Frédéric Lefever’s commitment to a localised documentary practice (Northern France, Lille district) is conducted with the discipline of a demarcation. However, unlike many French photographers who have found fascination in urban peripheries, Lefever offers no specific discourse as regards the social conditions of the locality in wich he operates1. The object of his documentation is the appearnce of vernacular form. Lefever’s architectural tableaux are meditations upon a dilemma which the literary critic William Empson described in the 1930s as, a «disparity between exalted ends and finites means»2. The vernacular form is entreatment, for Lefever, to engage in a search for universal values: the images target the core issues of photographic representation and the status of a contemporary realism.



Making image in the image of the apparatus


The formula of composition employed by Lefever - of the dominance of the central object, of being opposite, aligning with the object’s central axis - sets a transparent relation between the camera apparatus and the object. This is also fulfiled by the nature of the documented objects themselves. A common denominateur emerges across the typological series: that these types are essentially viewing boxes, enclosures from which to view the world. The suburban villas are documented in their most austere aspect as, simply, concrete receptacles, connected to a power source and shuttered-off to the dark season. Likewise, the images of shop fronts expose resemblance between the structuring of vision/visibility in the architecture of the street and the physical requirements of the camera mechanism - the trappings of framing, screening and shuttering. The architecture of the image is sealed; human usage or occupancy is foreclosed.


This mutual implication of object and apparatus is further elaborated by the internal dynamics of composition. The structural framework of the architecture forms the armature of the representation. The space, a construct of the viewer to the image. The space behind the façade relates in turn to the shuttered chamber of the camera, positioned opposite. The interior (of, most poignantly, the private spaces of the villas) cannot be revealed by the camera’s objectivity; it is unknowable, and has become mysterious.



Surreal Inventory


Investing the appearance of the everyday with qualities of mystery and estrangement, is, according to Susan Sontag, a capacity inherent to photography. She writes, «Any collection of photographs is an exercise in Surrealist montage»3. The first degree of estrangement in the work of Lefever is effected in the actof turning the camera to face-opposite and isolate the object. By eradicating context, the continuities of human vision are fractured, along with the social and spatial hierarchies tha make a certain place add up to something quite different from the sum of its parts. Sontag claims that the essence of the Surreal is to be found within the observation of discontinuities in the near-at-hand, that is, in questioning the construction of familiarity with ones native environment; the Surreal «turns out to be what is most local, ethnic, class-bound, dated». This observation proceeds from the history of the incorporation of the work of the photographer Eugène Atget into the canon of the Surrealist movement. Atget documented a «disappearing Paris» in the early decades of the century; an obscure strata of Parisian materiality, of the small-scale, the economically fragile,hidden and time-worn.


In Atget we find, perhaps, the most convincing model for a historical precedent to the work of Lefever. Similarities in subject matter and compositional formulae confirm esential correspondences at the level of the intellective task of representation. Atget’s «Au Tambour» (1908) shows the front of a cabaret bar in similar fashion to his other store-front photographs. An idiosyncrasy of this image seems to sggest that Atget is placing a question on the nature of photographic authorship. The photographer’s own image (alongside his hooded camera) appears in the reflection in the glas of the bar door. However, there seems to be intent in this break with illusion. The head of a man in the interior of the bar, peering out, aligns exactly with the top of the photographer’s torso. Thus, Atget’s own presence, as a detail of the image, has the head of an other, appearing from within the object.


Close inspection of Lefever’s store front photograph «Boucherie» will reveal a similar confrontation: photographer and tripod are visible in the left-side door panel (and repeated in the left-side window). There is intent behind this appearance; alignment with the central seam of the door would have disguised, if not eradicated, the photographer’s presence. It is no coincidence that «Boucherie» also contains the series’ most forceful emission of color. The red of «Boucherie» — the building’s less-than-subtle decorative scheme — occurs on the non-structural elements of the façade. The red is in addition to the architectural blueprint, and, ultimately, transcends it. Here, decoration transforms the solid, just as the photographic representation reconsrtucts the real. The red-made-image is not of blood in flow, of boucherie (slaughter), but of the raw-red of an interior made exterior, of photography flayed and laid bare.



Allegory at the edge


The photograph «Geneviève» assumes the aspect of an architectural tableau. In the urban hinterland form is sign, layered like a stage-set of cut-outs, an each emitting a quantity of ideological violence. When placed in montage against the brash call to escapism on the edge of the image — «L’OASSIS» — the name of the villa has a quality of reticence. Geneviève demonstrates how this flight-of-fancy is routed in ethnicity. The name, as trigger to the imaginary, acts to define an individual, subjective world, within the milieu of a social formation. The design of the villa and its plot also appears, in its concretised symmetry and pastiche, as a dogged resistance to the dehumanising architecture of the high-rise, exemplified by the all but featureless block to its right.


This small plot of the recent past (circa 1950) forms a tangible threshold for a viewer to the image; its courtyard a concrete platform within the labyrinthine mirror relations of the representation. That the design of the villa incorporates more than an inference to the gazebo or La maison rustique of the formal French garden, affirms the integrity of this terrain. The villa presents its own fiction in explicit terms. The architecture embodies that wich the formula of composition seeks to draw attention to: artifice.


Like the sacred grove, the villa is a little world, segregated from, but implicated by a wider, more savage context. The stucture that forms our grove is made of the same stuff as the fortified bunker; but it bears the marks of decay, of patina and fracturing. Evidence of decay and organic change in the sacred grove marks the waning of the piety that constructed it. The camera records the first signs of ruination of an anachronistic form.


Beyond the limits of the façade is a brutal landscape. This outer world, gathered at the edge, is the space of mirage. Beneath the sign to «L’OASSIS» a path meanders into the world behind the façade. This path is reminiscent of the meandering paths in the Arcadian landscapes of Poussin; paths along which only the eye, desirous and ever willing to fall victim to artifice, can travel. We view from the concrete forecourt of Geneviève, on the threshold of representation, and witness seductions and traps layered in recessional space. We are offered a foothold onto this ironic vantage point of photographic vision.


Robin M Wilson  December 1997

1For examples of such work see, «La Ville. Art et Architecture en Europe, 1870-1993», Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1994.


2William Empson, «Some Versions of the Pastoral», quoted in Thomas Crow, «Modern Art and the Common Culture», Yale University Press, 1996.


3Susan Sontag, «On Photography», Penguin 1979.

  Robin Wilson, décembre 1997 Charles Arthur Boyer Charles Arthur Boyer (english version)