Must one have worked as a blue-collar worker in order to accurately photograph them? Such a demand is rarely formulated when it comes to legionnaires, pearl divers, politicians or prostitutes, yet the idea imbues everything that has been written about François Kollar (at the Jeu de Paume, until May 22, 2016), from the tagline “Un ouvrier du regard / A Working Eye” to the press review. It might be relevant –if it was shown and sustained, if we were graced with explanations demonstrating how Kollar’s photographic eye differs formally and esthetically from photographers such as Kilip, Hine, Doisneau… who never clocked in at any factory, to my knowledge, whereas Kollar did, at Renault’s, in Billancourt (if only for two years). But the actual difference between those “sons of Kulaks” (not to mention others like the very bourgeois Thiollier) and Kollar-the-former-manual-worker is never argued for, and the moniker rings hollow, like an all-too-convenient mantra.I don’t mean that Kollar is not skilled when it comes to portraying workers, on the contrary: he has elevated them, showing them as laudable heroes, and he was an expert at translating in his compositions their relation to the machine, between their subordination to the visually daunting machinery and their technical mastery in operating it. Kollar always presents us with a noble and serene worker. The central part of the exhibition features his photographs for the series La France travaille, [France is Working], a remarkable editorial project exalting the French as a creative and hard-working people. In the corresponding slideshow, I suddenly recognized Saint-Étienne’s place du Peuple as I remembered it from my childhood. Scanning the anonymous faces, I set out to look for my grandfathers, one a passementerie artisan, the other a shoemaker: they would not have been out of place in this gallery of images praising the working-class. Also about Saint-Étienne –my hometown–, François Kollar composed an eerie photomontage in which the blast furnaces and chimneys dominate the church and housings.
In this work about people at work, Kollar’s style often verges on Soviet esthetics: a eulogy of Stakhanov would not be surprising here. The narrative in play seems to mirror Stalin’s: workers are the kings of the world, and don’t ask questions. Indeed, and noticeably, Kollar did not concern himself with historical questions, even though he was living in an era of crisis, of radical economical turmoil, of progressive change in politics (with the up-and-coming Front Populaire)… Yet there is no sign of any of this –not a single clue– in his storytelling, focused on inspiring tales. As the catalog coyly puts it, Kollar fulfilled to the best of his abilities the missions he was tasked with, without second-guessing them. In the 1950s, he presented colonialism in AOF (French West Africa) under a very positive light, putting an emphasis on its humanist dimension –of course.
In the end, one should assess Kollar on the basis of his style only, for he was a neutral, unconcerned photographer, with no personal outlook. Commissioned work was his strong suit, whether for fashion or industrial clients. He achieved what was expected of him, and he was very talented when it came to composing superb still-life photographs, like this arrangement of vials, or, in the case of this female model and her reflections, playing with effects he might had inherited from Surrealist artists (even if it seems that he did not have many encounters with them; besides, his experimental use of light on his wife’s face at the beginning of the exhibition is far from compelling).
In a series from 1940, two fashion outfits from Lanvin and Schiaparelli struck me as ravishingly incongruous, although photographed plainly: “outfits for air-raid shelters”. When the alarm-bell rings, change your clothes quickly so as to be bombed, or even killed, with style –what about exporting the concept to Gaza?
If, ultimately, it is his style that I admire, I’d rather focus on his photographs of things: bundles of cut flax in the North of France, a typewriter, some broken glass, pears on a plate, a magnificent alignment of pinecones drying in Carcans, a pile of steel beams in Longwy, codfish drying in the sun in Fécamp, threads of cotton in Épinal, rows of Champagne bottles in Saumur, and a photograph whose caption remains mysterious (to me) and fills my heart with poetic joy: “Quarter of an alternator stator on a vertical axis in Kembs, near Belfort.”
And, in this last image, it’s not the soft features of the miners’ wives (I imagine them as Polish immigrants) that catch my attention, but the play of light and shadow on those infinitely stackable cylinders. To each his/her Kollar, indeed.
Photos 5, 8 & 9 courtesy of the Jeu de Paume
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: March 14, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère