The seasons are changing, and on a nice day, the rich colors outside Recoleta’s famous cemetery make for a stunning mix of blue skies and brilliant yellow leaves against the weathered russet of the cemetery’s old walls. Beauty like that is hard to match, but round the corner and into Centro Cultural Recoleta for Raymond Depardon’s photography exhibition, which features a gorgeous, almost uncanny use of color. The free show just opened a few weeks ago and will last until August 20, so there’s plenty of time to check it out, as well as attend several screenings of Depardon’s acclaimed films throughout the month.
The retrospective spans over 50 years of the photographer’s career, from early amateur works in the French countryside to decades of successful photojournalism to more recent conceptual pieces. Although much of his published work is in black and white, all these photographs are displayed in lucid color. Depardon, who grew up on a farm in Eastern France, is largely self-taught as a photographer, and while he’s acclaimed in Europe, he’s not quite as well known abroad. This is a real shame, as much of his best work offers a unique perspective on destinations as distinctive as revolutionary Algeria, Marxist Chile, and Nixon’s USA. To tell the truth, it’s harder to find places Depardon hasn’t documented than places he has.
The exhibition is divided into two parts, split among several connected galleries (Cronopios Building, Galleries C and J). “Un momento tan dulce” (A Moment so Sweet) is a wide-ranging collection of Depardon’s travel and journalistic photographs over the decades. The images are far from the usual exotic snaps — he never goes for the obvious depiction of a foreign land or well-known personality. Each photograph is immediately eye-catching, with compositions of line and color that seize your attention, yet humanize the subject: an older, ragged Edith Piaf’s turquoise eyes shine fervidly, the same color as the backdrop and her own clothing; two Chilean girls in mustard-yellow sweaters stand under a Che Guevara poster in an Allende-era encampment, brimming with optimism the viewer knows will soon dissipate; a Beirut barber goes about daily life at his shop during the war, a black rifle on the wall the only suggestion that nothing here is truly “business as usual.”
We could go on. One of these images, on its own, would be reason enough for a visit. Gallery after gallery of them is a visual feast. Depardon, maybe because he grew up as a modest, self-taught farm boy, brought a humility to his work that few of the male European photojournalists of his time ever achieved. There are no cheap shots here, although some of his photographs of Malian refugees do follow the trope of what Trevor Noah calls the “UNICEF fly,” i.e. the depiction of war-torn Africans as fly-covered, pitiable victims. We’ll cut him some slack for this, as 1) Depardon’s images weren’t intended for any kind of pity-inducing fundraising effort, and 2) we’re not sure this stereotype even existed when he took the photos in the ’70s. Whatever you think of those photos, in particular, the vast majority of his work shows people in ordinary situations of universal value, creating a bond of relatability rather than sympathy between you and the photo’s subject. Depardon has a remarkable ability to showcase people’s resilience, not just their suffering.
Perhaps the most arresting part of the exhibition is the center gallery, where the cavernous space has been filled by enormous prints from “A Moment so Sweet.” Unlike the first gallery, these photos aren’t organized by destination — here, you’ll find Hawaii next to Scotland, Ethiopia sharing a wall with Bolivia. The wildly different locales somehow jibe beautifully, composition elements echoing from one image to another, sharp colors bouncing from photo to photo and leading your eye around the gallery. It’s the kind of experience — almost overwhelming visually — that you could never get from seeing his photographs online or in a book.
The final gallery showcases some of Depardon’s most recent work in “Francia.” He’s headed home to capture his native country from top to bottom. Even more than in his travel photographs, here Depardon is the insider, allowing him to sidestep all the classic, romantic images of France and get to ones that are unexpected, even a little unsettling. Depardon’s France has no poodles, no vineyards and definitely no Eiffel Tower. What it does have are empty off-season beach towns, closed-down shops with “Everything Must Go” signs in the window, and a fur coat-clad woman strolling through Nice on a sunny day. Many of the images are a little off, evoking the same sense of loneliness and ennui as an Edward Hopper painting. The colors look almost over-saturated, exaggerating the feeling of unease and creating a “hyperreal” sensation. By eschewing the easy tropes, Depardon gets at something essential about his home — qualities no outsider can quite put their finger on.
The exhibition will be on display through August 20th. This Wednesday will each feature one of Depardon’s original films, La Vie Moderne at 8 PM, for AR $50 per person.