The French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker wrote of the women he photographed on his travels: ‘I stare at them, but not enough, not long enough’. Paraphrasing the poet Valery Larbaud he mused: ‘perhaps, if I could catch up with them [his female subjects]… perhaps I could conquer a world. Or rather they would conquer a world for me’. The first photographs in Marker’s ‘Staring Back’ series, which spanned six decades (c.1950s- 2000s), featured subjects of both sexes in a post-colonial Cold War world, one in which France’s grip on its colonies was continually challenged, and the balance of global power had shifted from Europe to the United States and the USSR.
Marker, a progressive left-wing intellectual was conscious that he did not want to replicate the conventions of colonial European photographers who shot their subjects from the position of perceived racial and intellectual superiority. His above comment, that no amount of staring was sufficient to fully grasp the character of the subject, is pertinent because it suggests that he relinquished the photographer’s traditional claim to mastery over the subject. In a photograph of Russian girls listening to poetry, made in the 1950s, Marker positions himself as a witness to their engrossment. The girls are shot side-on in soft focus with their eyes downcast. The edges of the auditorium seats around them are blurred so as to suggest that everything is touched by the poetry’s rhythm. The girls’ sweaters seem non-descript second skins and the highlights at the crown of their heads take on a dandelion texture, which gives the impression that they too dissolve into the verse’s cadences. The vagueness of the composition appeals to the spectator’s sense of ‘haptic visuality’ which, as the film theorist Laura U. Marks argues, acknowledges the limitations of visual knowledge and uses the ‘resources of memory and imagination to complete’ the image. Haptic images, Marks continues, ‘force the viewer to contemplate the image instead of being pulled into the narrative’. Thus, the vague apparitions in Marker’s image elude their exact location and ethnicity and instead evoke the immediate and universal act of listening. While Marker does not pretend to fully compass his Soviet subjects, his soft-focus treatment indicates his empathy with their poetic transportation.
Marker’s interest in his female subjects’ elusiveness forms the subject of his 1962 ciné-roman La Jetée, a film composed almost entirely of black and white still images, which centres on the protagonist’s obsession with the image of a woman from his childhood. Even after he enters the post-apocalyptic scenario of World War III, he greets her in parallel universes. Although the film is set in the future, the female protagonist played by Hélène Chatelain aspires to a 1960s French New Wave conception of timelessness. Styled in unadorned black and white shift dresses, her face free from obvious make-up and her shoulder-length blonde hair flyaway or in a statuesque high chignon, Chatelain recalls Jeanne Moreau in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules et Jim. In both films the heroine’s understated styling enables a focus on the corporeal essentials that define the hero’s relentless fixation: the smile, the hair and the hands flying up to frame her face. As Janet Harbord argues, the woman’s hands ‘do not so much obfuscate her expression as stand in the place of it, and mediate it’. The fleeting encounters of the man and woman in their post-apocalyptic worlds reach varying levels of communion, as the film shows how an encounter with a childhood vision can be richly experienced, but not fully achieved.
Marker’s post-war images of women express his extraordinary sensitivity to the tiniest mutations in the female face. However, in the course of this poetic journey, he also exposes the futility of the photographer’s quest to capture the true essence of his mutable subjects.
The above works can be viewed at Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat at the Whitechapel Gallery until June 22, 2014.
Marker, C. (2014) ‘Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat’, Exhibition Wall Text, Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery.
Marks, L. U. (1999) The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, p. 163.
Harbord, J. (2009) ‘Chris Marker: ‘La Jetée’ London: Afterall Books, p. 45.