Two exhibitions, one at Le BAL, the other at Leica, both in Paris, accompanied by a book publication by Éditions Filigranes, shed light on the work of Stéphane Duroy, offering a portrait of a photographer whose radical approach is a model for many of his peers.
Stéphane Duroy is a child of the twentieth century, a period marked by two world wars and over fifty-year-long tug-of-war between the East and the West. This period has been for the photographer an inexhaustible source of study and reflection. At the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he was eight; his historical consciousness awakened early. History triggered a fascination he possesses to this day with people and events that continue to haunt him. Nourished by literature, from Cendrars to Céline, to Dostoevsky, and by cinema, from Bergman to Buñuel, to films from the other side of the Atlantic, Stéphane Duroy became a photographer in order to travel, or perhaps it was the other way around.
At twenty-two, he quit law school and, two years later, having spent some time traveling and photographing, he had overnight declared himself a photographer. He quickly left the Agence SIPA Press, where Gökşin Sipahioğlu had taken him under his wing, having understood that he could never be a reporter, that is to say beholden to commissions and current events. At Rapho, he encountered tedium and routine, the two ills that had plagued his childhood, but he stayed there for ten years because he achieved a sort of equilibrium. On the one hand, he had “petty assignments,” as he calls them, which allowed him to earn his living, and on the other his personal projects which took up most of his time. In 1986, Christian Caujolle brought him over to the Agence VU, where he found total freedom, well suited to his independent outsider’s spirit.
Stéphane Duroy is not your typical photographer: he follows only his own rules. His photographic career speaks for itself: 1977–2002, a series on Great Britain culminating in the publication of Distress in 2011; 1979–2009, a project on History and memory conducted first in Berlin, then across East Germany and Poland, leading to the publication L’Europe du Silence in 2000, a seminal book for him and generations of photographers. Both projects involved over twenty years of work during which he would “exhaust his topic” to preserve only the very quintessence of his countless voyages—often numbering several per year—in books containing no more than twenty images each. Stéphane Duroy’s interest is focused less on exhibitions than on books, inalterable objects on which he might labor for years before he is satisfied.
Out in the field, Stéphane Duroy is not the type to be clicking away shot after shot; he takes photographs sparingly: “I create a world—or a studio—and this world makes me long for images.” Feelings and emotions are prerequisite to beginning a project, as if the photographer felt the need for reality to come to him. He thus makes only very few images, and afterwards, when it comes to making a selection, he becomes only more strict, to the point of destroying negatives deemed “worthless.” The impossibility of undoing his radical gesture, rather than causing anguish, stimulates him. He applies this working method over and over, with steady commitment: his forty years’ worth of photographic archives fit into a single filing box.
In parallel to his projects on Great Britain, where he focused on people in distress, and other European countries where he traced the scars of the Second World War, in the 1980s he began working on the United States. As pared down as his previous books, Unknown was published in 2007. He explains that it was a defective batch of this book that inspired him, in 2009, “to start getting rid of photography.” This was a turning point in his practice. Setting aside his camera, Stéphane Duroy started using books as raw material, intervening on the page in various ways, cutting or pasting other images or news clippings, or yet writing or painting, sometimes completely obscuring the original image.
This ongoing, obsessive work is now on view in the basement of Le BAL, jointly curated by Fannie Escoulen and Diane Dufour. The walls are covered with enlargements or scraps of wallpaper sometimes pasted over with striking images. This installation is an evolving ephemeral “theater” where Stéphane Duroy is going to intervene throughout the four months long exhibition. He has already tagged one of the images “No return.” In the center of the room, a long row of display cases outlines a path for discovering the original publications later altered by Stéphane Duroy. We can read, “Sub prime,” “In God we trust,” “Decay,” “We bought Death” … across a succession of pages as if in a film sequence. This continuity underscores the narrative dimension of his work. The facing page spreads offer a bleak vision of America, “a nation without History founded by successive waves of exiles who come ashore on what is at first a land of welcome but which soon becomes a land of forgetting. For in order to succeed,” Duroy explains further, “the exile must lose all memory.” His words resonate with emotion.
Those attached to a traditional conception of photography will be interested in the exhibitions on the ground floor of Le BAL and at Leica. Not to be missed is the book whose original accordion format invites readers to compose their own story about America seen through Duroy’s eyes. This is another way of appropriating this work which, as the titles of the exhibition—Again and Again—and of the book—Uknown. Tentative d’épuisement d’un livre—remind us, is constantly changing. There is no doubt about it, Stéphane Duroy continues to amaze.
Stéphane Duroy, Again and Again
From January 6 through April 9, 2017
6 Impasse de la Défense
From January 5 through April 8, 2017
105–109, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
Unknown. Tentative d’épuisement d’un livre
Published by Le Bal/Éditions Filigranes