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50 ans dans l’œil de Libé – A book, an exhibition: Lionel Charrier, Charlotte Rotman – II


Human intelligence at the Helm II : 50 ans dans l’œil de Libé by Françoise Denoyelle


A contribution to the history of photography

After the Arles exhibition, at the abbey of Montmajour, which was a great success, let’s return to the book: 50 ans dans l’œil de Libé, also acclaimed by readers. The book is part of a major commemorative and promotional campaign. To the Numéro spécial 50 ans (April 18, 2023 52 p.) entirely devoted to everyday life, we must add a spring 2023 special issue, Libé 50 ans, 50 combats, of 60 pages. The story had already been told by François Samuelson: Il était une fois Libé, (Flammarion, 2007). This time it is therefore photography, a strong marker of the identity of everyday life, which is privileged.

The authors of 50 ans dans l’œil de Libé, Lionel Charrier, Charlotte Rotman and the prefacer, Serge July are all three closely linked to daily life. Lionel Charrier, photographer, graduate of ENS Louis-Lumière, photographer has been the photo director of Liberation since 2015. He has worked as a regular photographer for the newspaper since 2001. Charlotte Rotman after studying at Science Po entered the daily for a internship, she remained there as a journalist for fifteen years, from 2000 in the social service then in the political service. She is the author of essays: Retourne à la maison, Les femmes politiques face au sexisme (Robert Laffont, 2016) et 20 ans et au Front Les nouveaux visages du FN (Robert Laffont, 2014).

Serge July is one of the co-founders of Liberation, which he directed (1974-2006). He still writes articles for the newspaper as a political columnist (2023). Student in art history, after a brief stint at the Union of Communist Students (1961-1963), he participated in the founding of the Gauche prolétarienne, GP, (1968) and contributed to its newspaper, La Cause du peuple, whose editorial line was militant (support for strikes, kidnapping of business managers, occupations of factories and housing, etc.), anti-organized structures of the labor movement (PCF, CGT and their leaders, etc.), for the defense of struggles led by militant minorities (immigrants, linguistic minorities, abortion, etc.). Finally, the editorial line of La Cause du peuple was pro-Chinese, pro-Vietnamese, pro-Palestinian, anti-Soviet, anti-American and anti-colonialist. July also participated in the creation of the Liberation Press Agency, APL (1971-1973), initiated by the writer Maurice Clavel and Jean-Claude Vernier, Maoist engineer, co-founder of the GP, he was hired as a factory worker at Renault. In the early days, the agency was above all a text agency. It broadcasted dispatches on the activity of the extreme left in a mimeographed daily bulletin. Cécile Hallé, photographer at the Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris installed the photo service. For a long time, Christophe Schimmel was the only photographer.

This somewhat long historical reminder of the origins is essential since Liberation, released on April 18, 1973, is in line with La Cause du peuple and with the APL. Benny Lévy (Pierre Victor), secretary of Jean-Paul Sartre at the head of the GP asked July to take care of Liberation and to take over after the departure of the philosopher (May 1974). In his preface to 50 ans dans l’œil de Libé, July returns to this history: “Since the origins of the newspaper, photography has occupied an important place in the history of Liberation. This story begins with the APL (…) This agency is the little seed that germinated, and gave birth in 1973, to the daily Liberation. The agency published a daily bulletin which provided informations on the aftermath, traces and consequences of May 68”.

July evokes the death of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant and fired worker from Renault, shot dead by a company security guard. He takes up the thesis, then developed by the GP, based on a selection of photographs that Schimmel  took. “The photos immediately belied the management immediate version that the guards were in danger. He entrusted his film to the APL. The management of the GP distributed six photographs which appeared in the evening news and undermined the version of Renault evoking self-defense. “Only, if the published photographs are proof of Traoni’s guilt, they are not enough to grasp the situation as a whole (…) among the negatives that have disappeared, some show militants in action, armed with bars of iron, pickaxe handles and Molotov cocktails”. “The reality is (they) went there to assault the guards.” For La GP, Schimmel was a cumbersome witness. “These photos, I ended up being blamed for them. They recalled what happened, and what many preferred to forget. The Liberation Press Agency is at the heart of the issues and debates related to the relationship to violence of the GP as a means of imposing one’s line. In its preface July concludes briefly “Beyond that was armed revolution and this crowd (which followed Overney’s coffin) obviously did not wish to engage in it. » An acknowledgment of failure of the political line of the GP. However, it permeated the beginnings of the newspaper and well beyond, despite the departures and arrivals of journalists and the conflicts that agitated the editorial staff. When Liberation was created, Schimmel was fired. During the summer, on August 28, 1973, a meeting brought together photographers from the Liberation Press Agency, the Boojum Consort group and independents to create a new agency in relation to Liberation. It was the very political Fotolib agency, less subservient to the GP (only a few photographers were still members) the APL, of which July was a member of the board of directors and Gérard Aimé the CEO. July establish quite quickly a style of work based on a political orientation which abandoned the self-management character in favor of a professionalization. July’s preface covers a period before the release of Liberation, but ends with the year 1983 when he ran the daily until 2011 and there was still a lot going on in the treatment of photography, even after Caujolle’s departure in 1986.

Beyond editing, what to choose, retain, eliminate?

Let’s go back to the work of Lionel Charrier and Charlotte Rotman. We have already mentioned the extent of the corpus to be processed. They have chosen a chronological presentation, simple but effective, punctuated by the five decades. Each module works according to the same operating mode and each part participates, according to its form, in the unity of the discourse. The five sequences each include thirty “Headlines” of the newspaper, three representative icons, followed by a very dense and well-documented text presenting the political, social, economic, cultural context and the history of the newspaper. A portfolio of around thirty major or more documentary photographs, in full page, or even in double pages, the heart of the book, then accompanies the successive years. The photographs are often punctuated (as in the exhibition) with comments from the photographer collected by the authors, which increases their interest. These portfolios nuance the subject of the “Front Page”. The sequencing makes it possible to better examine the evolution of the themes while the photography of the “Front Page” was still in black and white until 1983.

In this second article we will not return to the exceptional quality of the photographs already mentioned in the previous article in order to better focus on the meaning of the photographs. Remember that photographers are first and foremost journalists. The director of photography takes part in the editorial conference every morning. The “Front Page” photo proposed is always discussed collectively. With its text, it constitutes the showcase of the newspaper. If its commercial character cannot be omitted, it is nevertheless a good testimony of the editorial line of Liberation. The choices made by the two authors testify to a serious and relevant work on the archives, well representative of the corpus of the clichés and the “Front Page”, taking into account the constraints of the model which can eliminate documents.

Masterpieces at all levels, but for what political line?

We will focus more particularly on the 150 front pages without going into detail of all the photographs in the portfolios which could be the subject of more in-depth work as the book is rich, fascinating and readers and later historians will be able to do everything at their leisure during their holidays. The front pages are very eloquent, particularly for the first decade (1973-1983, p. 10-11). Photography takes an increasingly important place there thanks to the choices of Caujolle and with the approval of July. The first (April 18, 1973) has no author (photograph and Liberation text), but it is an editorial in itself. A group, which we imagine in struggle, listens attentively with in the foreground a woman in an apron surrounded by young people. The headline: “France is moving Liberate the press” and the text “We hope that you will join us in this battle, including the workers of Renault, Peugeot and the Toulouse aeronautics industry, including the women fighting for the freedom of abortion, and high school students demanding a reprieve… are already the headlines. confirming the meaning. Born under the banner of labor and societal struggles, how does the editorial line continued?
Two “Front Pages” stand out. The Mao special issue and the one on the death of Jean-Paul Sartre, two tutelary figures of the newspaper, two full-length portraits of static or walking men, but solitary in their immensity. Two others echo “Ranucci decapitated. Le crime de l’État” above the official photograph of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by Jacques-Henri Lartigue and “Death to la guillotine” above the device installed in a prison courtyard. Societal struggles will mark the positioning on the left of the newspaper. The collective suicide of Andreas Baader, leader of the German terrorist organization, Red Army Faction, and three other accomplices is titled: “The end of the Baader group. La Mort dans l’âme” and accompanied by four identity portraits of those who, unlike the dissolved GP, had chosen violence as a political expression. July had met Baader in Paris (1969) and Sartre had visited him in his prison in Stuttgart (1974). So many milestones that mark the history of the newspaper, its commitments, its ruptures.

The subjects which return to the “Front Page” are those of the financial difficulties of the newspaper, the strikes and struggles under the banners of self-management (Larzac, ORTF, Lip). French politicians are not very present. A cropped portrait of Pierre Mendès France announces the obituaries in the form of a poster which will multiply. That of François Mitterrand raising his thumb as a hitchhiker with the headline: “Finally the adventure” is confusing. His portrait, close-up on the screen of the television, indicates that he has just been elected President of the Republic. This ambiguous title can only be explained by the fact that Liberation is resuming publication after a two and a half month hiatus. The rebellious side of the newspaper (in line with other satirical publications of the time) is affirmed on several occasions. It arises from a discrepancy between very conventional photography and the headline. The mocking tone is found in a photomontage of the princely couple Charles and Diana as transfixed lovers, Diana displaying a completely bare chest and Liberation transforming itself into the Royal Liberation in its logo. The treatment of foreign policy is pro-Palestinian (photograph of corpses of civilians), anti-American (Americans leaving Vietnam), anti-Soviet (portraits in charge of Stalin, of Brezhnev), support for Solidarnosc, (photomontage of a tank crushing the logo of the Polish trade union).

50 years later (20013-2023, p. 258-259), finished the mockery, the provocation. A bodybuilder, squatting, legs spread apostrophized by a “Pass your QR code first” recalling the need for the health pass to move around, struggles to make people smile. 2013 is off to a very good start. Libération assigns the “Front Page” to the artists Pierre & Gilles: photo of a couple with outfit and wedding bouquet under the benevolent gaze of a pseudo official photo of François Hollande. But the decade is tragic at home and abroad and the “Fronts Pages”, with their images and their texts, often sound the death knell. Attacks. We are no longer in the era of utopias, the raised fist of striking Lip workers celebrating Christmas. A solitary hand on a neutral background displaying its solidarity on its poster “Je suis Charlie” responds to the horror and when it is too much, the text disappears. Just a bouquet of roses and the Liberation diamond loses its emblematic red color as a sign of mourning. “Front Page” in black for an announcement. The struggles, strikes, have almost disappeared from the “Front Pages” retained. A photograph, without much interest, taken in the studio brings together actresses, filmmakers, humorists producers… “We suffered. We are silent. Now we act. to signify the “Me Too” movement. Another, in a photomontage, synthesizes the power in the face of the protesting wave of yellow vests. On a yellow background emerges the eye and the cheek of the one who is recognized as the President of the Republic (his name is not mentioned) with the headline “Submerged”. But no image of the collective, of solidarity on the roundabouts. The strongest front pages concern police violence with a close-up of a swollen face. “Police violence” is reinforced by a gigantic “Nausea”. Another concerns “The children of Assad” victims of chemical attacks by the Syrian regime. Should we show a photograph of dead children? Courageously, the editorial staff assumes the decision. What’s the point of reporting a crime? Another “One” seems to answer it. “Every day, two Aylan”. After the photograph of the little Syrian found drowned on a beach at the beginning of September which had moved and outraged a large part of the planet, Liberation reminds its readers that since (November 5, 2015), “at least 108 children have lost their lives in the Aegean Sea in general indifference. Are the photographs of any use? But not publishing them, isn’t that putting down the leaden screed of ignorance that justifies indifference?

The “Fronts Pages”, obituaries follow one another, almost always in black and white, old photographs of the deceased with puns, like winks that remind readers of their own youth or the works of artists. Halliday: “Hi guys”, “Lagerfeld is slipping away”, “Without you Varda”. “Klein Mourning” accompanies William Klein’s most famous photograph, “Gun” a New York child playing with a gun (1954). An exception is made for Jacques Chirac. “Without Chichi” with a color portrait. A hand, marked by old age, hides the face in profile. A farewell to “a good customer”. Jean-François Campos who followed his presidential campaign (1995) declares: “Given a loser from the start, he was the magnificent loser (…) The photographers, the journalists, by dint of it we had become like a small family. I believe that we admired him in one way or another, without all sharing his points of view. I cried when he passed away. “Chirac is the most represented politician in the book (4 “Ones” and 3 photographs in the portfolios). In the 30 “Ones” of this last series (20013-2023), no left-wing man appears. Emmanuel Macron has three of them, including a portrait after his election with a surprising “Well done” and another where he runs (after left-wing voters if we are to believe the headline): “Honey, I forgot the voters of LEFT. “Marine Le Pen, photographed from behind after her failure in the presidential elections, is illustrated by a “Bien Fait” an expression whose meaning is both negative and positive. (Well done, failure; well done score?).

Throughout the book, The Right brings together 12 “Front Pages” and 15 portfolio photographs (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Philippe Séguin, Raymond Barre, Jacques Chirac, Alain Juppé, Édouard Balladur, Jean Tiberi, Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuel Macron); the Le Pen family has a total of 3 front pages and 6 photographs to which must be added a portrait of Éric Zemmour, i.e. 10 photographs for the far right. The socialist left is present in 8 “Front Pages” and 10 photographs (François Mitterrand, François Hollande, Lionel Jospin, Pierre Mendes France, Michel Rocard, Pierre Bérégovoy, Dominique Strauss Kahn, Ségolène Royal, Manuel Vals). The rest of the left and the extreme left are represented by two photographs: Georges Marchais by Jean Claude Coutausse who comments on it: “Libé gives you immense freedom to express yourself and address a reader you know. This allows for images that stand out. Like here with the photo of Marchais, of which only the eyebrows are visible” (p. 90). The other is a hologram of Jean-Luc Mélenchon by Boby which states: “At the time (February 2017) Mélenchon was climbing in the polls. (…) I wanted to take this photo of him overexposed compared to the rest of the room. Like a celestial being, a caricature of a supreme leader” (p. 293). The text “Towards the world after” (2013-2023, p. 267) may well report debates within the editorial staff “As always, the tumults of the political scene also agitated the editorial staff. The left is plural? “Well let’s be plural. This challenge is not taken up in the front pages, any more than in the portfolios. There is not a single union official, not a single “Front Page” devoted to Georges Séguy, Henry Krasucki, Bernard Thibault, Philippe Martinez (CGT), Edmond Maire, Jean Kaspar, Nicolle Notat, François Chérèque, Laurent Berger (CFDT ) or even André Bergeron, Jean-Claude Mailly (FO) and Gérard Alaphillipe, Monique Vuaillat (SNES). The headliners and the opportunities were not lacking, however. Women, a reflection of patriarchal society, at Liberation as elsewhere, are a very small minority. Of 60 nominative portraits in “Front Page”, only 12 are devoted to women, mostly actresses, singers for obituaries (Simone Signoret, Marlène Dietrich, Barbara, Marie Trintignan) then come three political women (Margareth Tatcher, Marine Le Pen and Ségolène Royal), three writers (Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Sagan and Annie Ernaud), a journalist (Florence Aubenas) and a princess (Lady Diana), but not Simone Veil, while Liberation campaigned from the outset for the right to Abortion, but not Arlette Laguiller, first woman to run for president, six times in a row candidate and MEP (1999), but not Édith Cresson, first woman Prime Minister in France, not Christiane Taubira, architect of marriage law for all, yet defended and celebrated by daily life. Men of science, great intellectuals are even more absent (Jacques Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss). However, French researchers have won numerous Nobel Prizes between 1977 and 2022 (7 in physics, 5 in medicine, 4 in chemistry and 4 in economics, to which must be added 9 Fields medals (mathematics) between 1982 and 2014.

These choices of Liberation for its “Front Pages” that the two authors translate are to be qualified by the idea of ​​always choosing the best photograph which could eliminate some politicians, some women can be present in other “Front Pages”, but rather, it is emerging trends that should be remembered and commended for the exciting and difficult work accomplished. There is no doubt that it will enchant, displease, but constitutes an exceptional testimony to photography in everyday life aimed at the general public, which is its originality, its interest and its strength.

Francoise Denoyelle


50 ans dans l’œil de Libé
Curators : Lionel Charrier, Charlotte Rotman
Exhibition at l’abbaye de Montmajour
Until September 24 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

50 ans dans l’œil de Libé
Lionel Charrier, Charlotte Rotman
Preface by Serge July
Paris, Seuil, 2023, 335 pages, 39,90 Euros

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