by Jean-Christophe Bailly
Of all the geographic units giving body and shape to what constitutes a specific locality, a watershed is one of the most precise, especially if it corresponds to a river whose course is relatively short. The watershed of the Gier River, running little more than forty kilometers from its source, near Mount Pilat at 1,300m altitude, to the point where it plunges into the Rhone, is just such a unit, that water-use by different forms of human occupation has reinforced. Eastward bound at a very steep gradient, spectacular at the beginning of its course thanks notably to a great waterfall, with a modest flow, but subject to floodings, the Gier indeed came early on to be lined with a chain of installations drawing on its force, such that with the industrial revolution the river truly became an industrial corridor and one of the symbolic locations of the age. As the shortest hyphen between the Loire and the Rhone, linking the industrial and mining area of Saint-Etienne to Lyon, its fate was, so to speak, sealed. Textile industries, dyers, forges, glassworks, all that activity under the reign of coal, that stamped its distinctive marks on the landscape, and all that as the essence of a bygone age, most of the mines and factories having shut up shop or disappeared, so that the Gier valley is also and even primarily in our day, a collection, an anthology of industrial wastelands.
Not that all the activity has dried up – there are a number of new plants dotted around the area in disorderly fashion where, most strikingly, the river itself appears to have gone missing – but nothing today that conjures up the proletarian age with its smoke clouds billowing out from factory chimneys, the latter, those that have escaped demolition, the only survivors, lone sentinels surrounded by wasteland, like the chimney left over from the old glassworks at Givors that you can raise a hand to from the train window since the railway line joining Saint-Etienne and Lyon, only the second line built in France, rushes straight past it. As home to both this line that remains very busy and two main roads, one of which is a motorway, the valley endures heavy traffic, which could easily give the impression of ceaseless activity if the experience of entering one of the bordering towns didn’t just as easily belie it. At the very beginning of the valley’s industrial expansion, François Zacharie, a visionary entrepreneur, had the idea of opening a canal which, at the cost of extensive works, in particular the building of locks, would have given the hyphen joining the Loire and the Rhone a supplementary power of conviction. Only the upstream section between Givors and Rive-de-Gier was built (after Zacharie’s death) and put to use; long barges called ciselandes, then steamboats navigated the waterway, bringing coal to Lyon from the collieries of Saint-Etienne and returning with sand from the River Saone for use in the glassworks. A few remnants are all that is left of this canal abandoned as early as 1878. Should you go to see them in the locality named la Roche Percée, located in the municipality of Tartaras, where you are guided along a purpose-built walkway complete with information boards telling their story, you find yourself in front, or more exactly above a perfect ruin of the silted trench of the canal located beneath the guardhouse that served as a lock, and the trace is so faint it is barely enough to evoke a former age, but it does so nonetheless, conjuring up the time when, in 1814 for example, according to the archives, up to three thousand boats could be counted passing by during the year.
The fate of this abandoned canal foreshadows what would happen to the entire valley when, one century after its closure, the factories and the mines shut down one after another, transforming the landscape into a broken rosary made up of half-vanished remnants interspersed with attempts at renewal or even some new plants, the latter sticking out among the area’s dominant tones of grey and rust in their trademark bright colors of plastic and corrugated iron that characterize industrial buildings today. But wherever we cast our eye, whether it be on the factories themselves, infrastructure or housing, nothing really seems fixed, nothing anymore seems to carry the imprint of willful design, and certainly no overall composition; everything looks ragged, vacant, without style or designated landmarks, a sort of patchwork or mismatch of different periods and uses, a careless collage that somehow hangs together, despite everything, but faced with which the idea of prolonging a stay or settling here wouldn’t come naturally; only on the slopes of the hills in the lower part of the valley is there any sign of property development, undertaken due to its proximity to Lyon. But no sooner has this thought or reflex of rejecting the valley crossed our mind, of leaving it to its demise or to what many would have no scruples calling its ugliness, than we feel guilty of committing an injustice, that there is in what is there to be seen, despite the disorder or maybe for that very reason, a sort of rectitude, a distinct quality, faint but consistent, with numerous little deviations, numerous vanishing points, but such that, behind the fences, the breeze-block walls, the suburban houses, sheds and wasteland scattered around a river their presence conceals, something is discernible that is not a memory, but a multitude of lives that have washed up there and reside, far-removed from any posing, like fragments of an unfinished gesture which, from within its own disarray, noiselessly dreams on, far, very far from the accomplishments of an era that hurtles by, no more than a stone’s throw from there, on the A47 motorway with its incessant convoy of lorries.
And that is what has been captured in this project, inventorying the valley in images taken over the course of a long period spent roaming the area along ways that are in fact innumerable by virtue that the paths they trace are uncertain, either getting entangled in the distended warren of the valley or suddenly, unexpectedly, offering a way out towards the mountains or in other words the horizon, which, from down there, is displaced upwards. Nothing that would resemble news coverage, instead letting the locality come on its own terms, by varying the scale of approach, from up close to a wide angle, and laying emphasis on what would appear to be the valley’s propensity – and by which it signs its relation to the times – namely to host without discrimination all the different periods that have contributed to its present aspect without effacing any of the discrepancies: a large steel bridge arching over a wealthy nineteenth century home with all its shutters closed; a statue of the Virgin giving her blessing to a forest of pylons; huge construction machinery parked in front of the landscape it is reshaping. And always and everywhere, gradually coming to appear more like an open invitation than a lack, this state of incompletion devoid of impatience, as if all these fragments of a world cobbled together and patched up in haste or on the contrary left to its own devices, ended up, fittingly, by forging a world, one that is not only livable, but alive, which neither hides nor reveals its secrets.
But how to capture that in photography, how to walk the tightrope between an approach founded on empathy liable to become suffocating and a vision that declares itself strictly objective? To this question, Nicolas Giraud and Bertrand Stofleth’s first response is simply their decision to work together, which is sufficiently rare in the world of photography to deserve to be pointed out, and also by choosing not to follow the way that appeared then all mapped out, namely that of offering two distinct visions of the valley; rather, in their images, it is as if the inherent characteristics of the places, to be fully revealed, had to make do without that presumptuousness that can reside in the posture of a subject – a gaze – stationed there in front of an object. Essentially, it is as if the object or things – these things, in this place – were not asking for so much and this line of conduct requiring a certain eclipse of the author is one that in front of landscape becomes the most generous, all the more for freeing up maximum potential for what Walter Benjamin called „the optical unconscious“, namely everything that enters into the image that the photographer hadn’t seen, but had only sensed.
It is, however, precisely this feeling or intuition that everywhere there is sense and nowhere borders to retain it, that guides the framing decision, photography’s essential act. For example, here in a street, two entrances with a view up the driveways of two houses, one freshly done up contrary to the other whose once white wall coating has aged. They are separated by one of those barriers made up of prefab concrete elements which were fashionable for a time, vaguely modeled on a sort of ogive. Following the line of this barrier, perpendicular to the street, leads us towards a vanishing point where, against a backdrop of blue, unchanging sky, stands the silhouette of a cabin attached to a mast and fastened to the roof of the factory or farm building it overlooks via a panoply of pipes and ramps, the whole set-up looking somewhat frail. There are no weeds or high grasses in view, only a rather large tree in the courtyard on the right. A few colored notes offer a pale pastel harmony, some patches of shadow here and there (it’s summer), nothing else and no human presence (a constant in this work). And yet across the entire palette of its non-effects, the being-there and the being-there in the way of this place is palpable, a fragment carved out of space and exposed, rendered visible like a wide open secret.
Or here, this cracked tarmac road winding up between the houses and garages, the rather steep slope of the terrain shored up on one side by large rocks, dustbins and letter boxes, a signpost, a concrete telegraph pole and, over on the other side, a tree in the foreground framing the road climbing towards a sky both dark and pale under which, in the distance, balustraded terraces hang like bunting on the horizon; a grey color like coal seems to absorb into it recent attempts to recoat the walls (in cream and salmon, to quote the newspeak of local color charts). All in all, it makes one think of a sort of upgraded favela, more comfortable, but less, far far less radiant than those in faraway Brazil (in fact, and without wishing to subject anyone to a traveller’s lesson, this image rather brings to mind the poor suburbs of Seoul, and to an astonishing degree).
Or any of these other places without qualities, variations infused with the spirit of a valley which, little by little, as it is presented here through a succession of views, becomes the echo chamber of a reverie skipping above an almost vanished river like its unattainable and unaccomplished legend.
Translated by Carl Holland
Jean-Christophe Bailly was born in 1949 in Paris. His writings are at the crossroad between history, art history, philosophy and poetry. His book Le Dépaysement has just been translated in German : Fremd gewordenes Land, Streizüge durch Frankreich (Matthes & Seitz, Berlin, 2017).