In a Train of the Métro

Quelle_heure_est_elleJohn Fitzgerald over at Chris Marker:

Walking over to Peter Blum Gallery in Chelsea to see the new Chris Marker exhibition, I happened to pass by a section of the newly completed High Line, a pedestrian greenspace retrofitted onto an old elevated train track on the West Side. I stopped to look at a curious feature of the renovation: a glass panel cut into the side of the wall overlooking Tenth Avenue. Behind the glass was tiered seating where people sat and watched the traffic beneath them and the pedestrians walking by. The whole image reminded me of a movie theater—tiered seating all facing a rectangular screen—except instead of a screen, there was glass, and instead of a film, there was The Street. Turning onto 29th Street to go to the gallery, I couldn’t think of a better prelude to Marker’s exhibition about watching people on the trains in Paris.

“Chris Marker: ‘Quelle heure est-elle?’” is a meditation on spectacle. Comprised of pieces selected from the early and latter periods of his career as an artist, filmmaker, and photographer, all are united by Marker’s fierce attention to the world around him, be they images of war or faces in the Métro, pictures in magazines or movie posters of imaginary films. The images that make up the exhibition’s title consist of a series of thirty-six black and white photographs of people riding the Métro in Paris between 2004 – 2008. In order to capture his subjects “truer to their inner selves,” he explains, he used a digital wristwatch camera—thereby coming a long way from the 16mm silent film camera that he boldly employed in the crowded trains of Tokyo for Sans Soleil in 1983. “Here I caught them innocent like animals, in the beauty of the jungle,” he notes.1 And while the people he captures—predominantly women—are certainly less aware of his gaze than in much of his previous work, some of the images, while very beautiful, still seem to fall short of being entirely natural. Perhaps the innocence that Marker has sought in images throughout his career is not necessarily more attainable merely with a new technology. As he acknowledges, in this age of the cellphone camera, we are more cognizant of being watched than ever before, and the subway, with its absence of anything interesting in the windows except mirror-like reflections, only heightens this sense. But Marker, for me, is a writer more than he is anything else, and while these photographs are ponderous to look at, I miss the breathless, evocative commentary that accompanies such images in his films. Commentary, in this instance, may be unnecessary though. Why articulate in prose something already so perfectly expressed by Ezra Pound in his poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet black bough”? This was to be Marker’s epigraph in his previous exhibition, “Staring Back,” in 2007. He dropped it at the time, but was struck by how a reviewer, seeing the photographs, began his review by quoting this poem. “So it was true, after all,” Marker writes, “there existed such a thing as poetry, whose ways are by nature different from the ways of the world, that makes one see what was kept hidden, and hear what was kept silent.”

[H/t: J. M. Tyree]