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LE BAL: A New Venue for the Document-Image to Open in Paris
Walker Evans, Labor Anonymous » Fortune, November 1946.

PARIS.- Chez Isis was a haven of drinking and dancing in the Roaring Twenties. Customers came in droves, eager to let their hair down in its ground-floor restaurant, basement dance floor and upstairs in its “no questions asked” hotel. After the Second World War, it became France’s biggest betting shop until 1992, after which it was left to go to ruin.

The building, in north Paris’ 18th arrondissement, was bought by the City of Paris in 2006, following a proposal by the Association des Amis de Magnum Photos, as the venue for the future LE BAL.

Ten architects submitted projects in the competition to transform the site of LE BAL. The commission was awarded to Agence Search (Caroline Barat and Thomas Dubuisson).

A young team with significant international experience, the agency’s proposition is for a beautiful, functional architecture that will not dominate the works on show. The different spaces flow naturally, each echoing the other.

At the heart of the project are the 300 square metres of exhibition space on two levels. The rectangular space (100 sq m) on the ground floor is covered by an Art Deco glass canopy. The split-level rectangular space in the basement (200 sq m) will accommodate multiple formats, installations and screenings.

LE BAL CAFÉ and LE BAL BOOKS open onto the alley, a community garden and the neighbourhood as a whole. A glass-walled terrace provides a view of the garden and a moment of calm, just a hundred metres from the hustle and bustle of Avenue de Clichy.

Because LE BAL stands at the end of a side street, a strong signal is needed to attract attention. Hence LE BAL will be written in capital letters on the end wall of the building facing the main avenue, encouraging visitors to turn off and into the alley.

Inaugural Exhibition
18th September – 19th December, 2010
Curated by Diane Dufour and David Campany

One of the defining characteristics of the modern era is its anonymity, from the commodification of the everyday and the homogenization of culture, to the standardization of work and our alienation from political power.

Anonymes focuses on North America. Since the 1930s, American mainstream culture has celebrated individuality and the self, while nearly all its important image-makers have addressed the nondescript, the flattening of daily experience, and the pervading sense of anonymity.

For its inaugural exhibition, LE BAL brings together ten photographers and filmmakers whose work experiments with ways to record this anonymity: by definition, an indeterminate, unremarkable notion that escapes visual stereotypes and classification.

The exhibition begins with Walker Evans’ serial photographs of workers in Detroit, consumers in Chicago and subway passengers in New York. They were published in 1940s and 1950s magazines with layout and, in many cases, text by Evans himself. These deliberately ambiguous and complex narratives challenge the accepted conventions of photo-essays that dominated in post-war illustrated magazines.

An engineer like his father before him, Chauncey Hare turned to photography in the late 1960s to document and protest the physical and psychological effects of America’s industrialisation. His portraits of workers and their families at home were shown at the SFMoMA in 1970 and at the MoMA in 1977. Interior America (published in 1978) is one of the most profound and complex accounts of that era. This is the first showing of Hare’s photographs in Europe.

Standish Lawder’s film Necrology (1971) was a high point of post-war experimental filmmaking. Filmed as a single sequence shot, Lawder documented streams of workers descending by escalator into Grand Central Station in a parade that is melancholy, funny and deeply philosophical.

Lewis Baltz’s series The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974) is an important work on modular architecture in industrialised societies. What goes on behind those sterile, minimalist façades? “You don’t know whether they’re manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath,” remarked Baltz. Divided between public and private collections, the 51 photographs are rarely shown as a complete series in which each one adds to the deliberate uniformity of the subject.

Anthony Hernandez’s photographs of the late 1970s refute the idea of Los Angeles as a sprawling city, permanently on the move and belonging to the automobile. By taking his camera into the street and to bus stops to focus on the endless sitting and waiting endured by the underclass, Hernandez’s work, formally inventive and quietly political, reinvents street photography with the precision of the topographer.

Filmed at Bath Iron Works, a vast US Navy shipyard in Maine, Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break (2008) is filmed as a single, slow, uninterrupted tracking shot down a corridor. Every detail and gesture takes on meaning within these narrow, claustrophobic confines: the tiredness betrayed by the workers’ movements; words drowned out by the noise of machines; the unbelievable organic chaos of cables, pipes and tools. Lockhart plays on the surface and depth of the scene to further blur the divide between theatricality and realism.

Jeff Wall is known for his “near documentary” photographic tableaux. Two recent works, Men Waiting and Search of Premises, portray workers in public or private settings; real-life characters transported from their familiar environment to new, fictive surroundings. These works belong to a strong pictorial tradition, the “tableau form”, which owes much to Italian Neorealist cinema.

Two years ago, Bruce Gilden began a visual investigation - part typology, part photo-essay - of the effects of foreclosure activity in Detroit and Florida. Two montages of photographs, interviews and videos document the brutality and extent of foreclosure in two of the cities that symbolised the American dream.

The exhibition ends with a previously unshown collection of 300 vernacular photographs, compiled by two young Italian photographers, Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese. Recovered from abandoned public buildings (schools, police stations, cinemas, laboratories, etc.) and empty houses, they compose a self-portrait of Detroit. Each of these photographs, left faded and dog-eared by time, is like a clue from an aborted enquiry.

For all these artists, the documentary form is something to be challenged, redefined and continually reinvented. Anonymes connects the present interest in what has come to be called “conceptual documentary” practice with its important experimental traditions.

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