Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001

A visual essay into – or more appropriately, a thoughtful process of signification for – a montage of photographs from Denise Bellon’s photo-reportage from the period between the two world wars (as the “grand illusion” of a lasting peace during the mid 1930s after the Great War gradually unraveled to reveal an inexorable path towards another devastating world war), Remembrance of Things to Come resolves to reconstruct the evolution of European (and colonial) history during the early half of the twentieth century by examining the prefiguration of documented images taken by Bellon during that era. The first of these prefigurations appear in the idyllic, stylized poses of the uninhibited body for a print advertisement – celebrations of the precision and strength of the human body that would come to represent the proletarian images of totalitarian regimes such as the torch bearing athletes that metamorphosed into the iconic hammer and sickle Kolkhoz sculpture that became the symbol for the Soviet Union. Another prefiguration occurs in the documentation of the “shattered faces” whose disfigurement would bear witness to the barbarism of war and provide a glimpse into the inhumane physical consequences brought by the advent of technological weapons of mass destruction (such as the disfigurement caused by the atomic bomb). Even quotidian images from the reconstruction prove to be prescient as seen through Bellon’s gaze as migrant workers from the French countryside foreshadow the influx of immigrant workers into the city, both classes of workers representing the notion of foreignness in the mindset of deeply entrenched Parisian sensibility (if not implicit chauvinism). From images of film archivist and Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois’ legendary bathtub that was used to store film cans during the Occupation, to the brothels in Tunis that de-exoticized the pleasure industry that grew out of the profitable economy of serving colonial forces stationed throughout the French Empire (in essence, putting real faces of suffering in the trade (and cycle) of human exploitation), to the little-documented, forgotten history of the failed uprising against Franco by Spanish Republicans in the Aran Valley, Bellon’s camera would also serve as a unique and irreplaceable chronicle of early 1940s zeitgeist.

Perhaps the most emblematic prefiguration of Bellon’s gaze is in the photography of a gypsy bride that would be published for the cover of Paris Match, an issue that would also contain excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The mental image of “gypsy”, already a connotation for displacement, outcast, and marginalization, would later be inextricably bound with another shared history with Hitler through the human tragedy of their racial targeting for extermination during the Holocaust: their grim connection foretold through the portentous association of a glossy magazine. It is in this analytical deconstruction between the integral art of composing an image and the cognitive assignment of significance behind the captured image that filmmakers Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon create a compelling exposition on the processing and (subconscious) self-actualization of human memory.

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