He photographs the songs of Charles Aznavour!

This is photography in a league of its own. Imagine you have the words of songs on paper with no opportunity to hear them sung. Imagine also that the songs are amongst the most iconic of French songs sung by one of the most iconic of French singers. In his exhibition “Viens voir les comédiens,” photographer Patrice Fileppi sets out to deliver via images the passion, heartbreak, despair, nostalgia, jealousy and love-misery that the songs of Charles Aznavour engage. Does he succeed? You bet!

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Fileppi gives me a tour of his exhibition. His iPhone allows me to hear Aznavour croon the most famous line of franglais: “You are the one for me, for me, for me formidable!” The corresponding photo is immaculately and beautifully staged. It radiates the misty-eyed moment of madness when a frenchman declares his love for a freckle-faced English beauty. The pigeons and the bronze horses share the startled excitement as she runs towards her new amour to throw her arms around his neck. The dress and indeed the freckles reflect the texture of the polished marble of the fountain (that in turn subtly alludes to multiple ejaculations.) A London bus goes by. It bears an advertisement urging us to fly British Airways; this is maybe how our gallant arrived in London. Was he invited over by a call from an O-so-British telephone box?

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An elderly gentleman watches old films at home. We have no idea what is being projected. Whatever it is, it has reduced him to a kind of stupefied half-smile of nostalgia and regret. His hands are clasped as if in anticipation of a particular moment in the film. He is twenty years old again. Aznavour’s “Hier encore” is about times passed, time lost on stupidities, loves lost and a life that has achieved only a well-furrowed brow. In creating such a poignant image, Fileppi surrounds the man with fragments of his past but denies us, the viewers, a glimpse of what is moving him so. A large oil painting shows a half-open garden gate with nothing beyond. Despite its extravagant frame, the painting sits on the floor leaning against the wall. It is not hung because preference is given to a jumbled gallery of small photographs of people. The man wears a thick woollen pullover that gives warmth and protection against a cold and menacing loneliness.

Whist on a relaxing holiday in 2011, Fileppi’s mind idled. He then heard an Aznavour song. He then found himself really listening to “Comme ils disent.” He was profoundly moved. In his mind a scene appeared. He then wanted to photograph this scene… but first he had to create it. And so the story starts. This former electrical engineer – self taught in photography – tells me the exhibition “is a visual reflection of the emotion I feel while listening to the songs of Charles Aznavour. It is a tribute to him.” The exhibition comprises twenty large square photographs each representing a song that has touched him most. Why the square format? It is a timely allusion to those old vinyl album covers!

Fileppi is welcoming, modest and generous with his time. I spend a couple of hours discussing his work. I come to appreciate his creativity and attention to detail. Both are admirable. I begin to understand the days and energy invested in these twenty images and why the whole is the culmination of four years work. I realise that, above all, Fileppi is a photographic story-teller. This is why I am drawn to his exhibition; it is strong on narrative. And I am always drawn to the narrative behind beautiful stuff. Furthermore, the narrative of Fileppi’s beautiful stuff is intriguingly layered. There is the narrative of the whole project. There is the narrative of each Aznavour song. There is the narrative of the interpretation from words to image. There is finally the technical narrative of Fileppi’s scene-setting for each photo.

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For a modest sum, Fileppi sells a sumptuous catalogue of these photographs in high resolution next to the words of the parent song. For fans of Monsieur Aznavour, my copy just happened to fall open at the pages dedicated to “La Bohème!”

This exhibition is hosted by “Images de Marque” at 12, Grand Rue (Old Town) in Geneva.  It runs until Friday, 28th October. Don’t miss it and don’t simply wander around looking. Seek out and let yourself be carried away by those wonderful narratives!

Cartooning the big issues

Geneva. It’s a wealthy, safe and pretty place that is, at times, surprisingly left-leaning especially when it comes to issues such as freedom of speech. Every year, the city sponsors a lakeside exhibition of “Cartoons for Peace” from all over the world. Beautiful? Maybe. Brilliant? Absolutely!

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One hundred huge panels display the best of cartoons that accuse, taunt, embarrass and blame the powerful, the corrupt and the cruel. The pencil-wielding warriors don’t pull the punches. Those war-mongers must really cringe! However, the exhibition has mission creep. It’s no longer just about peace. Other subjects that reach us daily via global media get a caustic drenching from these observant graphicists. For the viewer, the slick images fire an intriguing alloy of emotions.

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Boligan (Mexico)

There is a universal desire for peace. There’s an app for everything now. Hey! You military guys! It really could be that easy!! This makes me feel a kind of pity for humanity.

Some people can think up jokes. They have the ability to merge different elements of a narrative into a timely punch-line. I guess a cartoon is a kind of visual joke. A few disparate observations or notions are drawn together into one arresting and complete visual concept. At first glance, a cartoon is simple; but the viewer is invited to examine the image, refine its elements and then “get” the interaction of those elements in a mental join-the-dots exercise. There is then an emotional impact. What fascinates me more is that by “getting” a cartoon about a big global issue, I feel I am actually doing something about it. Ha! Slactivism!

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Cristina (Belgium)

A major car company. Guilty smile. Lies. Children’s toy. Innocence. This amuses me.

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Joel Pett (USA)

Superior American military technology. Unthinking citizens. Anonymised “collateral damage” (especially children.) Killing at a distance. Unknown and unseen perpetrator. This makes me very angry. Too close to the bone!

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Hani Abbas (Syria)

Writing not possible although it should be. Erasing is the norm. Censorship. I feel a kind of objective concern. I’ve never lived for any length of time in a country where I cannot say what I think. I admire the simplicity of the image.

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Shahrokh (Iran)

Sinister anonymity of a man of violence. Juxtaposition of delicate flower and ammunition. Making a wish. Wind blowing right to left (east to west?) I am afraid.

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Firoozeh (Iran)

Migrants from islamic countries. Families about to drown. Only possibility of survival is Europe. I feel sad and enormously lucky to live where I do. I also feel a responsibility but I am not sure what I can do.

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Brandan (South Africa)

A compass. Is it worth undertaking the journey? Stark choices for Africans. Desperation. I feel totally helpless.

A cartoon may work in our minds like a joke but is not always amusing. Unlike the verbal equivalent, a cartoon on being propagated can identify its talented creator. Let’s not forget that in many countries, the emotional reaction to these clever drawings might end in a prison sentence or worse for the cartoonist responsible.

“Révélations” at the Musée Rath

I visit “Revelations” at the Musée Rath in Geneva This is that rare kind of exhibition that you can just get lost in. It is where the cultural, scientific and political history of this extraordinary town meets photography. Archives have been searched, venerable institutions have collaborated and local photographers interviewed. The exhibition is beautifully designed. No surprise that Philippa Kundig had a hand in it!

What an extraordinary invention photography is! In a week of troubled politics on both sides of the atlantic, I am reminded of just how powerful images can be. Here, I limit my self to three photos indicating the diversity of what’s on show. I hope to whet your appetite.

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Jean-Louis Populous, La rue du Marché, 1848

Yes… 1848! What an amazing image! Down-town Geneva nearly 170 years ago. I am fascinated by this photo. Where was the photographer positioned? What kind of camera? Where are the people? I imagine the taking of such a photograph was such a big event that the whole street was cleared.

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Anne-Julie Raccoursier, Remote Viewer 3 (part of), 2007

Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s contribution is two huge juxtaposed photos. One shows an aerial view of a graveyard for military aeroplanes with a road running through it. It is simply mind-boggling. I guess we understand that fighters and bombers are built and sold and maybe used in armed conflict but I am not sure we give much thought to what happens to them when they are redundant. Well, now we know!

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A. Stephani, Radiograph of a giant Dolium (Tonna Galea), 1971

My absolute favourite is an x-ray image of a sea shell. I try to determine why it appeals so much. There is something very beautiful about the rhythm and progression of the lines and curves of this creature as revealed by radiography. It speaks of the mathematics of natural forms; of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence. But there is something else; a fleeting, gorgeous pop image. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to it, but it reminds me of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate. Now, that’s a photo!!

Everyone is a photographer now and “Révélations” has something for everyone. This dazzling exhibition reveals the importance of photography in our lives and how it has advanced humanity. Go to Musée Rath. Take your time.

Nick Brandt’s African ghost animals at Fotografiska

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I’m in Stockholm and have the afternoon off. Facebook tells me there’s a new exhibition by British photographer Nick Brandt at Fotografiska. I’ve seen his wildlife photos before, but I have never seen anything like his news series, “Inherit the Dust.”

Brandt has developed life-size prints of his fantastic animal portraits, glued them to huge aluminium and plywood panels, and carefully placed these in polluted, abused and dystopian parts of Africa, where animals once roamed freely and lived in harmony.

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The panels were left long enough for the inhabitants to stop paying attention to them, after which Brandt captured the scenes as black-and-white panoramas through the lens of his medium-format Mamiya RZ67 Pro ll.

The most poignant panorama shows a family of elephants beneath a road, next to a group of homeless and glue-sniffing kids, juxtaposed to a billboard (in the horizon) of a man relaxing in a park with the text “lean back, your life is on track.”

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“Underpass with elephants (lean back, your life is on track).” inheritthedust.nickbrandt.com

Brandt’s “ghost animals” are a stark reminder of what poaching, climate change and capitalism actually put at stake here. Together with the marginalised, poor people living in these places, they are the victims of our destruction of nature.

I buy a copy of Brandt’s book, make a donation to the Big Life Foundation and leave the exhibition feeling embarrassed and hopeless. I wish that parents bring their kids to Fotografiska. They need to see this now, and I bet you: they don’t want to inherit the dust.

Love the Tate Modern

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

Yes, I love the Tate Modern in London. It lifts me up and makes my little beating heart sing.

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Alexander Calder, Triple Gong c.1948 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I went south of the river to see the current Alexander Calder exhibition. I now understand why people say he redefined the notion of sculpture. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff. Trademark hanging mobiles turn slowly and majestically in imperceptible drafts. The lighting is brilliant; each mobile casts a complex evolving shadow on the high white walls and those equipped with mini-gongs let out the occasional calming chime.

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Alexander Calder, Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I was mesmerised. As were many others. One lasting impression I have of this gorgeous exhibition is the vast Tate Modern rooms full of people, jaws agape, gazing up at Calder’s fabulous works. I would love to re-visit with a reclining chair to rest a while and soak it all up.

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Fernand Léger and his portrait, Photo: Walter Limot. © Limot / Bridgeman images 1934

Room by room, I stepped though the creative history of this fascinating man. He was one original thinker! In the 1920s, he created a toy circus comprising little mechanical people and animals hence his interest in wire and mobility as a medium. He became fascinated by abstraction after visiting the studio of Piet Mondrian. However, his most astonishing early works were his cartoony wire portraits. He described this as drawing in space. It is beyond me how anyone could consistently achieve effective three-dimensional portraiture with only wire. One such portrait is of the painter, Fernand Léger. I love the contrast between the smooth facial outlines, the tightly coiled eyebrows and the stiff little bristly moustache!

Bravo, Tate Modern! I said to myself. Then I thought I would have a look at what else was on show and I found myself in the heart of the building, the enormous “Turbine Room” O….M…..G…..!!!!

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Abraham Cruzvillegas “Empty Lot” Scaffolding and soil boxes, Hyundai Commission 2015

Now the Tate Modern blows me away with two huge scaffolding structures together supporting hundreds of what looks like triangular seed boxes. This is “Empty Lot” by Mexican sculptor, Abraham Cruzvillegas. The soil in each box is taken from parks, commons, healths or other sites all over London. They are watered and lit by a variety of whacky lamps. But not a single seed has been sown. What grows – and in some boxes nothing obvious is growing – is what is simply there. Just like an empty lot! Cruzvillegas has always had an interest in alternative means of building. He is inspired by the popular Mexican “self-construction” approach to home-making. He says “Empty Lot” is about hope and expectation referring to what may be constructed or what might grow spontaneously. The originality, grandeur and vision of the whole concept takes my breath away. I adore it.

I have a hope and expectation that somebody will send a photo of “Empty Lot” to Talking Beautiful Stuff in a few months time. Pleeeeeease!

Love the Tate Modern too!