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A L'Oeil - A Tribute to Alphonse Allais
Anonymous, « Officier fasciste aux deux lapins » (Fascist officer with two rabbits)
circa 1920-1930, Gelatine silver bromide on paper. © Musée Nicéphore Niépce.

CHALON-SUR-SAÔNE.- Musée Nicéphore Niépce presents
A L'Oeil - A Tribute to Alphonse Allais, on view through January 27, 2008. Worn clodhoppers hanging on a wall, lines of carnival penguins, truncated judicial portraits, humanised animals – some of the photographs in the Nicéphore Niépce museum’s collections seem to question our understanding. Because we lost their original signification, these weird objects redefine the status of photography and question the notions of “use” and “authorship”. Beyond their deceptive initial incoherence, beyond what looks like an inventory of the absurd that reminds us of Alphonse Allais, some see in what appears to be an important and prolific photographic work an immediate and popular poetry, a pool of shapes and forms for Art.

The À l’oeil exhibition highlights the role played by the museum, thanks to its propensity to keep, store and stock everything. The institution, always afraid of emptiness, redistributes significations, renames, reframes, prints new negatives and spreads, “without a net”, all the objects and categories related to photography, even the most unexpected ones.

The various pictures presented here (amateur or professional photographs – studio photographs, postcards) have something in common: most of them have lost their use value, their initial signification.

And yet a photograph is defined above all through the notions of space and time that prevailed when it was made. It is a product of the intention of its creator, of a technique and the way this technique is mastered, and also a product of the state of mind and the mental projections of the viewer. Incomprehension prevails when one of these criteria is forgotten or diverted, or fails to be documented and clarified. The picture then takes a different turn, “funny” or at least surprising, always strange, and sometimes disquieting. Sometimes, it appears that the photographic process somehow went wrong: a baby’s unexpected move in front of the camera, the reflection of the photograph in a forgotten mirror, the apparition of “ghosts” on a film that was exposed twice by mistake. Sometimes, the subject itself seems to have been in rebellion. It is possible for instance to recreate and recompose the motivations of the “photographer” who took a picture of a king and a queen of hearts sitting enthroned in front of playing cards; of a child dressed up as a wool ball, or of a succession of car trunks. But the “efficiency” of these pictures (given that their use value is today reduced to nothing) undergoes a fundamental change.

As for the photographs taken by non-professional, “non-competent” people – what can be the signification for us of these “unlikely”, “clumsy”, “failed” pictures of a kitchen corner void of any human presence, or of a bare character wearing metal ears?

For the believers in the “autonomy of the icon”, the consequences are rather frightening: the image is reversible. It only reveals itself when classified, captioned, organised… Anything else would be mere commentary. The world of the visible is obviously a “cultural” world. Intentional or unconscious, the incongruity of these pictures, often close to nonsense, can thus be explained by a departure from at least one of the normative principles that govern the photographic act.

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