May 8: Must we always take photography seriously?
René Maltête was a French photographer and poet who was born in Lamballe in the Côtes-d’Armor, France, on this day in 1930.
Photography, like cinema, readily lends itself to humour. Of the inconceivable numbers of pictures that flood the internet every moment, how many are devoted to giving the recipient a laugh? The world is sad enough, sometimes overwhelmingly so, and we turn to ‘light entertainment’, to comedy. We give little thought to the sheer hard work involved in making it; it’s hardly ‘light work’ for the one who produces it.
René Maltête, who died in November 2000, was a master of the photo-gag and of the precision framing and composition that ensures its success in raising a smile. Along with Prévert and Doisneau he gives the sobriquet ‘The City of Light’ another meaning, though admittedly not all of his photographs were taken in Paris, but often in the provinces that are perennially subject to French metropolitans’ affectionate ridicule.
In Maltête’s imagery, allusions to, and influences of, French comic cinema are not coincidental. Growing up in a small Brittany town of then less than 5,000 people, he moved to Paris 1951 aiming to become a cinematographer, a director if possible, and in 1952, he started working with Jacques Tati whose influence on him is clear, and with Claude Barma who had just produced the first live French television show by transmitting part of Marivaux’s classic three-act romantic comedy Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard at the Comédie-Française and who produced the classic Maigret detective series. Maltête also assisted another filmmaker and writer, René Wheeler.
He clearly also draws on the widely known and loved French cartoonists Bosc, Sine, Quino, Gébé, Reiser, Cabu, Greenhouse, Gourmelin, Carelman and Topor.
Reputedly a poet as well as a cameraman, his imagery exhibits the qualities of that most exquisite of arts. It is the surprise, the twist, a visual philosophical commentary that he brings to the situations he photographs that most clearly voice his poetic sensibility.
His other talent derives from an optical awareness. The photograph above is the most often reproduced example of his work and it relies on a simple observation to create a puzzling anomaly, a grotesque, out of the innocent situation of an idle café owner taking a break at his doorway for a few moments with his pipe.
He took many of his photographs on a 6×6 camera (which uses 120 film), his first of which was the little-known French-made Selmflex, a Rollei copy. It replaced his less professional 6×9 when he moved to Paris at age 21. The ‘2¼ square’ is a camera format not readily associated with the classic ‘Decisive Moment’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but was used by Doisneau and others who valued the sharper image and an negative size that could handle some cropping without graininess. The twin lens camera also had an advantage to photography in public; a photographer looking down into the ground-glass finder is not registered immediately as actually taking a picture, at least at a glance by their quarry, and instead just seems to be fiddling around with the device.
Why is it so hard to find publications that even mention Maltête in passing? The Bibliothèque nationale de France holds none of his photographs. Though his pictures are widely spread on the Web, the photographer himself is little known. There are few of his photographs in collections and rare mentions in books or catalogues.
The only record of an exhibition I can track down was a retrospective at Le Centre Atlantique de la Photographie in Brest, September 3 2012 to October 17, 2012 (though his Wikipedia entry mentions “invitations to” Rencontres d’Arles photo festival in 1979 and 1980, the venues need confirming). Maltête appears to have passed by the attentions of collectors, the photography profession and historians.
Is this because he staged so many of his pictures? His son Robin readily admits that in an interview with Photophiles magazine in 2007; “Most of the time, he observed a scene that gave him an idea of photo, which he then rebuilt.” That would be clear to anyone who has observed a jack hammer being used by a labourer; this one is not attached to a compressed air hose…
Likewise, the priest’s watery halo is no coincidence, just the result of a very accurate toss of a stone into a calm lake…
…and a ‘forced perspective’ alignment like this needs careful direction; it’s not likely to occur spontaneously in such freezing weather!
But these are all great ideas and good shots and, constructed or not, their intention to raise a smile quite evidently works. To blame his staging for his obscurity is improbable when one considers the famous Robert Doisneau Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (1950), made specifically for a LIFE article to support the Americans’ romantic idea that the French were highly sexed and liberated enough not to be embarrassed to kiss in public, had to be set up because such behaviour was actually rare to see and not condoned in Catholic France. It was a strategy to which Doiseau, and other famous photographes humanistes, resorted and which is quite apparent when you examine certain of their oeuvre.
According to his son Robin, “He would dare anything; to take a picture, he would turn around an aircraft carrier”, and he frequently posed his wife as an actor in his comedies, as a maid or a pin-up model. Clearly directing had got into his blood, and few non- or would-be-photographers realise how essential that skill is in getting great shots involving people.
He was also a renegade, perhaps a bit difficult, and he was clearly a perfectionist, and any of those traits may have prejudiced his recognition and acceptance into the pantheon of French humorist photographers. Maltête’s son from his first marriage, Robin, attests;
He was a vegetarian, lived as a hermit, and sold his books in the markets. He was also an anarchist. One day on the 11th of November memorial day, he came with its own wreath… for future victims of arms sales. He ended up at the police station.
His lack of notoriety might also stem from that love of a solitary, hermit-like existence, of it may result from his change of career from photographer to poet. Despite his use of his pictures to illustrate his verse, it may have reinforced perceptions of their being a minor part of his publications. In 1960, he produced Paris des rues et des chansons, including his photographic gags alongside texts by Prévert Mouloudji Gainsbourg, Mac Orlan, Fallet and other poets of the streets of Paris, and he produced a number of other books including Au petit bonheur (1965), and others devoted to his own poetry; Intervention à coeur ouvert : Petits poèmes (1962), Graines pour les sans jardin: propos comme ça…. (1980), Scribouillages (1985), Cent poèmes pour la paix (1987), Cent poèmes pour l’écologie : Anthologie (1991), À quoi ça rime? (1995), La barbe à papa Maltête’s photographs to José Millas-Martin’s texts (1999), and, posthumously, Des yeux plein les poches (2003).
In his own words, in the book of poems Graines pour les sans jardin or ‘Seeds for the Garden’ (featuring what I imagine is a photograph of one of his sons on the cover) he writes;
Avant d’aligner les premiers mots, je pose comme postulat mon droit souverain à l’erreur, à l’outrance, à l’exagération. Je ne veux pas être objectif. C’est stérile et impossible. [Before setting down my first words here, I assert my sovereign right to make mistakes, to excess, exaggeration. I do not want to be objective. It is bloodless and impossible.]
That is an appropriate manifesto for a photographer who deserves more of our attention.