Perrin’s People

It was impossible not to respond positively to the work of French photographer Gilles Perrin taken in Africa and elsewhere around the world, although I also found it hard to know what to say when he brought it to show me at Rhubarb Rhubarb in Birmingham. His images, taken carefully, reverentially of his subjects, using a 4×5 camera on a tripod and using long exposures (from perhaps 1/8 to a second) acknowledge and value the individuals who work with him, and the use of a Polaroid Neg/Pos film enables him to give them their image while he retains the negative for later printing.

Much though I admired his work, and the patient and sometimes dangerous travels which he made to find his subjects, I also found myself wondering how his practice could be supported, and whether it was in some respects a relic from a bygone age. Some of his subjects too, he told me, no longer appreciated the kind of humanistic exchange represented by the gift of an image, and demanded payment rather than a picture. He travelled among tribes where everyone had a gun, and it was necessary to pay the fee that they demanded.

Looking at his work, my mind went back to my childhood years, and the large pile of yellow-bordered magazines that had once belonged to a distant richer uncle, ‘National Geographic‘ magazines from the 1920s and 1930s. In their pages were images not dissimilar from many of those Gilles showed me (though seldom anything like as clear or assured) but that it seemed to me was the ideal client for his work – given a time machine. It was, incidentally, these magazines that I think first got me interested in photography, though not necessarily always for the right reasons.

Surprisingly, although all he showed was black and white, and many of the images would have been both more informative and possibly more startling in colour, it was not until near the end of his presentation that I really felt a strong need for colour, when a multiple image print including Tibetan prayer flags seemed somehow too drab. The images of people have a rapport, a connection with the subject that is strong enough to make thoughts of colour irrelevant (although it may weaken their interest as simple records of these rapidly disappearing cultures.)

I won’t put his work here – you can see so many sets on the web site, and read – almost entirely in French – his thoughts about the work. There are so many fine black and white portraits from Africa, Egypt, South America, Asia and of course France.

You can also see some colour urban landscapes from the Val de Marne and Bobigny (a suburb just to the north-east of Paris where I’ve sometimes changed buses to get to my brother-in-law’s place at Noisy-le-Grand.) The work from Val-de-Marne seems somehow more personal and more varied, and even includes one image actually shot as panoramic, rather than the triptychs and sets of four carefully aligned images Perrin more normally uses. Perhaps in the work from Bobigny the sheer technique needed to produce the work prevents the kind of spontaneity and interaction that I like.

Although I loved the work, admiring the images, I ended up wondering about whether it somehow was out of time. When others before done this kind of thing so well, is there still something new to say, or should photographers in the twenty-first century be finding new pastures? And perhaps importantly, is there a market for work of this type now? I’m not sure, but I hope so. Work of this quality and integrity deserves to be seen and to be rewarded.

Looking at Gilles’s work, I found it hard to know what to say, other than to admire it. But having seen the web site perhaps I can offer just a little advice. Firstly, to that he should get his own domain. Then to take a good look at the web design and in particular produce an index page that is more visual, and to cut down the overwhelming blackness that diminishes the images. And finally to provide the text in English (as well as French) on all pages; like it or not, English is the major language of the web.

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