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Monday, 6 February 2012

Atget and Terrain Vague

I was looking at pictures by Mohamed Bourouissa  and was wondering about the Parisian banlieues in which they were set. What is the story there because that kind of beyond the Pale environment is something that we don't have in the same way in the  UK. Not quite and not yet - with the current economic cleansing of London, we will start having something along these lines in the next few years.

So I was wondering about this and then I got a copy of City Gorged with Dreams. It's by Ian Walker and  interweaves Paris, surrealism, documentary photography. And it directly connects tot he work of Bourousisa as well as the idea of Terrain Vague, that ending of one landscape and beginning of another. He explains the idea Terrain Vague is connected to the area outside the  fortifications of Paris. Walker quotes a passage from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

To wander in a kind of reverie, to take a stroll as they call it, is a good way for a philosopher to spend his time; particularly in that kind of bastard countryside, somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures, whih surrounds certain great cities, notably Paris. To observe the banlieue is to observe an amphibian. End of trees, beginning of roofs, end of grass, beginning of paving stones, end of ploughed fields, beginning of shops, the end of the beaten track, the beginning of the passions, the end of the murmur of all things divine, the beginning of the noise of humankind - all of this holds an extraordinary interest. And thus, in these unattractive places, forever marked by the passer-by with the epithet sad, the promenades, apparently aimless, of the dreamer.

Walker notes the fascination of the surrealists with this terrain vague. "The most extensive of these derelict spaces lay between the Parisian fortifications and the banlieue;  the Zone. This was a strip of land about 250 metres wide immediately in front of the fortifications where builiding had been forbidden for defensive purposes. But the Zone outlived such practicalities and by the late nineteenth century it was inhabited by gypsies, ragpickers, , itinerants - known collectively as zoniers - whose presence had become integral to the myth of the city itself."

Eugene Atget photographed the Zoniers, so did Man Ray - who bought seven of Atget's chaos ridden prints.of the Zone. The Zone came to an end in 1973 when the boulevard periperique was completed, making for a new and very different Terrain Vague.

Which puts Bourouissa's work into a much wider historical and photographic context, replete with ides of ethnic, social, economic and planning histories.

There is so much photography based on different kinds of Edgelands and terrains vagues, where walls, borders and boundaries of some kind or other create a buffer zone and different environments, architectures or cultures can mingle and mix. I'm not sure how much of a shelf life some of this work has, but where the histories are clearly delineated to make apparent the specific differences, and where the social histories are brought out, it can be absolutely fascinating. The problem here of course is that the picture on its own don't always tell the story on their own; instead social and cultural backdrops form the narrative drive with which the images build and intertwine. Sometimes, the pictures on their own just aren't enough.. There is a symbiotic relationship between text and supporting material - the one without the other is really of no use whatsoever.

Gallery of Eugene Atget Zone pictures

Tim Atherton On Atget with links to other articles.

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