"OUI, MON PERE "
A rural priest's photographs of children c.1950
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Unearthed in 2002 near Paris, this series of 50 photographs presents an elegant study of children from an album of stylised images authored by a rural priest. The small prints, issued from several photo sessions, represent images of young girls, and one of a group of boys, ages 4 to perhaps 15, in dance, religious and theatrical dress. Using old cloth sheets and a tapestry as backdrops, the remarkable plein-air portraits are reminiscent of primitive 19th century photographic practice, where the will surpassed the means.
The priest's children are photographed with religious props (a prie-dieu, a church broche) to recreate an earlier tradition (Norbert Ghisoland, 1878-1939). Young girls in embroidered skirts, costume wings (plate 30), and headdresses are captured in this album, painting the nostalgia of carnival. Children of his parish, like Lewis Carroll's Alice, are the delicate link to a private fantasy. Here, movement threads the images, immortalising the fête champêtre of pre-war rural life.
Placing his models in complete shade for even lighting, mon père demonstrates his knowledge of photography. The uninterrupted approach of his portraits is not unlike Diane Arbus' in its directness. As a skilled amateur photographer, his presence in the community now must include a greater role than simply prêtre de village. France, soon after the war, is at a time of healing pride. The images of mon père would bridge the past for the children who never knew it.
The youngest girls model a doll's curtsey in an identical manner (plates 1-25). In one image, the Madonna is staged with angels. In others, older girls, in twos and threes, readily enact dance positions. Inspired by spiritual fortitude, it is in the repetition of these poses that the desire for a more promising life becomes apparent, this sequence of quiet obsession restoring customs to those born under the Occupation.
The purpose of the album may be personal, and ultimately indecipherable, but throughout its pages the images are a wondrous curiosity centred on faith.