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Galerie Baudoin Lebon : Bruno Barbey, photographe au long cours


Bruno Barbey The awakening of the Dragon by jean Loh

According to the Chinese whom Bruno Barbey photographed a lot, the year of the Dragon began on February 10, 2024, and the late Bruno Barbey, whom Carole Nagar called a “space-time traveler”, left us three years and a half years ago already, the most humanist of the color photographers  under the Magnum banner, he was born in the year of the Snake, which the Chinese call “little dragon”. This year, the “little dragon” woke up, in fact, Bruno began with a beautiful retrospective at the National Museum in Warsaw, at the same time as an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s works from December 1, 2023 to March 3, 2024, Bruno’s exhibition received thirty-eight thousand visitors, a more than respectable attendance for an event dedicated to photography in Poland. Titled “Bruno Barbey, Always on the move”, the retrospective corresponded perfectly to Bruno’s career and temperament. Visitors in Poland who could observe the sensitive and fair eye of Bruno Barbey across five continents: from Bangladesh to Brazil, from China to Egypt, from Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan, to Turkey, Japan and Korea , Kuwait and Morocco, Chile and Mexico, Nigeria and Senegal, from Vietnam to Burma, without forgetting – the most important for the Poles: its poignant documentation on the reality of Poland at the time of Solidarnosc and on Ukraine and Moldova in the shadow of the USSR. We cannot forget his May 68 of which he took some little-known color photos (like the courtyard of the Sorbonne occupied by Maoist demonstrators with the statue of Pasteur covered with red flags and colorful effigies of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin and Mao…). We remember his Italians from the years of neo-realist cinema that Bruno photographed while he was still at the Vevey design school and who were the subject of a tribute exhibition at the Pavillon Comtesse of Caen in the Academy of Fine Arts where he occupied one of the chairs reserved to photographers. If we had to cite the whole list it would have been necessary to expose all the passports used by Bruno, this tireless globetrotter “Always on the move”.

The co-curator of the exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw was not mistaken: (Bruno Barbey) “is inspired by the history of painting and repeatedly expressed his admiration for Henri Matisse. In an equally pictorial manner, he constructed eye-catching compositions, which still dazzle today with their visual power. From a historical perspective, it is very significant that Barbey harnessed the power of color in reportage photography, even though this was a field in which a broad, vivid color palette had long been treated with a certain reserve. Barbey did not focus exclusively on the spectacular nature of the events – after all, they quickly lose their importance – but above all on the timeless visual quality of the image. His style therefore consists of intense shades and sophisticated color combinations. » This recognition in Poland is particularly significant because it was with his documentarian wife Caroline Thiénot, who was filming a film for Antenne 2 entitled “Le Pouvoir et la Croix”, that they traveled around Poland in a motorhome for eight months over a period of two years.

In this spring with disrupted weather, Caroline and Bruno are giving us a new opportunity to admire his photos, this time in large prints, at the Baudoin Lebon Gallery in the Marais, from April 3rd to May 26th. Apart from his well-known impressionist photos of Morocco, his country of birth, we will be struck by his photo of the Shah Mosque of Iran with its vertical blue mosaic walls and mullahs in black seated in a circle at the bottom of the image. . Bruno was especially proud of having photographed the Shah (in 1971-1974-1976) and Ayatollah Khomeini at Neauphle-Le-Château (1978) in a striking contrast: we see the Shah from a low angle on a footbridge before climbing into his plane, standing “straight in his boots” in an impeccable three-piece suit, arrogant and domineering with a high-ranking soldier in uniform kissing his hand, he was wearing an ugly nouveau riche tie that clashed with his beautiful custom-made suit by Savile Row tailors. On the other side the Ayatollah was shown sitting on a nameless blanket draped in his black robe raising his piercing eyes under bushy eyebrows towards the lens of Bruno who must have towered over him from his 6,2  height. Instead of blue mosaic Khomeini was flanked by a wall of blue wallpaper with enormous chrysanthemum flowers, the kind of wallpaper typical of Parisian suburban houses of the seventies. Bruno’s terrible irony was this shot of a row of empty armchairs bearing the imperial seal which awaited the dignitaries in the desert of Persepolis for the extravagances of the Shah who decided to celebrate the two thousand five hundredth anniversary of the ‘Persian Empire. What distinguished Bruno from other photographer reporters of the time was his compassion for the Kurds, he went so far as to produce the portrait of Barzani’s son surrounded by armed Peshmerga (1974) but above all he followed the Peshmerga descending towards Lake Dukan in Iraq Kurdistan and Kurdish refugees gathered in Turkey, of which we see a little Kurdish girl with blond hair warming her bare foot at a campfire on a hill ravaged by the war, she was sitting next to two other little girls with messy hair but just as blonde, it’s this kind of photo that makes us ask the question “what has become of them today”, fifty years later?

In the Baudoin Lebon gallery, two unique photos from Poland particularly appeal to us, one urban, the other rural. The first is a quasi-diptych with on the one hand this anachronistic monument to the glory of the Red Army erected in the center of the city of Praga. And on the other hand, a window at the back of a tram through which a fifty-year-old Pole stared at Bruno with a thoughtful and nostalgic look, he was holding a white paper bag in his hand, a dilapidated tram with dirty windows its paint peeling, it was the Poland of 1981, which would approach the turn towards modernity and democracy with the Solidarnosc movement and the end of the Warsaw Pact and the yoke of the Red Army. The photo was dear to  Bruno Barbey, an image full of informations and narrative and with careful composition. The rural photo is this beautiful image of a Polish peasant woman followed by a troop of white ducks in front of two thatched cabins decorated with peasant painting that Bruno called “Folk Art in Zalipie”, on one of the two wall frescoes we can see the silhouettes of two flying ducks, a peacock and a rooster, in white on a black background, a sort of rock art like in Lascaux, but Bruno wanted to make these naive drawings resonate with the very live ducks which followed the peasant woman in a row as if they wanted to get as close as possible to their peers in painting…

Large prints are opportunities to recognize Barbey’s eye for compositions worthy of the most beautiful master paintings, like this scene of “Collective Fishing on the Niger” where the nets and pikes formed a concert of pennants and spears worthy of medieval battles. The 1971 demonstration of Japanese students against the new Narita airport in Tokyo and against the Vietnam War became the opportunity for Bruno to compose an extraordinary painting, separating the helmeted students on the left but with helmets of different red colors for the leftists green for the ecologists and white for the conservatives, and on the right, the rows of military police in black, while the student camp pointed long bamboo spears and the police in black helmets resisted with large riot shields, forming a real battle worthy of Paolo Uccello’s famous painting of “the battle of San Romano” from 1456, the three panels of which are today scattered one in the National Gallery in London, the others in the Uffici in Florence and at the Louvre in Paris.

Finally, a last personal word about Bruno Barbey: before leaving for the photographers’ paradise, Bruno, returning from Turkey, called me about his exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing and to have lunch together. I knew he wanted to return to Sichuan, where a new photography museum had just opened in Chengdu, to continue his work from 1980, an unprecedented color documentary of the Chinese countryside. At Baudoin Lebon we can admire Bruno’s photo which is a metaphor for his transition from Black and White to color, entitled “in the Garden of Mandarin Yu, Shanghai 1980”. Indeed during his second trip to China (his first was in 1973 during President Pompidou’s state visit to China), he stopped in this famous Mandarin Yu Garden, which was built in 1577 not by a mandarin named YU but by a governor of Sichuan named PAN, in homage to his father who was minister to the Emperor during the Ming dynasty. In this garden made up of several pavilions there were openings in the shape of a moon gate, including this opening with the unusual shape of a vertical half-moon through which a Shanghainese woman posed conspicuously for a professional photographer holding a Rolleiflex. As is often the case with Bruno we have a sort of diptych here, in the part on the left we have a photographer and two curious voyeurs in shadow play in front of a white wall and in the part on the right we have an elegant lady in a yellow wool jacket with a pair of black pants and black shoes and white socks, she proudly wore her red bag hanging from her right elbow. This yellow and red precisely evokes the Pantone colors of the Kodak logo, yes, Bruno’s film of choice was Kodachrome in those years until his move to digital photography. This photo served as the cover for the book “China” in French version from Editions du Pacifique in 2014, which can be found on a double page inside the large Coffee Table Book “the Color of China” from Editions Post Wave in 2019.

Jean Loh, April 2024


Bruno Barbey, photographe au long cours
Until May 26, 2024
Galerie Baudouin Lebon
21 Rue Chapon
75003 Paris, France

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