Art in Review: Chris Marker
The New York Times
October 26, 2007
Chris Marker’s “Staring Back” is a meditative, deep-fall show. The faces in the dozens of black-and-white photographs of unnamed people that line the walls of Peter Blum’s two galleries are like leaves on the surface of a reflecting pool, bright against dark.
Mr. Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in France in 1921, is best known for his innovative films. Cinematic equivalents of a radical kind of creative nonfiction, they are often partly autobiographical and move vertiginously between present and past, until the two are one. This show, Mr. Marker’s first full-scale exhibition of photographs, originally organized by Bill Horrigan for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, does more or less the same thing.
The pictures, which cover more than 40 years, are the record of a life almost inseparable from art. A French Resistance fighter in World War II, Mr. Marker was loosely associated with Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais in the 1960s, but he spent most of his time filming political activism. Pictures in the Blum show include shots of antiwar demonstrations in Washington in 1967 and others of Parisian protests against French domestic policies in 2005. It is hard, at a glance, to tell that the pictures come from very different eras.
Many of these photographs are stills that Mr. Marker has culled from his films. So are some of the portraits that make up most of the show. They range over many years and many places. Almost all were taken of subjects on the move, active, in the middle of life: The digital printing process used for the prints leaves some faces blurred. A few people are recognizable (Simone Signoret, Salvador Dalí). Most others — a young Asian musician, a Mexican laborer, a fashion model, a monk on Mount Athos in Greece — are not, and no names and dates are supplied.
It’s possible, I guess, to dismiss “Staring Back” as a rewarmed “Family of Man,” though only if you know nothing about Mr. Marker’s work or that 1955 show by Edward Steichen.
Anyway, the comparison becomes moot in the pictures that end the show, which is also a book. These are photographs of animals: a seal, a chimpanzee and several cats, long a favorite Marker subject. The direct looks and gestures of animals, he says in a wall text, “point to the truest of humanity, better than humanity itself.” In this show, which is about memory and change and strife and confusion, theirs are the steady faces for all seasons.