Yves Bonnefoy : The Photographs of Lydia Flem

en français : https://lydia-flem.com/2020/11/17/yves-bonnefoy/


Lydia Flem’s photographs take their place within the history of photography only by inscribing a difference there.

Let us begin by understanding the dialectic underlying the work of photographers since Daguerre’s day.  Their first impulse drew them to the world around them, where they perceived things and wanted to place them in their new images. But, in those same images was inscribed an aspect of reality that had never appeared in any image before, and had indeed been excluded on principle: chance.

For what were paintings, drawings and statues, as they had been produced since the earliest times, and still are today? The work of an artist who, consciously or unconsciously, controlled every aspect of his image. And if essentially material realities were evoked in that work – mountain slopes strewn with boulders, cloud formations, or even bits of wood gathered and used in collages – the chance factor that had remained active within these things, for example in the scattering of stones, was only imitated, used with an intention, and in any case neutralised, becoming lost behind the projects, desires and fatalities signified by (and about) the artist through the image; and, with these, what appears as the real, what is given as being itself, is thought, an idea of the world. The only uncontrolled chance event that we encounter in the creation of these images, which we can call classical, is one that is left outside them, being the circumstances that led the artist to make the work, to embark upon it under such and such an influence. Everything in The Flagellation of Christ is under control, but Piero della Francesca could also have not been born, or not at some moment in his life have come to Urbino.

The only real random occurrence that is active as such in the Flagellation is the fine, chaotic lines of the cracking paint on its aging panel. But if we take a photographic portrait, it is as if the cracks, that random event inherent in the forces at play in what is only matter, had migrated from outside the image into its core. Where a painter would have imitated or interpreted the materiality of a piece of a fabric in a way that, simplifying it, would have kept it within the field of his will, there is now, on the coat worn by this unfamiliar person shown in the photograph I have picked up, the weave of the threads in the wool fabric, with this fold, this tear that the photographer could only register, if indeed she paid them any attention. And in this wall here is the inimitable disorder of its opus incertum. In photography, chance enters the image from the outset, enters this field of consciousness where everything was done to abolish it.

Historically, man invented the image in order to abolish chance. To substitute an external world indifferent to the human project with the meaning that institutes an order that will be felt as actual being, to be opposed to the nothingness of derelict matter. And the intrusion – with Daguerre, with the first photograph – of chance into this mental space whose doors had been closed to it, was an event that was bound to be intensely experienced in every part of society, even if in most cases this was not articulated. Nothingness invited itself to the already ransacked banquet table. God was dying there more obviously than anywhere else in the West’s relation to the world. If images could no longer ensure meaning, then what, apart from material reality, was left to the man and woman of the new age? Mallarmé, the great witness of this epiphany of non-being, could indeed pronounce his “funereal toast” in front of all these “scattered shadows on vain walls.”

But it was then, in the second moment of the dialectic, that resistance was organised to this invasion of the image by the outside, by the abyss. A resistance that secured photography’s extraordinary future. A handful of artists thought that the non-sense of the photographic could be countered by making it imitate the work of painters. This was naïve and it was futile. Their pseudo-painting only welcomed chance to a higher level in the conception of the image. But from the depths of the spirit there came a decisive realisation, which was that in photography something other than matter had made its first appearance. Another reality was absent from the old kind of image, or appeared there only in the artist’s interpretation, where it was deprived of what it actually was: an act, the direct manifestation of an effective existence: it was the gaze of the persons represented in paintings, in statues. True, what life there is in the gaze of Baldassare Castiglione, and what truth, too! Raphael wonderfully captured all the things he perceived in that intellect, in that heart. But even so, is the gaze fully itself? No, because there is nothing unknown behind those painted eyes, no thoughts unknown to us, no decisions about to be taken, no future already begun that we immediately perceive, unpenetrated but alive, a fullness, an immediate presence, on the faces of men and women we simply pass in the street.

Whereas, when Baudelaire sat for Nadar, and Rimbaud for Carjat, it was this uninterpreted gaze, and therefore this direct relation with the person existing in his de facto non-being but also in his desire-to-be that appeared in the photograph of them. And that, too, was a historical first, except that it is now with a contrary kind of meaning and virtualities. With the materiality of the fabric, the grain of marble, the scattering of stones on a slope, it was the totally negative transcendence of the outside that penetrated the image, fully denoting the randomness that ruins the illusion of being. And these gazes, this other kind of transcendence, were certainly not proof that what faced the photographer there was a reality that we might victoriously hold up against the nothingness discovered within the human condition. It was, though, evidence that a person is no nobody; is not simple nature. That in this nothingness there is a consciousness, a will.

To the pessimistic suggestions of the first photographer, to the nihilism that the new technology risks spreading or increasing in our future society, the photographic portrait thus opposes, with equal radicalism, a memento, at the very least, of the person as a presence to themself and to others, as a consciousness of being, illusory or otherwise. And that is what enabled Nadar and many others, later on, to make that same photographic act that devastated being in the world the occasion and the place of a resistance to its deleterious suggestions, by their attentiveness to the gazes that appeared before them, and to the faces that these gazes lit up. Some of Nadar’s portraits, such as the one of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, are admirable because, under the sign of this first fundamental reaffirmation of the idea of being – of presence to the self of the person as being – they are able to observe in faces what matter does not know, what denies their randomness, such as the fold of suffering around an aging mouth, or the weight of an eyebrow weary yet held open.

Many of the photographers of those first years and of the centuries that followed were thus great “resistants” who sought to preserve the option of being within the visual obviousness of a world that is no more than its materiality, even if this needed to be understood in a new way, and decided rather than simply observed. And, of course, it is to this resistance that photography owes its status as an art, joining other kinds of images in a concern that, alongside poets and painters, gives them access to the problematics of existence. This has given us some great portraits but also street scenes captured, as the expression puts it so well, in the moment, and even landscape photographs.


I would like to go further with this reflection on what, to put it simply, is the nature of poetics in photography, but today I have sketched out these few ideas only to introduce – to come back to the subject – to the very singular concerns of Lydia Flem. It seems to me that her researches can be understood from the viewpoint that I have adopted here, but when it is it becomes an incitement to a new way of thinking about the relation between photography and the photographer.

With a word, first of all: the feeling of non-being, as insinuated by photography, is something that Lydia Flem perceives just as acutely as all those I have just described as great “resistants,” but she does not try to refute it in her works, one by one; it is in the experience of her own existence, at difficult moments, that she seeks to triumph over it; and in her photographs, which remind her of it, she seeks, rather, to speak with it, and to understand its arguments.

Certainly, she knows where things stand, and didn’t need a photograph of a field of stones or the starry vault to gauge the impermanence and insubstantiality of all things. Writing Comment j’ai vidé la maison de mes parents,[1] an autobiographical book, she shows how sensitive she is to the unstoppable displacement that keeps the vestiges of an existence – objects from ordinary life, clothes, traces of various kinds of interests, the most humble are the most touching – from continuing their life in the future of another person, however attached they may be to these fading souvenirs. Grieving is a metaphysical experience, it teaches us that nothing is merely the froth of foam on unconfined sand nor high nor low nor light. And for Lydia this thought is all the more painful in that before her birth her parents, in a world at war, in a world of displacements and deportations, of the flouting of law, had to fight, not only for their lives but for the meaning that a life can have. To empty the house of the dead is indeed to approach the abyss.

But what is remarkable is how she reacted to his lesson which in fact is an ordeal. These hundreds of things in the family home, always familiar, often beloved, but which lose their place and reason – must we try to keep them with us, at the risk of letting the absence of which they now speak insinuate itself into present existence, at the expense of current attachments and the commitments that these demand? No, their heiress, though always loving, decided to give them to strangers, numerous strangers. Why? So that these things would regain meaning and value in lives other than her own, so that they would take up position again in the being that human society, whatever its degree of disintegration, nevertheless desires. An offer that makes it possible, therefore, not to betray a heritage: by this sweeping gesture of giving to close strangers she puts back in circulation the meaning that had been her parents’ fundamental experience, the hard-won good that, however, was now in the process of disappearing in those humble possessions from their lives that had ceased.

Now – and it is in this regard that light is shed on Lydia’s photographs – this offer that is made in giving things that risk no longer being, this reiteration within the evanescence of all things of the cup or the scissors that had been used so that they can again be used and meaningful, is precisely what these images do or, rather, suggest that they can do, in an even broader and more radical way, and do so through meditation on this grieving, but also, no doubt, because of the other ordeal that Lydia had to face a little later, illness that can be a discouragement it is important to overcome. This work on the image begun, if I am not mistaken, when this new ordeal was at its most intense, is, figurally, what was required of her by this heritage from her parents of which she knew not to register the fleeting possession but to record the imperishable being. But this was also what helped her overcome illness.

Will Lydia Flem agree with my interpretation of her work? I hazard it, in any case, because I have no doubt that it at will at least keep me fairly close to the questions that this photographer asks in her work, questions which are surely not of an aesthetic nature. For example, she is not concerned with assorting colours, with opposing or joining forms.

Reflecting on what she does, I am mindful that Lydia does stress what could seem in a rather specific way a problem concerning these aspects. “I need to compose,” she writes. Composition, that concern of Renaissance painters and of musicians, extended to poetry by Edgar Allan Poe – is that also, still, her concern?

But she also says that composition “helps me to live,” and we can therefore assume that what she means by this word cannot necessarily be reduced to considerations on space glimpsed through the window of the work and the relation between forms and volumes in that space. What are Lydia Flem’s oppositions about? Let us begin by observing that in these photos nothing  – colours, effects of light, the play of shadows, singular framings –comes between the person looking and the objects that Lydia has photographed. There is nothing here to help us imagine a space where these things might be, a room or natural setting, and not the slightest light from the sky or a lamp that we would see bathing them. They seem to be thrown towards us from the depths of the image, except that this image has no ground, it is all there in a foreground behind which nothing opens and nothing is even conceivable. Violent, these figures which seem to want to leave the image, to be graspable by all, force their way into our world. And what are these figures? With the exception here and there of an apple that in fact is so brutally red or green that it looks like an industrial product, the objects are only manufactured ones, and most of them are small. Magnifying glasses, scissors, binoculars, playing cards, little wooden figures, rosettes, pins, rubber bands, boxes, bottles, embroideries, the kind of things you’d find on a bric-a-brac stand, or chance upon at home, in drawers, or the kind of things that can catch your eye, ask to be adopted by the person who has undertaken to empty an apartment that is at once familiar and overflowing with surprises.

These things are offered up for adoption, which is understandable, since, being manufactured, they are not rooted in life like a plant or an animal, in that succession of births and deaths thanks to which mere day-long existences can, in disappearing, be absorbed into the whole, finding a degree of happiness in that. The objects photographed by Lydia Flem exist only by and through us, they are of the same kind as those she found in her parents’ home, where they asked her to be able to go on being, and that she should do so herself. This way of photographing has grasped in the thing itself the yet invisible movement whereby it withdraws into itself, and thus falls completely into this space of matter that is repressed by the places we institute but, from the depths of this abyss, reaches out to us.

And what, in these conditions, can “composing” mean? Nothing that is not an acute awareness of this randomness that composition, this bid for the timeless, seeks constantly to abolish. For chance is the other name of that outside in the night of which are dissolved those relations that, in our desire for day, we wish to believe are true bonds between things. And so Lydia tells that she “unreflectingly” sets out the various objects she takes up on surfaces that in themselves are indifferent: for she wants to pre-empt the thought that would yearn for those relations. She no longer proposes to serve intentions, desires or projects. On the contrary, by dismissing all these she is trying to bare the thing that these aims and these views cover with their always-simplified idea of them. Lydia’s “composition” means – when we see the magnifying glass near the scissors on the table – perceiving in that proximity the chance that is on the same level as their nature as magnifying glass or scissors without consciousness of self or will; it means reaching them in their en-soi, which is nothing. This composing, this passage into the outside, is no longer, as in the classic image, something that can abolish chance, or at least dream of doing so; it is its manifestation. It is the immediate perception of this withdrawal of meaning and of the non-being that choke those who sort through the vestiges of a family home. It is also the intuition of the teaching that we must learn to accept from the wreckage from a great crash, despite all these meanings, such loving meanings, that we bestowed on them in the dream that is our life.


This is a lesson, indeed, that Flem has admirably articulated. All those familiar with her work have been struck by her interest in the keys to hotel rooms, specifically the ones hung from the board at reception in an “old palace hotel” in Sils-Maria. Lydia placed thirty-two of these keys upright on a checkerboard, side by side with their numbers and their chains well visible, and the meaning that this decision makes apparent in all her works, the experience of life that she shows to be active there, in the relation to the object, could not, in my view, be clearer. With Lydia objects speak their nothingness only by proclaiming our own at the same time, their sudden appearance without earth or sky in unbordered spaces makes us see, as if in a mirror, the nothingness that we all are too: and here are the keys to say it explicitly. What more are we, indeed, than residents for only a few nights in the rooms of an old hotel, less durable than these keys that will continue to hang from the board with “216” or “103” written on their tab in their size or nearly to metaphorise with all the brilliance of their shiny matter the evanescence of all things? The house that Lydia Flem had to empty is already a hotel room.

And, for Lydia, to this thought is added the ineradicable, obsessive memory that the inhabitant of the house, her mother, a former deportee who still cried out from the depths of her nights, indelibly wore, a number on her arm, which gave the room numbers of the hotel keys another reason to signify meaninglessness, but this time redoubling it with the fear of the irreducible nature of evil in society, in our lives: an incitement to more despair. When we think of the death camps, that project of emptying the human being – the speaking being – of its interiority, we are very close to renouncing what this work by Lydia desires: by reinitiating objects from her life in the becoming of other people’s lives, to found a new kind of meaning, a second degree in the faith in being through the lessons of the illusory. This obvious overdetermination of the keys in the photos of Sils-Maria makes the image a coming-to-the-limits but also the expression of the need for a decision.

Now, this is the centre, or, to put it better, the heart of the photographer’s search, if not of this existence. The decision is already taken under the gaze of these keys whose meaning the earlier work makes it easier to recognise. Lydia lays out the keys of the rooms to the “old palace hotel” on the squares of a chequerboard, that is to say, in that space of both law and desire, the scene, over the centuries, of the clash between the side of evil, of potential despair, and the equally eternal desire to try to be, the will to be that Hamlet was unable to live out. These keys, Lydia places them upright on so many squares, side by side, basically in battle formation, making these sad, clearly visible numbers the assembled army of non-being, and thus what is presented here is a combat, against the pull of nothingness, and hope reviving. “Pawns and pieces of an unnamed and hopeless catastrophe, fascist army,” pushing forward “the innocent with figures tattooed on their metal skin,” writes Lydia, very lucidly.

What remains – and this is the lesson as well as the wish of this photo of keys, representative of an entire body of work – is to play this part in life, for it can only be there, with, around us and in us, all the desires we feel and all the affection of which we are capable, that the great revival may take place, that confidence may revive, and the world begin anew. A “nameless catastrophe” that is constantly coming into being? Yes, because, at death, matter surges back into existences, reducing them to names now lived from the outside, their house emptied of what gave meaning and raison-d’être to their life. But is there “no way out”? Perhaps, but no, it is the revival to which Lydia is summoning us, without our having fought this battle that consists, precisely, in giving names to new lives in order to make them, for a moment, new beings. Being is only an act that we decide, that we revive, a flame in a relay that, as such, does not cease, or must not do so. Such is the lesson of Lydia Flem’s photographs, which do not close up over their appearance and take their place alongside others with a different aim, in an artistic becoming on the margins of life, but intervene in life itself, question it, await its answer – and help it, if need be, to rally.

Yves Bonnefoy

BONNEFOY Yves (2014) : « Les photographies de Lydia Flem », Les Photographies de Lydia Flem. The Photographs of Lydia Flem, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Maison de l’Amérique latine, Institut français de Berlin, p.31-45.

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