Visual memory of an epoch, Gilles Caron (1939-1970) has chronicled the greatest contemporary conflicts through his images (Six-Day War, Vietnam War, Biafra and Northern Ireland conflicts, May 68, Prague Spring
), a commitment that eventually cost him his life while on assignment in Cambodia.
Called up as a parachutist to serve in the Algerian War, Caron became a witness of to the brutality inflicted to civilians. Through photojournalism, he sought to cross to the other side in order to contribute to a better understanding of how populations caught up in the spiral of war were living.
His initial heroic vision of war photography soon turned into a reflection on the purpose of his job: can the role of witness, mere spectator, be satisfying? He is one of the first photographers to suffer symptoms from this inner moral conflict, and one of the first to practice a form of introspective disenchantment that led the reporter to gradually turn his camera on him, to become the object of the photographic narrative.
In the early stages of his career, during the Six-Day War and in Vietnam, he chose to focus on inactive figures, soldiers or prisoners absorbed in their thoughts, writing or meditating. During the Biafra War, Caron seemed particularly compassionate for the condition of children and other victims. In May 68 and in Northern Ireland, he was mainly interested in emblematic actors - demonstrators throwing stones or Molotov cocktails - as incarnations of urban guerilla. His inventiveness was never more visible than in his reports on street fighting, where, through his lens, demonstrations seemed transformed into choreographies.
A war reporter, regularly exposed to extreme conditions, Caron was however not indifferent to the spectacle of the sixties, the Nouvelle Vague and the young musical scene. He would on occasion photograph on the film sets of Godard or Truffaut and even worked as a fashion photographer. These ventures into cinema and fashion might seem quite remote from the rest of his work but they clearly influenced his formal language, as demonstrated in his reports on the protests in the Latin Quarter or Ulster.
The exhibition ends with an anti-heroic portrait of the photojournalist. Essential for the history of photojournalism, this conclusion proves that Carons conscience, along that of other photojournalists, became quite an unhappy one at the end of the 60s. Guilt, narcissism, parody or irony
In the end, it is difficult to figure out what image of themselves reporters are making.
The exhibition presented at the Musée de lElysée
is his first major retrospective. Compounding 150 prints and archival documents from the Fondation Gilles Caron, the collection of the Musée de lElysée and private collections, the exhibition is an opportunity to rediscover in six parts one of the major photojournalists of the 20th century through an original approach.
Here and Now
Named the «French Capa» by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Carons images highlighting the different scenes of military operations are evidence to his audacity and talents as a reporter.
The contemplative soldier
This section illustrates a recurring theme in Carons work of individuals who are absorbed, and/or made fragile and vulnerable by their surrounding events: miliary prisoners, civilian victims, soldiers shown reading or in reflection, become iconographic images of unedited, and spontaneous moments of stillness.
In these photographs, beginning with the war in Biafra and extending across Carons travels one sees the deep sensibility of the photographer unfold in his images as Caron must face the very real pain of others. The images of children, starving and void of childhood innocence whom have been sacrificed in conflict mark the beginning of concerned photographic iconography.
4 - Demonstrations and guerrilla
The iconography of revolt
In the images of revolt, be that workers, farmers, or students, Caron gives particular iconic importance to the figure of the «lanceur»: like David against Goliath. This representation of the body in action is like a repeated choreography which is performed spontaneously across the fronts of rebellion in Paris, on May 1968, Londonderry (Northern Ireland) and Prague.
5 - Nouvelle Vague
Young and passionate in the 60s
In addition to his work in areas of conflict, famine, and war, Caron also gives photography a unique view of the youth of the 1960s. With images of famous muses (actresses and singers) as well as of university students, and youth on the street, Caron shows his talents for fashion photography and film stills developed during his work with Truffaut and Godard.
6 -The last image
Looking at the reporter
After Biafra and Chad, doubt took hold of Caron. The lens of the camera turns back upon the reporter, and these images document the work of the photojournalist in the field. These portraits leave viewers with a mixed message, this is his own profession but the images are in no way heroic portrayals of the work of the photojournalist.