With his 50 gelatin silver prints of photographs taken along the Seine between October 2000 and November 2006, Bruno Réquillart's Silver Eye exhibition Paris on the Seine reveals the accidental aesthetics of nature and circumstance.
Réquillart has captured the kind of beauty that is frequently eclipsed by more ostentatious expressions of Parisian civilization. Thus, while the lacy calligraphy of tree limbs or the stunning contrast of white swans on dark water may contribute to our overall impression of Parisian elegance in his photos, these elements tend to linger on the periphery of our consciousness. Réquillart records this ephemeral world and elevates it so that we might consider its artistic significance. And he does so with a documentarian's eye and an aesthetic reverence that borders on the philosophical.
Paris-based Réquillart declares himself a creative descendent of Eugene Atget. An early 20th-century Parisian documentary photographer, Bordeaux-born Atget inspired a long list of American photographers, including Bernice Abbott, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander. In 1931, four years after Atget's death, Ansel Adams characterized Atget's work as "the simple revelation of the simplest aspects of his environment," and noted that Atget's "prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception."
There could be no better description of Réquillart's work. While he restrains his vision of Paris to views evident from the banks and bridges of the Seine, Réquillart's photographs are just as unsentimental as Atget's, and are neither intrusive nor totally impassive. Rather, images like "Ducks, Quai Louis-Blériot, seen from the Quai André-Citroën, January 8, 2003," are full of careful and admiring contemplation.
Réquillart's Seine photographs often frame their subjects so the viewer is able to see beyond their conventional identity and function. The flinty rubble of coal on a passing freighter in "No. 40: Barge, seen from the Pont Royal, November 22, 2006," can be appreciated for its texture and deep tonal contrasts. But even with his artful framing techniques, Réquillart, like Atget, has produced an enduring document of Parisian life as it is now -- a life that will, like Atget's pre-World War I Paris, eventually disappear and give way to another reality and epoch.
And like Atget, who roamed Paris with an antiquated large-format wooden bellows camera (declining a newer, handier Rolleiflex offered to him by Man Ray), Réquillart adheres to a dying photographic tradition. Rather than use digital technology, Réquillart has captured Paris with a HasselBlad XPan 24 x 65 rangefinder camera that allows the creation of panoramic vistas. He also prints his own photographs using gelatin silver on fibre-based paper, a rarity in the age of digital media.
Offering the perfect complement to the comparatively cool, highly pitched tonal contrasts of Réquillart's photos are Silver Eye's gallery walls, painted a medium cappuccino. This warm color lends the photographs an earthy foundation, defying the clinical sterility of traditional white-walled presentations.
The curator, Silver Eye Executive Director Linda Benedict-Jones, prefaces the exhibition with a map of the Seine dotted with numbers corresponding to each of the 50 photographs. The map lets visitors understand, geographically, exactly where each shot was captured. It also underscores the fact that Réquillart's chosen subject is the life around one of Paris' legendary centers: The Seine is both the romantic and commercial life-blood of the city, a route for extended strolls as well as mercantile transport.
While Réquillart's photographs are -- in instances when the cityscape is included -- distinctly Parisian, their significance extends beyond the city's borders by encouraging viewers to recognize the spontaneous beauty and casual splendor of their environment. And certainly, many parallels can be drawn between Pittsburgh, itself a city of rivers and bridges, and Réquillart's Seine-centric vision of contemporary Paris, with all the subtle grace of its observable details.
Paris on the Seine: Photographs by Bruno Réquillart continues through May 26. Silver Eye Center for Photography, 1015 East Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810 or www.silvereye.org.