Éric Antoine

Préface de la monographie « ensemble seul »

By Héloise Conesa
Historienne de la photographie et Conservatrice en charge de la photographie contemporaine à la Bibliothèque nationale de France.

What motivation, what event causes a photographer who has spent the formative years of his career, notably in the USA, photographing urban life, the world of skateboarders, of tearful Michael Jackson fans, to begin, in 2009, to make ambrotypes? By reviving this process of positive collodion glass, patented in the United States in 1854, rivalling the daguerreotype in the art of portraiture, does Eric Antoine express a personal preference for a technique, and the iconographic conventions inherited from the nineteenth century?
We certainly cannot ignore the photographer’s fascination for this century of ‘art pompier’, of romance and decadence, as well as the beginnings of modernity, of scientific experimentation, of which photography was a part, as the moment we enter his large home, everything – the Louis Philippe furniture, the wall-coverings, the prints, daguerrotypes and centenarian large format cameras – transports us nearly two hundred years into the past. Some of the ambrotypes’ arrangement and use of iconography also pay homage to the atmosphere of this period. Thus, through precise re-enactments of old images, and by engaging with the aesthetic of amateur photography clubs like Linked Ring and Camera Club, Eric Antoine's ambrotypes draw upon a stock of images in our collective memory: figures whose poses recall Blake, Millais, Rossetti, or Friedrich, hair that 'contains a dream', as Baudelaire had it, direct references to precursors of pictorialism like Julia Margaret Cameron and Henri Peach Robinson, and British Pre-Raphaelite photographers, so aptly characterised with the phrase 'ballad of love and death' in the Musée d'Orsay’s 2011 exhibition. However, far from being simple exercises in mimicry, Eric Antoine's ambrotypes inspire his creativity by offering him the opportunity to experiment and produce an object within the constraints of an artisanal process, in which spontaneity is impossible, and unexpected effects can occur. As a result, Eric Antoine’s images are more than a nostalgic backwards look, as their confrontation of the extreme banality of the photographic act in the digital era constitutes a form of resistance. Further, the transfer of this 'slow' technique into an era marked by the rapid flux of images reveals a kind of activism on behalf of a photographic ecology. By rehabilitating one of the pioneering techniques of photography, Eric Antoine participates in an increasingly recognisable trend of contemporary photography and seeks to prove the efficiency of this process for conveying that which still ties us to a bygone era.
Eric Antoine asserts an aesthetic distanced from everyday life and selects timeless
themes reinforced by the use of black and white to touch upon what lingers of the 'melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo' evoked by Baudelaire in ‘Harmonie du Soir’. The present is thus perceived by Eric Antoine as a sort of suspended time, in which the Baudelairean spleen seems to be reactivated. The titles of his series, ‘Ensemble Seul,’ or ‘A Quiet Riot,’ echo a contemporary anguish caused by solitude or by violence. But we find that the disruption suggested by these oxymoronic titles is reinforced by the subject’s embodiment in an image displaced into the past and thus deprived of the markers of its era. Meanwhile, the ambrotype crystallises a form of temporal accord through the inclusive dimension of its glass surface, which reflects the spectator's image and thus sustains a shared emotional state. The majority of Eric Antoine's images are characterised by the presence of a female body, usually nude, abandoned, alive or left for dead, within a natural setting that has escaped the forces of categorization. These singular, enigmatic poses speak to something of an internal suffering, of a severed connection to the world. Furthermore, it is important to note that the photographer composes his images within an extremely limited perimeter, at most 100 metres separate each viewpoint from the artist's home, thus enforcing the sense of isolation, the disquieting closed-in effect distilled in the images. The series ‘Ensemble seul’ is comprised of 85 plates with a predominance of feminine protagonists interrupted by the introduction of other elements (objects, men, body parts…), which drives a sense of discontinuity to the heart of series and destabilizes its potential narrative structure. The strength of the images thus resides in their ‘being together’ and in each image’s capacity to remain autonomous and alone, to constitute an event in and of itself, sustained by its formal aspects. In these different sequences of images, the recurrence of the back of the body accentuates a sort of meta-construction that is highly metaphorically charged. As George Banu recalled in his book ‘L’homme de dos’, the end of the nineteenth century was fond of this motif of a ‘borderman’ between two worlds, between two eras. This strange presence also signifies flight, melancholy, confrontation and refusal, and it must be said that this polysemy is in particular evidence in ‘La constellation’, where we not only have the impression of being before a person who turns their back to us, but also before a landscape whose coordinates amplify the idea of void. Eric Antoine’s images possess the same bemusing power of the poetic image in creating a peculiar condensed space.
Eric Antoine’s approach is clearly tied to a sense of the materiality and uniqueness of the ambrotype as an object. The density contained in the images, so well-suited to the ambrotype process due to its ambivalence between transparency and opacity, visible and invisible, is appears in a focus on a specific element of the body (arms, legs) – thus objectified – or on isolated objects (a frame, a desk) which gives a sense of unity to the fragments, like that of ‘memento mori’. The specificity is not simply due to the choice of framing but is equally indicative of the subtlety of detail that is necessary to the ambrotype process. This minuteness in the reproduction of an atmosphere is not about being precious: Eric Antoine is not a mannerist but a materialist who seeks precision in technique as well as in emotion. This focus on the simple volumes of bodies and objects thus appears to be an essential outline of its sublime and intimate fictions. In this way, it is not simply the strata of history that are read in Eric Antoine’s images, but also a deep testing of the material which progresses up to the point where the photographer seems determined to compete with the sculptor. In this vein, the photograph ‘Stoned’ shows a woman lying alongside a stone, not without evoking a statue that has fallen from its pedestal. But the materiality is also reinforced by the visual experience of Eric Antoine’s images where the body is choreographed, sculpted according to absolute forms that become new surfaces for the projection of an imaginary timelessness. Thus, in ‘La punition’, the entire image is constructed around the simple motif of an inverted triangle, that of the braid, of the neckline of a jacket, of hands tied behind a back, the angles of a stool. In this image, the motif of the turned back is reinforced by the hands. Here, again, the photographer withholds the obviousness of the face and turns his images into so many allegories for a contemporary era marked by melancholy. In the diptych ‘La condition’ which juxtaposes a feminine figure, young and summery, with a masculine figure, aged and wintry, the two bodies are immobilized among the leaves, as though imprisoned beneath branches. Mysterious, clandestine, pensive and absent, delicate figures within the exuberant greenery, they represent, with their indistinct faces, the totalising power of allegory. It is thus towards giving to bodies and more specifically to man a place in the world, in nature, in re-inscribing him in the cyclical time of seasons, to move beyond pure circumstance, that the photographer reaches. The question Walter Benjamin posed on the subject of Baudelaire: ‘How is it possible that an attitude at least in appearance as ‘inactual’ as that of the allegoricist could have in the poetic oeuvre of the century, a place of the first rank?’ could just as well be asked on the subject of Eric Antoine’s ambrotypes. If nothing these days predisposes artists to explore this stylistic device, judged by more than a few to be outdated, then doesn’t Eric Antoine, in deliberately chosing this allegorisation, seek to alert us to the uneasiness of the man’s relationship to the world, which persists today, as it did in the past? The temporal displacement that operates in Eric Antoine’s images, their shift in relation to contemporary problematics is inscribed in their rejection of a purely illustrative interpretation of topicality. In addition the most powerful images are those that possess a strong ambiguity in the reading that they suggest as well as in the time to which they refer. For example, in the photograph titled ‘Huck’, different interpretations are possible: either we believe that we are before a representation of the idyllic world dear to Mark Twain’s hero, or that we’re about to witness a suicide. Nature is thus the pivot of this allegorical and ambivalent system in presenting itself both as a ‘natural’ nature as well as ‘denatured’, and morbid.
In this way, Eric Antoine’s oeuvres reach beyond the kitsch nostalgia that could pigeon-hole the use of the ambrotype. They come into their own, in a certain way – anachronistic, but because of the active presence of a directed gaze inherited from a bygone age, participating in a form of ‘survival’, to use the terminology of Georges Didi-Hubermann, as well as accommodating a new way of looking.