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A window into country life: Traverser by Raymond Depardon

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The photographer’s studies of depopulated terrain in rural France combine intimate observation with the evocative timelessness of place

When the land of the Mapuche communities of southern Chile was being restituted in September 1971, following the rise to power of the continent’s first socialist president Salvador Allende, Raymond Depardon sent a postcard depicting a Mapuche farmer and his bullock cart to his parents. ‘Agriculture is very important but also very archaic …!’ he scribbled on the back. Son of peasants, born at the Farm of Le Garet in Villefranche-sur-Saône, the French photographer grew up ‘feet in the mud’, but it took several journeys around the world, and this particular trip to the tip of South America, for him to first photograph peasants outside his own home. 

‘Perhaps unconsciously at times, Depardon was wary of letting his childhood slip into oblivion, consigned to the closed cupboards of history’

Years later, in 1984, a vast photographic project to document and portray French rural terrain was launched by DATAR  (Interministerial Delegation of Land Planning and Regional Attractiveness), a government administration aimed at promoting innovative policies in remote parts of the country. Depardon deflected the brief, and chose to focus on a small portion of the assigned territory, the farm of his childhood and its immediate surroundings, to tell the story of the place through his personal history. Sometimes, in order to exceed expectations, commissions need to be appropriated and twisted slightly.

Perhaps unconsciously at times, Depardon was wary of letting his childhood slip into oblivion, consigned to the closed cupboards of history. He started out with commissions to photograph amateur footballers and from there, his career as a young and talented photojournalist rapidly spiralled upwards. He joined the prestigious Magnum photo agency and reported on the civil wars of Lebanon and Afghanistan, worlds away from his agricultural roots. When he first moved to Paris as a young adult, he tried to conceal his rural, provincial background, but ‘I of course betrayed myself, and my origins, on a daily basis. I didn’t know how to drink coffee, I didn’t drink coffee. I had seen my cousins doing “canards”, when you dip the sugar cube into the liquid. I did it in front of a colleague once and he immediately said: “you drink coffee like a peasant”’. 

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Depardon’s parents’ bedroom at the farm of Le Garet. A baby portrait of Depardon is mounted in the right-hand medallion, with his elder brother Jean on the left, 1984. Photograph courtesy of Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

In the very personal book La Ferme du Garet of 1995, the colourful images he took with his large format camera for DATAR are juxtaposed with black and white portraits. Some preceded the commission, others were shot by his parents and extracted from the family album, accompanied by long personal texts, mixed with found postcards and images of Brigitte Bardot that he collected as a boy. By piecing together the narrative of his own life, Depardon acknowledges and embraces his agricultural roots. ‘To have the right to take pictures of others’, he explains, ‘I first had to admit and say who I was’.

As a medium, the book becomes an important device in his body of work, following the publication of Notes, in 1979, and Correspondance New Yorkaise two years later, which marked a turning point in his career. By associating personal impressions, sometimes just a few words-long, with photographs taken on the road, Depardon creates a unique relationship between words and images to tell layered and intimate stories. As Jacques Rancière wrote, ‘the autobiographical expression does not go against the image’s discretion. It protects it’.

‘By piecing together the narrative of his own life, Depardon acknowledges and embraces his agricultural roots’

Embarking on a 10-year long, self-commissioned project, for a series of three films telling the evolving stories of farmhouses and their owners, long and slow months were spent scouting the country, meeting peasants, neighbours, postmen and mayors, the first and necessary steps to approach and tame a secluded segment of the population. In the late nineties, computer analysis of French demographics revealed a long band of low-density territory stretching from the Ardennes in the north to Ariège in the south, the ‘diagonale du vide’, France’s empty quarter. The pejorative terminology is indicative of the remoteness and isolation of this stretch of land, as if the few peasants and cattle occupying it were destined to disappear, unrepresented in national statistics, ignored by agricultural unions, and seen to have no future. ‘It wasn’t their fault their rugged terrains didn’t allow for intensive farming’, explains Depardon, ‘but it was urgent to make a film about the fragility of these petites exploitations de moyenne montagne’.

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Spreads of the 1995 book La Ferme du Garet, a very personal account of Depardon’s childhood, combining family portraits, personal memories and colourful shots. Image courtesy of Éditions Carré

Depardon knocked on people’s doors and walked into their homes with his Leica slung around his shoulder, but quickly decided to be more forthright, and have his camera out in the open from the onset. ‘You have to show from the beginning that it’s an obsession: with them, it’s the hay, the hay fork, the seasons, with you, it’s the light, the photograph, and the moment. In order to shoot Profils paysans I had to be a little bit more artisanal, just like them.’ Depardon traded his compact Leica for a medium-format camera. ‘It’s a little archaic, because you need to set up, you shoot only eight images, and you need a lot of light, like the old days. Sometimes they would tell me “you’re not famous, you are old, your equipment is not modern at all”.’ Far from insignificant, the choice of equipment is accompanied by a particular set of rules, a gestural language indicative of the distance and relationship between the photographer and his subject. With his old-fashioned medium-format camera, the peasants saw Depardon as an artisan, one of them. 

Suspicious of hackneyed clichés associated with rurality, Depardon sought to avoid the pigs and cows, the tractors and hay forks. His approach is centred around exchanges, dialogues and prolonged moments of silence while sat at the kitchen table, when thoughts are still lingering in the air, a news programme sometimes playing in the background to fill the void. It takes a lot of patience to gain their trust, but the way peasants speak is ‘precise, evocative, restrained and modern’, he observes. Giving a voice to the inhabitants of those neglected hills, meeting the sellers and buyers of farmhouses to understand how places evolve over time, Depardon’s portrayal of rural France recounts the story of a territory in mutation. Taken hostage by the photographer, and accounted as witness, the audience is left unable to escape the reality of a slowly disintegrating world, be it the wide landscape compositions, a few sheep roaming the open fields, or within the confined intimacy of kitchen interiors.

‘By associating personal impressions, sometimes just a few words-long, with photographs taken on the road, Depardon creates a unique relationship between words and images to tell layered and intimate stories’

Immersion is a strange process in the work of a photographer: it can be surprisingly quick, or excruciatingly slow, and it is often highly unpredictable. As Depardon puts it, ‘the photographer is somewhere in between Lévi-Strauss and a paparazzo’ – one of the French peasants made him wait six months before having his picture taken with his cattle, when even famous stars would not have asked for more than two-weeks’ notice. 

Yet the quality of a photograph isn’t proportional to the amount of time spent waiting, or preparing, for an image. ‘An important photograph proceeds from a thought’, believes Depardon, ‘it exists because it was there, buried deep inside.’ The moment you press the shutter, the thought materialises, and the image, composed of an accumulation of influences and sensations, encapsulates some of the complexities of the human psyche. 

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Images of rural life in France from Profils paysans emphasise a compelling sense of slowness and stillness. Images courtesy of Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos 

Even if at first glance, nomads of Chad and Quechua peasants of the Altiplano do not appear to have much in common, through the eyes of the photographer they are brought together by their deep attachment to the land they live on. ‘I cannot reconcile peoples who have nothing to do with one another. The only thing I can conciliate is my way of seeing.’ 

MoMA curator John Szarkowski has identified two kinds of images: ‘windows’ on one side and ‘mirrors’ on the other, although he stipulates that they are not mutually exclusive. Depardon’s photographs initially appear to be direct observations, ‘windows’ through which to see and know the world, but when considering his full body of work, it is inevitable the images are embodiments of his inner motivations as an artist. 

‘Depardon’s photographs initially appear to be direct observations, ‘windows’ through which to see and know the world, but when considering his full body of work, it is inevitable the images are embodiments of his inner motivations as an artist’

In Traverser, the book accompanying an exhibition held at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in the autumn of 2017, director and curator Agnès Sire chose four axes upon which to read Depardon’s work: the homeland, in contrast to the journey, and the themes of pain and confinement. Yet the natural opposition between the homeland and the journey dissolves. While in Bolivia, Depardon spotted ‘that same Formica of the farm at Le Garet here at Oruro, Tarabuco and on the roads of the Altiplano’, perhaps partly explaining why he feels ‘comfortable with Quechua peasants’. ‘They are discreet, quiet and reserved, and even if they don’t like to be photographed, it forces me to be discreet, quiet and without insistence’, he explains.

Favouring a road less travelled and focusing on subjects that aren’t immediately obvious, Depardon’s approach to photography is a more personal one, but his transition from photojournalist to photographer was a gradual process. ‘Taking pictures without looking for a scoop isn’t easy at the beginning’, but ‘photography is neither about journalism nor about art’, he now argues. He slowly established his own relationship to time, brilliantly described by French critic Alain Bergala as ‘slack time’, in opposition to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, one in line with the melancholic silences and deep sense of belonging he found in the most remote and sparsely populated parts of the world.

Traverser 

Agnès Sire and Raymond Depardon

Éditions Xavier Barral, Paris, €39, ISBN-9782365111423

Lead image: In the former East Germany, a man tinkers with a Trabant in a field, 1990. Photograph courtesy of Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos.

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Reinventing the rural – click here to purchase a copy