Luc Delahaye

The first posting on this blog is a get to know me book list. It was only a few days ago, while looking through my bookshelves that is realized I had hadn’t included any work by Luc Delahaye. I could believe I had left him out, especially as he is one of my favorite photographers.

Delahaye was for a number of years a photojournalist with Magnum Photos. His journalistic work, often on assignment for Newsweek, took him to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Chechnya, amongst other places and won him a number of prestigious awards. In 2004, declaring himself to be an artist, he resigned from Magnum, not that this meant a change of subject matter; he continued to photograph in war zones and other areas blighted by social upheaval. As a photojournalist, and a Magnum member, the presence of Robert Capa is never too far away, with the famous dictum: If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re aren’t close enough being the litmus test for such work. But Delahaye seems to have not got the memo. He certainly got physically close but there was an emotional detachment – his is a cool observational eye.

He sought to formalise this approach, firstly for the book L’Autre where he used a hidden camera to photograph the people sitting opposite him on the Paris Metro. This exercise helped restore a lost faith in photography and was followed by two long trips to Russia that culminated in the book: Winterreise.

For me this small book stands as one of the finest examples of its kind. The work feels different to the journalism the preceded it. One gets the feeling that the melancholy that emanates from it is as much a reflection of Delahaye’s state of mind as is of the social decline experienced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spending time with drunks, criminals, addicts and the homeless Delahaye depicts a Russia that could easy have come straight out of a Dostoyevski novel.

Though it does not have the hard edge of his journalistic work, there is a sense of discomfort when looking at some of the images. The profound squalor, the feeling of hopelessness, the substance abuse and violence that offers the only way out of such dire circumstances. There are no happy people here, no smiley families or children having fun, instead everyone looks old before his or her time. In what must be the most heartbreaking image in the book a toddler, sat on the edge of a bed in a filthy room next to her older sibling, feet in layers of dirty socks, hair a tangled mess, she looks at the floor, dejected, struggling under the burdens of a life that no child should have to live. Her demeanor is that of an old lady, someone worn out or rather worn down by the unrelenting hardness of life. One wonders if she’ll ever make it to actual old age – it seems though that the odds are stacked against her.

In other images, of people on beds – a recurring theme – we see adults passed out from drink or hard drugs; lined up for arrest; beaten by the mafia, at work down a mine or in factory that looks like the gateway to another layer of hell and, like modern day hunter gatherers in a post apocalyptic nether world foraging on open landfill sites. There are small signs of what is to come though, the faint smudge of a building sized Coca-Cola logo herald the rampant capitalism of the Putin era with its oligarchs and crass nouveau riche, they haven’t arrived yet and they certainly wont bring any solace to these people, they’ll just ignore them as they drive by in their luxury cars or hold up in their mansions.

To say that this is a work of the highest caliber is an understatement. Rarely do photographers capture so intensely, so completely the atmosphere of a time, a place and a group of people. It is Delahye’s ability to capture this mood of a country at a time of profound change and uncertainty that is most striking. It is a lyrical work that seeps into the viewers consciousness, lodges itself their and stubbornly refuses to leave.

Luc Delahaye – Winterreise (Phaidon 2000)

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