” it—“once the technique allows me to expand my horizons, it’s no longer just a process but a way of rewriting the world.” There is clearly no set formula for this act of (re)creation: each site—and sight—generates a particular form of intervention, from the most discreet emanations of light that seem to originate in the very rocks or trees that they envelop, to the most deliberate calligraphic gestures, alternately highlighting and counterpointing sculptures, columns, and other man-made elements. Nor is the search for the “Gods of the night” limited to the cam-era’s field of vision. In order to spend the night photographing a sacred tree in Casamance, for instance, Séméniako spends the day not only spotting locations but drinking palm wine with the village chief, the medicine man and other local notables (all of whom will then accompany him on his nocturnal excursion).

Such passages through culture, like the physical passage through the landscape, do not appear as such in the final image, but are no less indispensable to it. These are the photos of an explorer, not a tourist. There is, in nearly all of them, a remarkable density to the composition. It comes in part from the darkness of night that fills every potential void, but in part also from the proximity of a camera that has left the well-trodden paths of the tourist for an eternal moment within a sacred precinct.

Miriam Rosen