Photographic Memories

Cohen Media Group

In the time before digital photography, my father developed a passionate, devoted obsession towards film. He poured over technical manuals, saved up for professional quality cameras and lenses, and spent hours capturing my sister and me as we grew from little girls into young women. But neither one of us, nor even my mother, were very patient models. We never had the stillness to match the focus of my father’s lens. And so, he devoted himself to an entirely different subject. As a result, my family home is filled with photographs of ice sculptures, some dating back decades. 

The ice sculptures my father photographed were immense, fantastical creatures; dragons and mermaids, wild birds, gods and goddesses rendered eight feet tall in painstaking detail, glinting like glass. Their beauty is made all the more potent by its temporary nature: the sculptures can only exist for a few weeks at a time, during the first few months of a new year, when the Canadian winter is so cold that it bites at cheeks and nips at fingers. To capture the fine detail carved into the ice requires an artistic spirit and a mastery of technique. My father has both.  

Out of the thousands of photographs my father has taken, my favorite is one of an ice mermaid strumming a lyre. I’m looking at her as I type these words. I can see the scales on her tail, the fine points of her hair that curve as if she were undersea, the fingers poised as if they’ve just finished strumming. I love the mermaid for many reasons, but I often wonder at the image because it has kept alive, at least semi-permanently, something that no longer exists. A thing that was created through training and effort and labor and love, which lived only a short while in the cold weather before it fell apart, dissolving until it was the size of an ice cube, then dissolving into nothing. 

The way a photograph promises to permanently capture the impermanent is the primary allure of Faces Places, a documentary-travelogue by co-directors Agnès Varda and JR. Varda is a titan—the Belgium-born French director, dubbed “The Grandmother of the French New Wave,” has a filmography that stretches all the way back to 1955. Compared to a woman who has 52 film credits to her name—and has worked with cinematic icons from Catherine Deneuve to Harrison Ford—34-year-old co-director JR is practically a novice. Yet, as she reveals in Faces Places, Varda was a fan of the street artist and muralist before she met him. JR had travelled the world erecting large scale murals on crumbling buildings, with regular citizens as his preferred subjects. The pictures of wide eyes watching over a city, or hands reaching across borders, created amusing, provocative, and unforgettable images. In Faces Places, he does largely the same thing, but this time he does it for Varda.

Throughout her career, Agnès Varda has often included herself as a subject in the documentaries she makes, and Faces Places is no different. At the time of filming, Varda was 88 years old and struggling with increasingly blurry vision, a cruel twist of fate for a woman who has made her name and livelihood through her unique way of seeing the world. So, while Varda still has some sight left, she and JR travel the French countryside in a van designed to look like a giant camera on wheels. The camera van is a beautiful and ridiculous object, like something out of a modern fairy tale (it also comes equipped with a full-size photo booth in the back, capable of instantly printing out poster-sized images of its subjects). Again and again, Varda and JR find a new town or workplace, and invite strangers into the van’s photo booth to have their picture taken.

Everywhere they go, they find people willing to be photographed. They meet a vagrant whose smile reveals missing teeth. The man poses eagerly before inviting them to his home, a roughly composed shelter made up of abandoned rugs, old doorways, and discarded boards. He’s spent his life scavenging for art and shows them a collection of bottle caps arranged in colorful patterns, as well as wind chimes, fabricated from old cutlery, that tinkle gently in the wind. They meet a postman Varda has known for decades. Much like the vagrant, he is an underappreciated, uncelebrated artist. He greets Varda warmly before showing the camera one of his paintings he’d gifted her years before. A farmer tells Varda and JR that, not too long ago, it would have taken dozens of people to work the vast expanses of land he currently tills by himself. Now, he can go an entire day without talking to another human being. They meet dockyard workers, who JR knows, and their wives, who interest Varda far more. They meet goat herders who explain that modern day goats have their horns seared off so they can’t butt heads, something that upsets the gentle-hearted Varda. In order to soothe her, the directors find an independent goat herder who allows her goats to keep their horns, and butt heads as much as they want.

While the murals are, in theory, a way for the blurry-eyed Varda to see, they also alter the way these ordinary people perceive themselves. When the subjects see their image blown up two or three stories high, reactions vary. Some of them laugh, others smile. One woman winces at the inconvenience of her sudden celebrity. But the message is always clear: these people are somebody.Relatively early in the film, the directors visit Bruay-la-Buissière, a former coal mining town, where a row of houses have been marked for demolition. Once symbols of upward mobility, the houses belonged to those who worked the mines, tough men who broke their bodies laboring under the ground. But now their legacy has largely disappeared, their children and grandchildren having abandoned the town for the cities. Varda and JR look at this row of houses and see a canvas. Out of respect to the former occupants of the buildings, they plan to blow up old photographs of miners and stick these towering, several-stories-tall giants onto their brick facades. While scouting and planning, they meet Jeannine Carpenter, the only resident left, a woman who has lived on the street for nearly her whole life and is determined to stay until the very end.

The project goes forward, a tribute to a nameless generation of men, now dead, rendered in a fragile medium, backed on a canvas of bricks soon to be destroyed. But beyond that, Varda is charmed by Carpentier’s persistence. She requests that JR and his team give her a special gift. After spending hours wheat-pasting Carpentier’s home, the two bring her outside.

It’s amazing to watch Carpentier’s face change as she is confronted with her own portrait, her face taking up the entire facade of her home, her indomitable spirit now two stories tall. Her mouth falls open. Then, as she begins to take it in, she starts to smile. She can finally see herself as Varda sees her, as we see her: a fierce defender of her home, a keeper of things past, a heroine. “I don’t know what to say,” she says, before the tears overwhelm her. But her face has already said it all.  

The directors also travel along the coast of Normandy, a voyage taken to revisit a series of photographs Varda had taken, decades earlier, along the very same stretch of coast. JR and Varda are charmed by the atmosphere of the coastal towns they encounter, where historic stone buildings dot the landscape and strong winds whip up streams of sand. They want to wheatpaste Varda’s old photographs onto a building, and stumble along the seaside, looking for the perfect one to use for their canvas. Over 60 years after she first photographed them as a young woman, Varda finds that more than a few buildings and shacks still remain.

Ultimately, it’s not a building that captivates them, but a brutal chunk of concrete embedded at an angle on the beach. The concrete was once a bunker, built by Hitler’s troops during the Nazi occupation of France. Perched on cliffs overlooking the English channel, it was knocked down years later when it became a public hazard. Its cracked, eroded exterior now provides the perfect surface to hold a photograph.

The only question that remains is which photograph. The pair look through Varda’s catalog of Normandy photographs. Many feature the same nude model, in various poses along the beach. Varda casually mentions that one of the nudes in question is Guy Bourdin—yes, that Guy Bourdin, who would later become one of the most revered fashion photographers of his generation. The images of Bourdin please Varda and JR the most. They settle on one of him wearing a striped Breton top, leaning against a cabana, basking in the sun.

Of all the projects that Varda and JR undertake during the course of Faces Places, the photograph of Bourdin in Calais becomes the most technically challenging. Rising tides give JR and his team a limited time to work on the project. The vast scale of the bunker and the beach’s shifting sands pose additional problems. But Varda and JR remain committed to their vision. Within hours, they are rewarded with the desired image of Bourdin, his body positioned at an angle so that he’s comfortably contained by the walls of the bunker.

Bourdain, who died in 1991 at the age of 63, is once again a boy on the Normandy beach. His image dwarfs Varda and JR as they stare up at him from the shore. “When we think of the dead, we want to cradle them,” Varda says, and we notice that this is exactly how Bourdin looks, as if he has been gently placed inside a large concrete cradle, the tide gently lapping him to sleep. Varda, JR, and the team have just enough time to admire their handiwork and take a few pictures before the winds and tides force them to evacuate. 

In the morning, when the tide has receded and the beach is calm, the Faces Places team returns to see what remains of their work. They find the concrete blank, Bourdin’s image washed out to sea.

It’s as if he was never really there at all.