“Charbonneau and French’s work adds to the neo-dandy trajectory explored by such flamboyant self-documenting pairs as Pierre et Gilles, McDermott & McGough, and Gilbert and George. Now, however, dandyism has been given a noir edge.” -Peter Frank, On View
JUNE 2011, SAN FRANCISCO, CA. – Los Angeles based collaborating photographers Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French’s summer exhibition, Circumspect, at Robert Berman/E6 Gallery is a vigilant display of pure photography that invokes narratives reminiscent of Saki and Roald Dahl stories, or as previously described in Photograph magazine “Fellini’s take on Lewis Carroll.”
Circumspect, the duos’ first San Francisco exhibit, features 20 large-scale photographs from both Charbonneau and French’s Massillon series and their current Playground series. Utilizing traditional darkroom techniques (read: without Photoshop), and shooting with medium and large format film, Charbonneau and French’s photographs are rendered via meticulously executed installation staging and equally detail oriented post-production work.
Charbonneau explains, “Our images are essentially performance/installation stills, as we are very interested in capturing a real moment in time and adhering to the sentiments of traditional film based photography. As such, we prefer manipulating our images in a wet darkroom environment, rather than in the digital domain. In our Massillon series, where clouds are upside-down, or superimposed over a figure, the manipulations were done strictly in the darkroom using multiple negatives. In Playground we only retouched minor areas where the large orbs were tethered to the ground with small weights.” Charbonneau and French do, however, rely on digital technologies for the enlargement and printing process of their images. In the interest of maintaining consistency throughout their editions, large-scale exhibition prints are created using digital c-print technology based on their original silver gelatin masters.
Charbonneau’s twenty-year background in photography and in the motion picture and television industry, coupled with French’s background in screenwriting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and Art History degree from UCLA, has created a partnership that consistently produces works that transport viewers to fanciful lands of visually interpreted imaginations, dreams, myths and memories. Ultimately, to discover oneself caught in the storybook narratives that unfold in the Massillon series or to experience Charbonneau and French’s Playground series, which will make you think differently about the alignment of the stars as you look into the night sky, brings to mind the fact that some pictures are worth a thousand words, or in the case of Charbonneau and French’s work, a thousand stories.
Included in Circumspect are select works from Massillon, Charbonneau and French’s premiere body of work, which takes its name from the Ohio town where French’s great grandmother Zeta Eliza Woolley lived at the turn of the 20th century.
Creating images with Victorian-era aesthetics and a 19th century craftsmanship, combined with traditional black and white darkroom techniques and contemporary photographic processes, Massillon, for Charbonneau and French, “is a meditation on memory, and how it functions through the two of us, and between us.” Part of an unraveling narrative inspired by the life of French’s ancestor, Massillon reads as an archive of the artist’s memories, old family folklore, dreams and childhood reminiscence, transformed into works that have been described as “stills, it would seem, [from] an Edgar Allan Poe film adaptation by Ingmar Bergman.”
Playground, Charbonneau and French’s most current body of work, focuses on the study of primary shapes, in particular the sphere, and its literal and symbolic relationship to human subjects and the natural world. Notes French, “In these highly designed pictures we have strayed away from the emotionally driven narrative that characterized our previous series, Massillon, to create visual poetry through experiments with proportion, distance, and repetition in space.”
With the Playground series, Charbonneau and French have ventured into such realms of influence as classic mythology, Buckminster Fuller’s utopian communities, mid twentieth-century architectural sketches, Dava Sobel’s book, Planets, and their own childhood experiences with weather balloons. Set upon sweeping and stark landscapes, as if in a play-space one might comfortably reach into and rearrange on a whim, each photograph in Playground begins with the artists sculptural intervention into a found landscape or surface through the decisive placement of people and objects, such as large monochromatic spheres and diminutive and fanciful female figures, and concludes with performances, postures and arrangements captured on film that are often infused with elements of classical mythology and subtle references to the universe as created and manipulated by gods and goddesses of polytheistic times.