Cows, pigeons, tourists, wars and folklore from Old Europe: a conversation between Guillaume Janot and François Piron

Cows, pigeons, tourists, wars and folklore from Old Europe: a conversation between Guillaume Janot and François Piron (translated by Thomas Boutoux)

Guillaume Janot : The backbone of this book is a collection of images produced during a travelling project that I carried out throughout Europe with a Villa Medicis Hors-les-Murs grant. It is a continuation of my work, in the sense that it is about circulating between different cultural codes, and has nothing to do with landscapes or the geography of Europe.

François Piron: It’s not a dérive throughout Europe, then, but rather a focalisation on some specific places, and among them, on places extremely emblematic but for which, paradoxically, there are no real image representations. For instance, no single image of Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Eagle Nest, has really stood out in the collective imaginary. Nor is this the case of the square in Munich where Hitler held his first speeches. But sometimes, you also photograph places which we have a very fixed representation, like for instance the cover image of this book that gives us a very different perspective of the Abbey Road crosswalk. We only know this place from one image—that of the Beatles album— and this fact undermines its reality as a place. So, on the one hand, you concentrate on places of which we have no image, and on the other hand, places that we know so well thanks to some images that they almost disappear as places. 

GJ: My intention was not to make up for a lack of representation, because in the case of Berchtesgaden, as in the one of Abbey Road, it comes from a default approach to places. In Berchtesgaden, I shot a whole series of images just by circling around Hitler’s summer house, without it being visible, and using a particular process that makes the image extremely appealing, picturesque, very serene, almost postcard-like.
We all know the cover of the Beatles album, or the archive pictures of Hitler and Eva Braun standing on the terrace of this house. In both cases, what I produce is more like a side image. 

FP: If it’s not about photographing landscapes, what do you consider these spaces then? Are they like figures? Do you see them as signs from cultural history? It’s undisputable that they are iconic places, and that they are part of a landscape, which is first of all a cultural one. 

GJ: Yes, the icon is presupposed, and I’m not checking anything or going back there in order to compare different representations. For me, it’s about reactivating icons in order to displace them. The series that was done in Belfast and that introduces this book consisted of a quite head-on approach to the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, and everything we already know about it. The borders between the different neighbourhoods, the signs of affiliation that are visible inside these territories… The colours of the British and Irish flags are painted on various components that constitute the urban space, in order to distinguish which neighbourhood is catholic and which is protestant. By using black and white, with its whole palette of greys, it becomes impossible to define these territories precisely. So the series shows a territory that is overcoded, over signified yet neutralized completely. 

FP: Is it a way of saying, in this particular case, “ I’m not here to inform you”?

GJ: Yes, and it that case it’s precisely the opposite. I want to appropriate these territories as signs, and to go on a journey inside the image, to stroll in the codes of the image, rather than to report once more on something we already know. 

FP: In this sense, it is a continuation of the work you’ve done until now. And of this ambivalence between the idea of producing an image as a subjective production, and at the same time the conscience of the image as a social fact, as something already there, and already seen. 

GJ: Often we hear that everything has already been photographed, that photography has participated in this whole idea of postmodernism, where it became impossible to propose new forms and where only some sort of recycling is allowed, to say it a very broad and synthesizing way. Let’s take for instance the picture of the cow, which is a direct reference to the cover of the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother. It’s clear to me that with photography, it’s impossible to plagiarise or to do a “remake” of an existing picture. It’s never very far from this, but still it leads to the production of a new picture. In our collective images, there are things that are with us, things that we can recognise very easily, which are coming back again and again, like sunsets for example. But it’s never plagiarism, because, even if you get as close as possible to a referent image, still, you’ll end producing a new image. Photography is quite fascinating in this sense. 

FP: To get back to this picture of the cow, which looks ordinary, or rather, generic, how do you proceed to make it? Is it something that you look for or is something that you find? 

GJ: I’ve known this image since my early years, it’s been with me and it’s part of who I am, part of a corpus of images I’ve seen and read and absorbed. You’re speaking about generic images; that’s exactly what it is. But we now have two pictures, the Pink Floyd one and mine: where is the generic image? There is a loss of the original referent each time. The first reaction would be to read my picture like the Pink Floyd one, but it’s obviously not that one. 

FP: You mean, it has become impossible to see a cow without thinking about the Pink Floyd cover? 

GJ: It’s rather a way of saying that it’s impossible to be a faker in the realm of photography. 

FP: Is it possible, in this image production process, to draw a clear line of distinction between photographers who search and those who find? I’m wondering if you’re not yourself standing on both sides, because with this work you’ve done across Europe, your working method has changed a bit compared to what it used to be. It used to be more sedentary in a way. 

GJ: I’ve travelled places to look for some specific things, and not at all just to find things. That’s what was really new with this work: I went to some very specific points, knowing almost in advance what I would find there. 

FP: One could almost say, you were sweeping the genius of place away. 

GJ: As it happened, yes. The photography of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, what they call “images/views”, and their relationship with the stereotypical and generic image, is of great interest to me. Their book called Der Sichtbare Welt (The Visible World) unfolds like a voyage, with eight images on each page where you can sense the guiding principle that ties them together, and follow their journey across the whole world. My work is conversely more about untying things: I favour collisions over courses. And that allows me to associate the picture of the cow with Berchtesgaden and Belfast. 
FP: In the work of Fischli and Weiss, there is anachronism humour, as it evokes the photographic expeditions of the 19th Century, those of Maxime du Camp… 
GJ: Fischli & Weiss work in a very 18th Century Bougainvillian way: they go on discovering the world and we follow their journey quite linearly. In Berchtesgaden or in Belfast, I made groups of images rather than a series. The encounter between the codes, the signs and the cultural facts is made possible through breaks. I’m looking for a kind of reactive energy between the images and at the same time for a coherence based on the reading of signs that everyone is able to recognise, since they are very strong western cultural facts. Breaks and collisions don’t lead to such a precise or committed relationship, as in the communication image, and its reappropriation, like in the case of Jean-Luc Moulène. I don’t have this kind of relationship to the “reflex image”. I’m not a producer, but a consumer, and that puts the two of us at opposites on a chain of images, even though we’re looking sometimes in the same direction. 

FP: Your recent work leads you to confront yourself with historical and political events… 

GJ: My approach to landscape, as I’m applying it now to places like Berchtesgaden, is different from what it used to be. Before, the landscapes were numbered, dated in chronological order, whereas now they are named. I think the difference lies here. And from the moment you start to name, and to locate, territories acquire a political dimension. And this, all the more that I’ve chosen the places according to the strength of the signs that I would be able to find there. In 1997, I wanted to go and see Soweto, and I discovered a place I had the feeling I already knew. It reminds me of a sentence by Robert Musil: “There are greater chances that we learn about an extraordinary event in the newspaper than experience it in real life; in other words, it’s in the abstract that we pass the greater part of our days, and reality has become only the realm of the incidental”.
Confronting a given territory, I can determine a body of images that is going to define one aspect of it. My approach to portraiture is quite different. I don’t define a character according to a social class; I’m not looking for a kind of relationship to the body, which refers to an environment. In every image, I activate the elements in a different way, except for the relationship between the figure and the background which always remains the same: a very central subject, with always the two feet inside the image. It defines a relation with the subject, a certain distance between him and me. But this is something I always develop from an anecdote, an encounter, a precise moment… 

FP: Yet, your portraits sometimes give the impression that they embody an idea; some have an allegoric quality attached to them. 

GJ: With certain pictures, it’s true, but this is something I usually discover when I read the image afterwards. It doesn’t result from a constructive method. It’s very rare that the pictures are preconceived or constructed with some preparation beforehand. Most of the time, it happens very quickly, where I happen to be at this precise moment.
But I like the fact that my photographs don’t give this impression, that some unposed photographs can look as posed or organised as pictures that would have required much thought and would have been slowly elaborated. The same image potential can be found in the continuum of things, or it can be elaborated. When I construct an image, it lasts maybe 5 minutes maximum. It starts because something happens, and so I decide to stop everything, and to re-enact it. In other words, I just stop the continuum of things, when I can feel the potential image coming, when the reality or the situation contains the image. Yet, I can sometimes do a mise-en-scène also, or some location spotting. Nothing is forbidden. 

FP: I’m thinking in particular about this photograph where a young man who is begging looks like a medieval knight praying. 

GJ: It’s an unposed image. The grey hood that looks like a coat of mail, the knees on the Bible, the small leather purse: he constructed this image beforehand, very consciously, of course. And this is also the reason why he let me take his picture… I constantly move the cursor between constructed photography and something like snapshot photography. The picture of the Japanese fan sitting on a bench in front of the Beatles sidewalk doesn’t have the same piercing quality of movement, speed, and relationship to urban space, as one can find in Friedlander or Doisneau, but I see it as a kind of street photography too, the same with the beggar. 

FP: With Doisneau or Friedlander, it’s about capturing, it’s this mythology of the photographer as someone who is quicker than the common man at grasping something significant in the reality. 

GJ: Friedlander or Winogrand created an aesthetic of speed, of the instant, and of movement. Conversely, my pictures are quiet and silent. The beggar in front of his church doesn’t move for the whole morning. The Japanese man on his bench remained still for a long time. They are subjects who also invite this kind of image. 

FP: This quietness of your images, as well as their sleek beauty, have something corrupted in them. I tend to think that your photographs deal with this conscience of the corruption of the image. Paintings of the world, which are too magnificent, and almost verging on mawkishness. 

GJ: This nauseating magic… I try to stop just before the definition gets fixed, just before the advertising picture, or the street photography, but I want to tackle these things.
When I take a camera, I carry the weight of all the images that construct me culturally, all the images that I’ve consumed. I cannot take a picture without this community of images interfering with what I’m seeing through the lens. Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m an author, and this notion is also a cursor that one can set…. I think that at one point, I could even work with pictures that I haven’t taken myself. It’s something I find interesting and that I haven’t developed for the moment, but it would be perfectly possible. 

FP: We can also think about pictures without authors; for instance the photographer who is in the postcard business, and who is asked to take a picture of a fishing port in the way we have always thought about it. Can you picture yourself in this role? 

GJ: I think that the personality or the subjectivity of the photographer, whatever they are, will always filter through. The question has more to do with the instant that never happens again. It’s possible to reach something that looks like it, but it’s impossible to redo it… 

FP: In this sense, you could continue photographing cows that look beyond their back forever? 

GJ: There can always be a better one, which would be a little more precise, a little closer, but I’m happy with this one, it establishes a connection between the Particular and the Universal, so it’s fine, it’s done. Speaking about nausea, the images taken in Berchtesgaden, for instance, are quite innocent, but as soon as you identify the place, something perverse appears. I did not charge these images dramatically, nor did I try to make them look innocent. I’ve kept a distance, which is almost documentary-like and is very neutral. Of course, it’s possible to see a picturesque dimension in it, because that’s how South Bavaria is in fact. But this picturesque dimension deflates or explodes, as you wish. 

FP: In the context of the Berchtesgaden photographs, a picture like the one of the Tyrolean orchestra for example, conveys a stinging symbolic message. Its presence in the book is almost vindictive. 

GJ: Just like the beggar or the Japanese man, they know quite well what kind of image they convey: a certain tradition or a certain folklore. They live this image that they embody, they’re bearing it; it’s about transmission. But in this case, it also goes off a little, because I’m casting a doubt by grasping one moment, and a look that expresses concern rather than happiness. And also there is the guitar of this guy who is masking the face of the other one, who in turn is masking the lady who plays the trombone. Everything gets cancelled; it’s not working anymore. 

FP: There is a similar deflation that operates when you photograph a pigeon on the square in Munich. As soon as we identify the place, as soon as it is named, the photograph takes a political turn. 

GJ: There are no more eagles on this square but pigeons. It’s a kind of meta-landscape where everything is there, but at the same time, of course, nothing is there anymore. 

FP: It makes me think of Bruno Serralongue, and his work on the margins of events, which also operates through a form of deflation. The photographs, in this case, rest on a kind of nostalgia, that of the mythology of the live event, of the right moment, which cannot happen anymore. We’re on the margins, or in the aftermath. It’s a nostalgia for real time photography, for a time when it mattered differently. 

GJ: I don’t have such a direct relationship to an event or its aftermath. I’m much more interested in the way events are able to transform places into decors.
If we look at this square in Munich, where Hitler held his first speeches, the marks on the floor, its architecture: it’s a Renaissance picture. I didn’t go there to find a news image or an historical image, but I went there to draw other possible references from it. With the pigeon and its shadow, in the backlight, the image begins to look like a surrealist painting, somewhere between Magritte and De Chirico. But at the same time, it conveys an aesthetic that is more contemporary. This picture could very well illustrate an article in the newspaper Libération. I don’t think that I would ever print it so that it becomes a piece. But, to me, it plays an important role in the articulation of this book. 

FP: Where does Roses and Guns, the title of the book, come from?

GJ: It is the title of a show I did in 2002 at Transpalette that I’m using again. At the time of the show, it was a direct reference to the trauma of the elections of April 2002. It also corresponds to what is happening in Europe, with the decline of the Left and the neo-liberal Right coming into power, since it was in this context that I developed this project. 

FP: The reference to rock music offers of course also a certain Manichaeism; there is idealism and a bit of romanticism in the slogan… 

GJ: For me, Roses and Guns corresponds to this kind of hot and cold situation that we’re experiencing in Europe, socially and politically. With the political will to make Europe more human, more social, even though it’s being constructed on conservative grounds and on an extremely authoritarian neo-liberal economy. The conflict in Northern Ireland is not presented as a war anymore. We forget that during the construction of the European Community, there was still a war situation in Europe.

FP: There is only one image in the book that is really a portrait, and that has as a title the name of the person. In fact, the image is a triptych, including the picture that shows her identity papers. 

GJ: She is a young ex-Yugoslavian who has moved to Germany. So, the image on the left shows her old and new passports. It’s a very simple and very concrete and real embodiment of a situation. She turns the fan on, she needs some air. 

FP: What do you think of the notion of the archetype? Historically, when figuration becomes archetypal, it has done so in order to convey ideologies.

GJ: It can be ambiguous, but after all one could read August Sander’s work, which had been totally censored by the Nazis, in this sense. I don’t know if it’s necessarily serving an ideology, or if it can also impede an ideology. 

FP: I’m not sure Sander was trying to create archetypes. He was more looking for the diversity of characters among the given social classes and professional categories, following an ambition of exhaustiveness, and in order to show their heterogeneity and the differences between stereotypes and reality. 

GJ: Yes, but at the same time, he was defining and naming things very precisely. 

FP: Which could also help validate certain categories of persons – I’m thinking for instance of his artists’ portraits – who were not socially recognised. 

GJ: Sander’s objectivity is, in a sense, indefinitely appropriable. He can be absorbed by any ideology. In the same way that political or advertising campaigns are based on the condition and situation of a society, we are confronted by the state of a society at a given time, and from that moment on, any political discourse can use it for something. That is the strength of his work but also its ambiguity. 

FP: Sander’s project, as well as those of other photographers of modernity— Atget for instance— bears a vertiginous aspect, made of rigor and ambition, which derives from the fantasy of being able to photograph everything. It’s been a recurrent project in photography until now, one we can find in the works of Douglas Huebler, Fischli & Weiss or Hans Peter Feldmann. 

GJ: At the time of Sander, not everything had really been photographed. With Fischli & Weiss or Felmann, we stand in front of images that are not fooled by themselves. They are artists who construct a dialectic of the image and not an informative relation in order to document the world. 

FP: The difference lies in the relationship to the necessity of the image in relation to its social use. 

GJ: Exactly. An image always belongs to a certain time and context. The consumption and usages of the images have diversified and amplified: we probably consume in one day as many images as Renaissance men used to in their whole life, for instance. I find this quite fascinating. 

FP: Yet, Feldmann is contemporary with Bernd and Hilla Becher, and they have very different ideas about the utility of images. 

GJ: And Yvette Horner is contemporary with Pierre Boulez, and they both write music… 

FP: You mean that the Becher… 

GJ: I will let you choose. 

FP: I see, the tour de France in pictures. 

GJ: What I mean, is that documenting the world today has become an author’s position. But Fischli & Weiss, Thomas Stuth or Feldmann, they all document the world anyway. 

FP: The more we try to get rid of the author; the more this notion becomes prominent again. The modes of working of Fischli & Weiss or Feldmann, who touch upon the notion of anonymity and who play with a certain amateurism, end up joining the definition proposed by Baudelaire about the function of art, which is to create commonplaces. In this sense, there is no postmodernity of the image. I don’t believe that there exist art images for which the intention was only to document the world purely and simply, and others that would be only self-reflexive. It’s always a balance between these two ends. 

GJ: I totally agree with this. If there is postmodernism, it exists in the references to the genres, to the status and to the practices of images, but not in terms of signification, or content, or of the relationship to the world, because the world is always new. Vilém Flusser used to say that to make an image today, it’s automatically to make it fit a certain box in spite of oneself. I find this true, in the sense that the image archives itself and gains a status immediately. Today, the uses of images have become very differentiated, but I’m not interested in creating their inventory. The issue of the necessity interests me, and I do believe that there is no postmodernity when one makes images: we can still make images; we can still consider every photograph to be an original. When I photograph a rainbow, the paradox is that it continues to be a rare image, even if it is a stereotypical and ordinary one. I can never be sure that I would find this particular context again. This image asks the same question as the one with the cow. 

FP: It’s an image always already seen and at the same time never seen before. 

GJ: The series of landscapes is maybe the one in my work that is the most conceptual, the most distanced. An image with a motif can convey aesthetics that look old-fashioned, but it will always be a new image. They are images that find me, whereas in Berchtesgaden or Belfast, those are images I went looking for. 

FP: Those are images that don’t try to distinguish themselves from their stereotype, that don’t find their strength in the differences that they bear with the cliché, but they try to be exactly in line with them. 

GJ: That’s exactly it. Even though a particular stereotype can evoke very different images among us. 

FP: The pretension of this ambition lies again in the desire for anonymity. It’s a bit like saying: “Sorry for being recognisable and singular, I wish I could reach this objective incontestability in which I would disappear, while remaining indelibly printed on every memory”. Very frequently, the artists who have stated a kind of aesthetic indifference, a degree of anonymity or of practical reason for their work, are those who have been the best at carving their aesthetic signature, from Warhol to Kossuth or On Kawara. In your work, style does not play a prominent part, because it’s always about grappling with different genres, but then of course, all this grappling demonstrates a constant preoccupation with style. 

GJ: Once again, it’s about originality and universality, and yes, I’m playing with this, absolutely. Of course, it’s quite important for me to plan my images so that they can exist and be autonomous, but at the same time, I completely sign and state their regrouping. Creating a group of images means to place things in tension, in contradiction, in opposition, or, on the contrary, in good association. A dialectic is formed. If you try to concentrate on all the images that you absorb during a day, and if you try to classify them or to see what kind of thread runs through them, some associations between images will accidentally make sense. It’s a relationship to things that I find interesting, which states that, despite everything, things emerge in the midst of the neutrality of all these images. And whether one uses his critical faculties, or just his affects, in relation to these images, he is always active. We’re not in a state of passive reception. 

FP: This idea is quite close to what Michel de Certeau has formulated about the consumer’s capacity to let himself be controlled, and find a certain pleasure in it, and yet to be able to produce something from it… 

GJ: Let’s say that seduction, or on the contrary aversion or revolt, are strategies that we don’t completely control in our consumption of images, but which are productive operations. 

FP: A regular feature in art criticism is to say something like, in a world full of dirty images, the artists are the only remaining creators of clean images. 

GJ: Well, that’s just wrong. You know, I’m tired of that kind of discourse. 

FP: Especially because, on the contrary, I tend to think that you say “yes” to dirty images, without considering them as such. You take part in it by challenging the alienation that underlies this Manichaeism. Your work is not about resistance, it’s more about absorption. 

GJ: Totally. It’s based on the need to regurgitate what we absorb. Sometimes it’s filtered, sometimes not. I’m not speaking about agreeing to a system or a society that I would find fantastic. That’s not what’s at stake. My images are quiet, calm, not noisy, and slow. One thing is to slow down, to stay in tune with the flux and the question of quantity. But I’m made of this, and still I’m speaking about this. In any case, without classifying, I open drawers, sometimes several at the same time.
The way I resist, so to speak, passes through an ethical position with my images. When I photograph a landscape with a road and a rainbow, even if it’s really cheesy, I still bond with this kind of image. There’s no irony. 

FP: So it’s not postmodern. 

GJ: Sometimes it can even be quite romantic.