Luc Delahaye, Les Pillards (Looters), 2010, color photograph, 62 1/2 x 86 5/8".

Luc Delahaye, Les Pillards (Looters), 2010, color photograph, 62 1/2 x 86 5/8".

Luc Delahaye

Galerie Nathalie Obadia | Rue du Cloître St. Merri

Luc Delahaye, Les Pillards (Looters), 2010, color photograph, 62 1/2 x 86 5/8".

At Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris, Luc Delahaye recently showed ten large-format color photographs and one small black-and-white print, the bulk of his production since 2006. In his previous exhibition in Paris, at La Maison Rouge in 2005, nearly all of the photographs were made with a panoramic camera, but Delahaye seems to have come to feel that the format had become limiting, and the new work all issues from a four-by-five-inch camera that he wields without a tripod. This allows him to respond to events as they actually take place, in a quasi-photojournalistic manner, even as his aims go far beyond photojournalism in crucial respects. The most vivid instance of this in the present show is Les Pillards (Looters), 2010, a brilliant scene of looters in Haiti, some fleeing, some about to flee, from a place of pillage. The sunlight is dazzling (it also falls so as to seem to spotlight a somewhat enigmatic character in a gray hat); the colors are vivid and with unexpected accords (the red base of a pillar on a building closely matches the red of a T-shirt on one of the fleeing looters); the composition is remarkable (including a Poussin-like doubling of the positions of the legs of two of the running figures); and the facial expressions are for the most part instantly readable (three of the figures look over their shoulders toward approaching danger)—in fact, the entire image is presented under the sign of an instantaneousness that, one feels, could not have been contrived. Then there is the remarkable Ambush, Ramadi, 2006, a dust-filled scene of a stricken American Humvee shown just instants after a blast; looking closely, one discerns a soldier in the tank manning a machine gun and, toward the right, just barely, another figure about to enter a building from which gunfire may be coming. It is impossible, standing in front of the photograph, not to think of the photographer at the instant of taking it—or, rather, one thinks of the photographer and at the same time thinks him away, so compelling is the image in its extreme spareness. It is as though the photograph presents us with a moment of suspended violence, with nothing settled, that could not actually have been seen, only captured on film.

A work in a very different register is Man Sleeping, Dubai, 2008, which presents in the extreme foreground an Indian worker lying on his side, fast asleep on the ground, apparently by the side of a dirt road. He wears a reddish shirt, cargo pants, and sandals with rubber soles; also a watch and a wedding ring. Starting in the middle distance and going back in space, there are perhaps a dozen skeletal pylons bearing electrical power lines as well as, toward the right, a power plant. Delahaye astutely made this the largest photograph in the show, with the result that the sleeping man seems life-size at the very least. A sense of danger is conveyed by the fact that tire tracks lie directly under his body (in other words, he doesn’t seem to have chosen a completely safe place to take his nap). Of all the photographs on view, it is this one that most engages with the achievements of Jeff Wall—and, consequently, everything, or at least a great deal, depends on whether or not Delahaye’s worker strikes one as convincingly asleep, rather than, as in Wall, pretending to be so. There is something deeply dialectical in this, in ways that invite further thought.

Finally, there is Patio civil, cementerio San Rafael, Málaga, 2009, an unforgettable image of skeletons painstakingly excavated in a mass grave of victims of the pro-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. The meticulousness of the labor of exhumation is, one feels, matched by a sense of tactfulness and reserve on the part of the photographer, who understands perfectly that his work has been done for him. He need only point and shoot.

Michael Fried