Trenches, Newfoundland Memorial, Beaumont-Hamel, Somme, Picardie, France, 2006.
There’s something about the quiet landscapes that line the walls of the Stephen Bulger Gallery that’s oddly disquieting. It’s easy to tell that they show vistas far from here—the vegetation and the topography carry those subtle but clear cues of an unfamiliar place—but it’s not that. The lighting seems suspended between an artificial dusk and the bleakest of mid-days, but that’s also not what’s out of place. It’s because there’s something intentionally absent from Canadian photographer Bertrand Carrière’s series “Lieux Mêmes.” They are photographs of something that is no longer there. The subject left the scene ninety years ago.
“Lieux Mêmes” was a long time in the making. When Carrière’s good friend Philippe Baylaucq was a teenager, he found an old photo album in an abandoned studio north of Montreal. It was full of photographs from the First World War. Years later, he would lend the album to Carrière, who became fascinated by the mystery of the images and the man behind the album. When fascination overtook him, Carrière embarked on a journey to France to track down, revisit, and re-photograph the locations depicted in the album. “Lieux Mêmes” translates to English as “same places.” In a talk at the gallery on October 31, Carrière told the story of what he discovered and what became “Lieux Mêmes.”
To help him on his expedition, Baylaucq put him in contact with Guth Desprez, a retired colonel from the French military who specialized in intelligence and cartography and is now a war historian. They began travelling together across France and Belgium in search of the pictured locations. Carrière recalls, “Some of them were quite easy, but some of them had been largely transformed by time. We’re talking about ninety years of differences.”
German Cemetery, Vermandovillers, Somme, Picardie, France, 2006.
Carrière set about recreating the original photographs, in colour, to avoid the nostalgia that comes with contemporary black and white photography on the subject of war. He was taken aback by what he found. “I was struck by the sadness of the place…of how people would keep things as they were in 1919 right after the war and didn’t want to touch it in many ways. Or the amount of money that was put into some places to rebuild exactly how it was before the war.”
The idea is not new. “Then and Now” photographs contrasting battlefields and war-ravaged cityscapes with the way they appear today have been done before. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the New York Times recently featured an interactive slideshow that allows you to transition images back and forth between 1989 and 2009.
Carrière acknowledges that his endeavour was not completely unique or inventive, and he soon found the scope of his ambition to be rather limiting. “We’ve seen many projects of re-photographing sites and, although it is involving, it became a little too repetitious at some point.” It was therefore at this point that he began to wander thematically, leaving the approach of “album as tour guide” and embarking on his own journey. In trying to find these original sites, he found a different project that would produce the photographs that came to occupy the bulk of the exhibition.
Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood, Zillebeke, Flandres, Belgium, 2007.
“I came to realize it’s not so much about the war. It’s not the war that interested me as much as occupied land. A place that has been scarred by history. That was the real jumping-off point for me.” This altered focus created a shift from “human history as told through landscapes” as the primary subject to “landscapes as they are marked by violence.” It’s a subtle shift, but it’s what creates the powerful, disquieting effect of the works. It positions war as an intervention, rather than as author. These are not ponds; they’re the circular remains of explosions. These are not soft ridges; they’re the lingering scars of trench warfare.
Although now of less importance to the project, Carrière’s research into the owner of the original photographs, whose name—Fletcher Wade Moses—was printed in the album, revealed a stubbornly mysterious character. Originally from Surrey, England, where he lived under the name Harding, he came to Canada after the war. At this point, he appears to have shortened his name to Fletcher Wade and settled north of Montreal. He established a photography business and was likely hoping to sell the images as a commercial stock portfolio. Carrière now believes that he must have purchased many of the photos in the collection, as no one person could have covered that much territory and survived at that time. The confusion around him remains unresolved, which does not bother Carrière in the least. “I’m happy I didn’t find him, because he remains a mystery. I hope I never find him, in a way, because he’s more interesting as a mystery than as a revelation.”
The only weakness of the exhibition may be the transition from the artist’s original intent to retrace another man’s steps to this more free-form exploration of “occupied land.” The tangible premise slips through your fingers as you dive into the story behind the works, still packaged under the banner of “Lieux Mêmes.” Perhaps, though, it simply requires a more lateral perspective on the idea of the same place. These are images of places that are the same yet different, bearing the burdens of violent enterprise that time can only hope to ease.
“Lieux Mêmes” is on display until this Saturday, November 21.
All images © Bertrand Carrière and courtesy of the Stephen Bulger Gallery.