Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier, L’Atlas des Régions Naturelles Vol. 2

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by Poursuite Editions (here) and GwinZegal (here). Softcover (17×32 cm), 384 pages, with over 600 images. Includes a fold-out map of France with selected regions highlighted. There are no texts or essays. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: The idea of ​​trying to photographically document an entire country, even a relatively small one, seems like a hopelessly implausible task. It seems almost illusory to think that any set of photographs could come close to everything that’s going on, so if the photographer wants to persist, then the intellectual task becomes how to develop something approaching a representative sample. , which limits the scope of the effort to an actionable subset, but still captures something of the overall essence.

Most nations are divided into smaller regions, such as states, districts, and municipalities, largely to make the tasks of government more local, and so there is usually a logical overlay on a nation’s map, e.g. which a methodical approach could then be taken to document each region. or sub-region, making an unwieldy project potentially more organized and manageable. In the end, taken to the extreme, this approach breaks down into the Borgesian problem of the map as being the territory itself, but for Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier and their ambitious project to document France, from the 450 natural regions which constitute the territory of the country as a framework provided them with a means of effectively circumscribing their artistic problematic.

Tabuchi and Monnier started their project about five years ago and published their first picture book RNA Vol. 1 in 2021 (here and here); this photo book RNA Vol. 2 continues the series, essentially in the same format. With a nod to the design of vertically oriented Michelin guides, the RNA volumes are tall and thin (but relatively heavy), filled with color images instead of text, with each region given the same amount of space and text. ‘Warning. RNA Vol. 2 is divided into 16 chapters, bringing together images from 12 specific regions from across France, plus 4 thematic sections that bring together like images from various places, like a cross weave that reconstructs the divided country. Each regional section begins with a title page and map (helping us geographically locate where we are), and a full map of France with highlighted regions is included on the back. Overall, the design is clean and functional, with handy edge markings to separate sections.

On the photographic level, Tabuchi and Monnier have further reduced their field of action to the built environment of each region and, to a lesser extent, to its territory. With very few exceptions, there are no people in these images and no effort has been made to capture the cultural or social specialties of a particular region, in the same way that many guidebooks highlight the markets, fairs, festivals and other gatherings that seem regionally significant. Tabuchi and Monnier instead took a close look at buildings, old and new, with a particular eye for the unique vernacular architecture of the particular region. Like Walker Evans and Bernd & Hilla Becher before them, Tabuchi and Monnier applied a clear, frontal eye to the structures they discovered, photographing them in such a way as to notice their detail, highlight their eccentricities, and preserve their traditions. Many sections start with a larger landscape that somewhat defines the scene, and from there the photographs stack up like a parade of portraits of individual buildings, the placement and size of the images varied on the pages to keep the animated pages.

What’s fascinating about this conceptual structure is that it really works in terms of capturing the spirit of an area in a useful abbreviated way. The northern region of Cambrésis is characterized by small chapels, elaborate brick facades and a few more modern forms mixed together. To the east in the mountains, the Chablais is filled with chalets, older valley structures (stone and wood) and ski resorts. . The Médoc, on the southwest coast, offers water views, luxury estates and beach plains. And further north, but still on the water, the Guérande peninsula is dotted with salt flats, abandoned bunkers, and seaside services (such as hotels) necessary for visitors.

Most of the more central areas have agriculture at the heart of their slower paces, with older stone and timber barns and shacks, rolling hills with cows and plowed fields, modest and diverse town centers grain elevators and ancillary buildings adding to the built environment. As well as these discreet finds, Domfrontais offers castle gates and a coal mine, Pays d’Othe shows a Roman aqueduct and some elegant stone buildings, and Valentinois features some larger modern commercial buildings and industrial remains. But even in these abbreviated sketchy portraits, each region feels completely different, with its own architectural qualities (and stories) worth seeing and appreciating.

Through this regional individuality, a series of themes that Tabuchi and Monnier have extracted from their visual archives. In a sense, these four sections of RNA Vol. 2 suggest that wherever we go in France, we can expect to find commonalities of lifestyle and national personality – some quite predictable, others more unexpected. An engaging selection of images offers a taxonomy of French signage, and in particular signs that use objects as eye-catching symbols – an extra large walnut, an equally large bottle of wine (with a bird’s nest on top) , both a shark and a dolphin, and various cars and boats hoisted into the air. Another group offers us a range of examples of the humble storage shed, in rotting wood and rusting metal, concrete block and stone, and in creative combinations of all sorts of materials, all in the same practical rectangular shape.

More unexpected are a series of images of all-you-can-eat buffet, the all-you-can-eat Chinese (and more broadly Asian) eateries that dot the country, their cliched architectural motifs and decorative design set them apart from their typically bland parking lots. And a nifty collection of images titled Nope finds the pulse of France’s attitude of active denial, with signs and graffiti announcing positions against road extensions, school closures, radioactive waste, genetically modified food, wind turbines, police violence and d other causes. No matter the specific location in France, there always seems to be someone who is against something and not afraid to publicly express a strident opinion.

At this rate, it will take about forty volumes for Tabuchi and Monnier to complete the whole project, which seems daunting like the effort of a lifetime. But if they can continue at the same level of visual granularity and aesthetic clarity, and somehow find a system for dealing with much denser, more populated cities and urban areas (which the first two volumes have largely avoided), their ARN project is likely to gain momentum and become a valuable photographic reference of 21st century France. Whether the two artists have the kind of obsessive Atget-level dedication that the full project demands remains to be seen, but they’ve developed an initial framework that could certainly lead to something lastingly valuable. In the meantime, they skillfully reintroduce corners of France that might have been overlooked and document ways of life that are slowly disappearing. Such a project is definitely a marathon and not a sprint, so hopefully we can check their progress in a few years and find the map filled with many more successful documented regions.

Collector’s point of view: Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier don’t seem to have consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artists through their individual websites (linked in the sidebar).

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