Jean-Paul Berger

Galerie Jean-Pierre Lambert

“You saw nothing at Hiroshima, nothing.” The phrase from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, 1959, filters back almost subliminally. And at first glance, the black and white photographs that make up Jean-Paul Berger’s Autobiographie, 1988–93, could almost be film stills—a series of oneiric tableaux in a curiously shallow space, seemingly lit from behind. The visual stream of consciousness is, like the space it inhabits, impenetrable: a man’s nude body, nearly always decapitated by the frame, women’s faces, nearly always without bodies, a few hands, eyes, locks of hair, an emblematic bird, fragments of landscapes and cityscapes, all of which are alternately backgrounded and foregrounded with a variety of drapes, panels, and other surfaces that serve at once to reflect the light and deflect the viewer’s eye.

The very precarious complexity of such a montage, the absence of fixed spatial coordinates, also suggests the moving image, and by extension, the passage of time. Time, of course, is implied by the title, Autobiographie, and the fact that the person who bares body and soul before the camera (the photographer himself) remains largely faceless only serves to emphasize that these are not self-portraits. Consciously at least, identityis not called into question; rather, the focus is memory and the terrible struggle, as Berger notes, to “reappropriate” the past.

The scenario, as it were, is simple and potentially banal: a husband’s-eye-view of an 18-year marriage after the wife has walked out with another man. But like Berger the “narrator,” Berger the subject is also a photographer, and while the marriage is over and the woman gone (she is totally absent from the Autobiographie), the photos remain. Nor are they simply documents of a career pursued in parallel to a marriage, but the vehicles of memory, the markers of a long, shared moment in time. In the Autobiographie, these images from the past are literally superimposed on the present: what we are looking at is in fact an elaborate slide-show montage of Berger’s journalistic pieces and fashion photos projected onto his body and the other surfaces he has positioned in front of the camera.

Neither this psycho-technical process nor the specific autobiographical content is evident to the uninitiated viewer. But this is precisely what allows these photographs to get beyond the status of what Berger himself describes as “a log that I wrote afterward.” The terrible truth that comes through to the eye from these dislocated and fragmented images—the ambiguous visual registers of “document” and “fiction”—is that the past cannot be “reappropriated.” The woman is gone, and “You saw nothing at Hiroshima, nothing.”

In fact, the parallel with Hiroshima, mon amour also raises a more general question: If the juxtaposition of documentary and fiction has become a staple of filmmaking over the past thirty-odd years, why is it not more common in still photography? Perhaps it is not a coincidence that in bridging the de facto chasm between photojournalism and art photography, Berger was hardly following a professional imperative, but trying to put his life back together. The resulting esthetic is unlikely to become the basis of a new style, even his own. But it does serve as a reminder that art, photographic and otherwise, provides a means of expression for those who have something to say.

Miriam Rosen