November 8: Joie de vivre is a word adopted into English from the French for the good reason that we don’t possess a more suitable phrase for this very cheerful attitude, which even a literal translation ‘joy of life’ does not properly describe.
In French literature we find it in Rabelais’ expression of a lusty love of the whole experience of living, unrepressed even by hypocrisy and oppression. Émile Zola’s novel La Joie de Vivre (1883–4) tells of Pauline Quenu, an heiress orphaned at 10 years old and in the charge of cousins who steal her wealth from her, but whom she continues to love wholeheartedly. To the end she retains the joie de vivre of the title though still further events in her life would quash it.
Susan Harrow and Timothy A. Unwin in the introduction to their Joie de Vivre in French Literature and Culture: Essays in Honour of Michael Freeman (Rodopi, 2009) ask
Is it possible to create meaningful art…out of this continuously positive attitude, or to find it in a source of comment on life’s complexity?
Here I’d like to ask the same of one photograph by David McLellan made this day in 1918, and of works from the oeuvre of Vaclovas Straukus, Juan Manuel Díaz Burgos, both born on this date, and of Masaki Yamamoto, whose show At Home launched last night and is open to the public today at Mind’s Eye : Galerie Adrian Bondy, 221 rue St. Jacques, 75005 Paris (continuing until December 2nd). You might then answer that question for yourself, and perhaps of your own photography.
2nd Lieutenant David McLellan, was originally a photographer on the The Daily Mirror, established by Alfred Harmsworth, who said in 1904 that it was the “paper founded upon the idea of giving the news in picture form for a halfpenny…something that had never been done.”
Appointed war photographer for the last year of the First World War in December 1917 he had been transferred from the Royal Flying Corps. As casualties mounted on both sides, the British Government and its propaganda arm had sought to control the message – and of course therefore the photography – coming out from the trenches. This applied not only to the Tommies and Diggers themselves, many of whom carried cameras, but also meant the early freedoms of press photographers like Canadian Ivor Castle, brothers Tom, Horace and Bernard Grant, and Australian Frank Hurley were curtailed.
In 1915 Bernard Grant enlisted in the Royal Navy and became a British Official and Admiralty photographer, but it it was not until March 1916 when the first official war photographer was sent onto the Western Front. McLellan is especially noted for his work capturing the huge scale of operations on the Front while working for the British propaganda department.
McLellan’s most dramatic propagandist image was taken right at the end of the war. It shows Brigadier General J V Campbell addressing troops of 137 Brigade 46th Division from the Riqueval Bridge during the Battle of St Quentin Canal, 2 Oct 1918 before they went on to break through the Hindenburg Line.
But others of David McLellan’s photographs taken on the Western Front present an extraordinary sensitivity to very effective juxtapositions of symbols of peace and war, the vey contrast that is at the heart of joie de vivre.
Here, soldiers bearing religious icons who appear to be blessed by the priest, reads almost like a religious tableau itself.
The dove (well, pigeon), about to released from the firm grip of the fist thrust from a tiny portal (created for the purpose?) in the riveted iron sides of a British tank bristling with gun-barrels is breath-taking in its iconoclastic clash of symbols.
As one of only five official cameramen operating on the Western Front, McLellan’s task was to generate positive propaganda.
These photographers were also rarely out of danger; Tom Aitken, originally a newspaper photographer from Glasgow, worked with David Mclellan and Armando Consolé, and he also began photographing the war in December of 1917, but was injured on the job by shrapnel.
Their photographs were also endangered. The glass plates many still used could not withstand the shock of high explosives while paper prints and celluloid negatives rarely fared better in the tumult of war. British and French (and German) archives suffered in the next war; much precious material has been lost to us. Add to this the fact of censorship and one realises how slim is the recording of the reality; photographers were driven to the site the authorities wanted them to photograph, and what they brought away was filtered and vetted.
This did not, however, mean that the photographer did not get to know the people they photographed, only that we no longer have their names. Our knowledge of them too often cannot be expanded beyond what we can find in the image.
What has led me to McLellan’s work is this surviving photograph…
…which shows, amidst the destruction he must have seen, this fresh face peering candidly and cheerfully into his lens. On this autumn day an unnamed young woman, dressed in a lace blouse and with a velvet bow in her hair, sits on a bench outside while a male figure stands watchfully in the porch of a house, arms folded and hand to chin. Is he her father or journalist or an intelligence officer accompanying the photographer? His clothing may be military.
She on the other hand is unique amongst his subjects. She appears an angel of Peace; the caption on The Imperial War Museums website, in a section British Prisoners of War in German Captivity, 1914-1918, merely reads A French girl who provided food for British prisoners working in Lille, but the date given is today’s, November 8th, in 1918, a mere 3 days before the German surrender in the “War to End All Wars”. Think of her young life amidst the terror of war and one may find her engagement with us through McLennan’s lens is the very image of joie de vivre.
Vaclovas Straukus was born this date in 1923 in the tiny village of Požerė, growing up on the shores of Paršežeris lake, in the midst of what is now Varniai Regional Park in the Šilalė district of Lithuania.
After studying drama at the Vilnius State Drama Theatre and Lithuanian language and literature at Vilnius Teachers’ Training College, he taught in secondary school from 1951 to 1968 in Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea where he currently lives.
His wife Emilia gave him a Russian Zorkij camera, a Leica rip-off, in 1952 for their honeymoon, and he remembers developing his first roll only to find the film had not wound on.
After losing his voice forced him to give up acting, he took up professional photography in the 1960s, becoming a studio photographer and member of the Lithuanian Union of Art Photographers in 1971. He won a press award for a story on the funeral of a railway employee killed in a train accident, leaving a large family. He recorded their reactions when, near the cemetery, a steam engine whistle blew. It was an experience that left him determined to photograph only positive experiences.
It is his series Paskutinis skambutis (‘The Last Bell’) that brought him recognition and inclusion in international exhibitions and collections. Over the years 1978–1984 of the Lithuanian Soviet era, before the country achieved a bloody independence in 1991, he attended the last days of school to document schoolgirls’ transition into adulthood, capturing their relief and joy at reaching that landmark, with just a little yearning for the small pleasures that school years afford, and sentimental farewells to their teachers and friends.
The fashions, particularly the mini-skirts and exaggerated peter-pan lace collars in the earlier shots are signs of a country looking enviously toward western capitalism, while the institutional settings are distinguished by their Soviet-era style, but the emotions are universal, familiar to me from my own teaching during these years here in Australia.
The use of an extreme wide-angle for many shots makes the collaboration between subjects and photographer apparent and draws us into the spirit of the moment, whether wistful or playful. The imagery exudes the irrepressible energy of the teenagers and their intense relationships. The series was published in book form in Lithuania and more widely in other formats.
There is but one image that conveys any ambiguity in terms of emotion, with the rest being upbeat, and that is a melancholy wedding photograph included in the series to point in the direction of the future for many of his female subjects.
Of his work Straukas says;
My goal in life, my idea, is to capture the moment, not just the days or years, when childhood stops and youth begins. There is no way I can, and nor can I capture the moment when youth fled…I’m either too early, or too late. I can’t say what that picture would be, it is something of which I am still dreaming. However, if I had achieved that goal, that would be bad – it would leave me with nothing to pursue; if you get a treasured object, it instantly loses value.
Vaclovas Straukas died on July 20 this year, he and his wife Emilia having just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Juan Manuel Diaz Burgos, born in 1951 in Cartagena, Spain, took up photography at 24 and has documented his own country and in Latin America, in Peru, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama, among others, though it is in Cuba and Santo Domingo that he most vividly conveys, through his street photography, the strength of the Latin culture and character which triumphs despite some difficult living conditions.
He is sensitive to the small signs and gestures of the pleasures of loving human relationships of all ages, and of the exuberance of childhood.
Masaki Yamamoto, whose exhibition at Mind’s Eye in Paris, At Home is his first solo exhibition outside Japan and is open to the public today
He was born in 1989 in Hyogo Prefecture and graduated in 2012 from the Japan Institute of Photography and Film. His own words about this series best expresses the story behind them;
This is a series of photographs of my own family.
Each family has its own story, mine, too, has a past. If I told you, you could possibly see this work in a different light.
We have lived in this house for 18 years. Before, we lived in a residential complex, but we were forced to leave because of non payment of rent. So we had to live in a car for about a month. My siblings and I were sent to orphanages or children’s home. It was only after two and a half years of this family breakdown we were finally able to live together again, but I remember that my family always remained poor.
While we were growing up, we had a variety of experiences – intimidated, socially withdrawn, sick, marginalized, and so on. These incidents were intertwined with the history of the Yamamoto family. They are what shape our lives today and our family ties. The Yamamoto family is so human and so true to life that I could only strongly share the spirit and values of the family, what attracts them and what is true or false. I realize that this is my home and where I always return.
Looking at my photographs, some people might feel sympathy or contempt. With what they sympathize, how they despise? I hope my work will get people to think about their own families and happiness.
In 2015, his The Family Yamamoto was exhibited at Shinjuku and Osaka Nikon Salon and receives the Miki Jun Prize. The following year, the series I’m Home received Editor’s Award from ZOOM JAPAN magazine. His works are in the collections of the European House of Photography.
The images above are from a photobook based on the theme of Yamamoto family, titled Guts, published by Zen Foto in September 2017.
Joie de vivre, as understood by Émile Zola, or by David McLellan, Vaclovas Straukus, Juan Manuel Díaz Burgos and Masaki Yamamoto, is not conditional on health, wealth or security and safety, but is an embrace with the life spirit.