« If you paint your village, you paint the whole world » Leo Tolstoy
Hunting around in a bric-à-brac shop near me I discovered a daybed. I brought it home and stored it in a corner of the house, covered with a white sheet. Living with it made me want to return to making portraits. My daybed is a typically French piece of furniture, immortalized in marble by Canova with his scandalous sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte. Or think of the daybed by Manet with his “Young woman reclining in Spanish costume”. A painting by Van Gogh of a peasant lounging against a haystack, entitled “The daybed” or “The siesta” also fed the growing fame and glamour of the daybed.By being neither a bed nor an armchair, a daybed gives you the freedom to make of it what you want – standing, sitting, leaning on your elbow, lying down, in front of it, behind it, alone or in company. The daybed’s mutability would be my way of opening a door for people to express their personalities in the studio I imagined using to create the portrait of village life. Between 1991 and 1992 I published “Figures d’Europe” (European faces), a collection of photographs of major European celebrities from the world of the arts, literature and science. Fellini, Soulages, Habermas, Popper, Lévi-Strauss, Foster, Boulez and many others feature in it – I had photographed them all in their homes. On facing pages, I presented their portraits on one side and on the other a photo of their hands, adding a written thought or a hand drawing. But those were well-known people – today I’m trying to get to know people!
I live in a village of 800 inhabitants, Millançay, in the Solague area. Millançay is only twelve kilometres from Romorantin which would have become the capital of the kingdom if François 1st and Leonardo da Vinci’s dream of building a chateau there had been possible. Instead they built their chateau at Chambord. Millançay’s two main streets cross to mark its center. Millancay has a church without a curé, a fire station, a baker’s, a grocer’s, a hairdresser’s – a peaceful, traditional piece of France, an unchanging scene that doesn’t feature in newspaper headlines. Sologne , the surrounding area, has always lived in the shelter of its forests. Nevertheless its inhabitants are aware of the major upheavals of French society and the anxieties they engender. I proposed to the mayor of my village that I would describe his community through portraits of its inhabitants and its landscapes. We agreed that the April, May and June 2017 elections would provide the best opportunity for the largest number of its citizens to participate in my project. I set up a photo studio above the polling station. About a hundred villagers visited me during the four days of voting. They posed freely, without my asking or telling them to do anything in particular. I didn’t choose any of the inhabitants in accordance with any given criterion, nor did I make any suggestions about presentation or posture. Over the same four days I took my outdoor photos. The technology having considerably evolved since 1991-1992, I exchanged my 8 x 10 camera for a medium-sized digital one and chose to use natural light. Colour seemed to me the obvious choice for the portraits, with the aim of telling the spectator as much as possible about the village inhabitants. In contrast, using black and white for the landscapes allowed me to contend against its ever-present greenery. The landscapes of Sologne are flat stretches of forest crisscrossed by paths, roads and lakes. The light cream toning of the black and white thus remained in harmony with the white backgrounds of the portraits.
Associating photos of landscapes with portraits highlighted their interaction – I would almost say, interdependence! I felt it was more relevant to present them in this way rather than placing the people within the landscape and thus creating a sort of interference that would lessen the importance of the one or the other. So in presenting two facing pages, side by side, the book allows the spectators to enjoy the same freedom I gave my sitters, glancing from one side to the other as the fancy takes them. These photos preserve both the unchanging nature of this region south of the Loire, between the chateaux of Chambord and Chenonceau and the memory of its inhabitants. It is the story of a place and its people at a moment in time.