Olga Smith | Contemporary Photography in France

14th October, 2022 in Author’s corner

“I have tried to formulate narratives that reach beyond the national perspective, opening onto wider questions concerning the place of national histories of art within increasingly globalized practices.”

In Contemporary Photography in France author Olga Smith explores the history of photography in France from the 1970s to the present day and sets photographic practices in contemporary art, documentary, photojournalism, and fashion in dialogue with French philosophy. The result is an innovative study of the intersections between the photographic image, text, practice, and theory.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
This book traces the broad arc of photography’s development in contemporary France. This narrative follows a straightforward chronological structure, with chapters arranged by decade, from the 1970s to the present day, to include a wide range of practices as they co-existed at any one moment in time, mainly in contemporary art, although I also include documentary, photojournalist, and fashion photography.

This book is also a study of the interchanges between artistic practices and French philosophy. It shows that the encounters with photography were consequential for the development of critical thought of figures such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Rancière. Their ideas, in turn, provided a point of reference for the artistic practices, as well as being critically probed by means of photography.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
The seed from which the book developed was my PhD, and when I embarked on it ten years ago photography started to be exhibited in the museum, discussed in the classroom and written about in a systematic manner. I was inspired by my peers at the regular meetings of Ph: The Photography Research Network – a kind of monthly salon for people writing about photography, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, which I co-founded. This was an exciting time for the study of photography, but there were very obvious gaps. Available histories of photography systematically under-represented women photographers and offered a very skewed picture of global distribution of photographic practices. Contemporary photography from France was largely missing from these surveys, and from photography discourses, and this is what determined the subject of my PhD.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
Michel Poivert’s survey, 50 ans de photographie française (2020), is indispensable for anyone who wants to know about contemporary photography in France. There are other brilliant studies by French historians of photography, critics and curators, including Dominique Baqué, Marta Gili, Nathalie Boulouch, Clément Chéroux, Danièle Méaux, Léa Bismuth, Clara Bouveresse, Héloïse Connessa, Marie Robert, Julie Jones and many others, but sadly most are not available in translation. The exhibition programme of venues such as Jeu de Paume, Kadist, Le Bal and the Institut pour la photographie in Lille gives a great insight into current photographic practices in France.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
The book took far too long to complete! I am surprised it is finally going to be published.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
Ideally, I would like this book to be received as a question: what does it means to write a national history of photography today? It has been a challenge – but also an advantage – to write about a national tradition of photography from the perspective of an outsider, a non-native speaker of either French or English. In writing this book I have tried to formulate narratives that reach beyond the national perspective, opening onto wider questions concerning the place of national histories of art within increasingly globalized practices.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?
I am currently at work on two major projects. The first is a study of ‘landscape’ as a form of engaging with nature in contemporary art. The second is a co-edited volume of essays on ecocritical methods in art history.

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