Guillaume Simoneau: Murder as Legacy

“Guillaume Simoneau is a not a cannibal, but his book Murder (MACK), is an ode to Fukase’s legendary status and particularly his book Karasu/Ravens. Murder is a devotional hymn, or a phantom limb added to the mythology of the Japanese artist”



Inherent or Mythological Propagandas


One of photography’s less considered functions is how the camera and its production qualify the palpable, yet ungovernable mythology of its creator. We assume when looking at photographs that the referent to be considered is within the frame. Bodies of work are produced and we can consider that “so and so’s” work was about “such and such”. The time we spend building critical coursework around the output is considerate and moreover semi-correct in its cultural assertion within the economy of the medium. However, when we consider the frame and the body of work, we are not generally considering the author and his or her mythology more than a facilitator unless it is pinioned to overt political strategies or propaganda. It is to suggest that the output exceeds the identity of manufacturer. It is easy to see how this happens.


Cannibal Identities and Works of Mythological Consummation.                                   


We cannot easily interpret the background of an individual making an image and yet we are meant to extoll the virtues of their work within the canon of its status as a product of the cultural history within the arts. In some cases, such as with Sophie Calle for example, we see that the work is grounded in a forced and anticipated trajectory in which the author impends upon the viewer the self as work. Her economy of production is to manifest her interior and private world into that of publicly absorbed and economized work, which inevitably calls into question motivation, but also audience consumption and Artworld accreditation. There is something of the self-offering sacrifice to the cannibal Artworld involved. Calle questions what it is to consume her image as one consumes manna in a mythological and biblical means-the (body of) work compels the consummation of its author. It is negotiated as an edible self with an intention to be ingested, to pass through the viewer. This is an enforcement of mythological ritual. Photographer Masahisa Fukase has also asked that we, in celebration of his mythology, imbibe of his legacy; our devouring pleasure a mechanism of the spiritual and cultural cannibals that we have become.


Elements of Photographic Style and the Symbolic Legacy



Guillaume Simoneau is a not a cannibal, but his book Murder (MACK), is an ode to Fukase’s legendary status and particularly his book Karasu/Ravens. Murder is a devotional hymn, or a phantom limb added to the mythology of the Japanese artist and is deceivingly simple in its orchestration. In Simoneau’s work, we see the Ravens. We see the archival family photographs that his mother had taken of the family as they nursed a young group/murder of ravens back to health from their accidental dislocation from a tree felled by Simoneau’s father in 1982. This was the same year that Ravens was made by Fukase-the chronology of which is important to enable the symbolic legacy from Fukase to Simoneau. The raven and the year are mechanisms that provide a genesis between the two artists, which will later be solidified via the shared symbolic image of the raven itself.


The story seems simple enough. Simoneau, a French-Canadian artist flew to Japan to photograph the territory and fauna of Japan as an act of tribute to Fukase. Simoneau’s own mythology and family history are now forever interwoven posthumously to Fukase’s. He has literally placed his own story, family (mother’s archive Dad’s axe) and photography within Fukase’s legacy by his ritual act of production, thus complicating, in a positive way the multiple positions that the Ravens story has taken. This is exemplified in how Simoneau carefully executes the sequences within his book to cater to the symbolic order, but to also implicate his own self and work within the legacy of Fukase driving the narrative of the Japanese artist’s biopic forward after death.



The first picture in Murder seems almost banal. It is a deftly composed study of what appears to be airport architecture, but this reading, like the two images following it, is completely deceptive. If we were to think in simple formal terms, we would be left with only a structure and not the celestial and metaphorical impulse to examine the symbolic circle within the grid as a glorified formality. This central element, the circle is of course metaphorical for the idea of the returnal, the cyclical and the closed loop in which we can posit Simoneau and his family within the Ravens mythology. It is also backlit by an open sky in between the modernist grid of steel, which gives pause to re-consider the ravens or rather their abilities towards flight and the sky as natural habitat.


“This central element, the circle is of course metaphorical for the idea of the returnal, the cyclical and the closed loop in which we can posit Simoneau and his family within the Ravens mythology”


With the second and third images, Simoneau toys with his deconstruction of the circle of Fukase’s myth. We see a murder (group of ravens) of dead baby ravens on the ground, in color and clearly photographed by Simoneau. Opposite, in stark black and white lies an image of the sky photographed from the position of lying on the ground similar to the position the dead raven offspring find themselves on the preceding page, looking upward with glassy eyes. We are reminded of the ravens that Simoneau’s family raised, but instead of life, we are given pause to consider another group of ravens that fell from high and that did not live from the fall-a parable not too distant to Fukase’s own delayed death from falling down stairs.



This small sequence sets the tone for a circular loop in which Simoneau, the subject matter, Fukase and also Simoneau’s family and work become intertwined with the Japanese artist further. I cannot be positive, but it is also positive that the third image of the trees is an archival image by Simoneau’s mother, whose work will factor heavily in the book. There is also, by proxy of her images a further motion for an analogous metaphor as she weighs as heavily on this work by Simoneau as Fukase’s father weighed on his own background as an operator of a photographic studio in Japan-both parents and their offspring born from the shadow of their own interests with the medium. These links between artists and their photographer parents is very important for the continuation of the mythologies presented in Simoneau’s work-it becomes a projection by Guillaume in which he is able to arrange the similarities of his work, life and genesis to that of Fukase. It creates metaphor and symbolic order through the overt act of careful editing and sequencing with a nod to a clear use of photographic style that also, when we view the ravens along the rooftops later, cements a purposeful regime in which Simoneau has interwoven his own production with that of Fukase. It is where narrative and myth co-exist and fantasy becomes tangible



My Place is Not My Home.


We continue through the book with a set of investigations of place. Between Canadian pine, lake (perhaps a link to Simoneau’s last book Experimental Lake) and entangled spider webs, we find the sequence outlining a notion of locality, which in the story of both Guillaume and Fukase are important as to how they activate the larger story and natural considerations of atmosphere and environment in their respective books. These investigations are also, like the first image of airport steel, incredible studies of geometry, sacred or other.


“This sequence is cinematic and recalls the stop-motion photographs of Etienne Jules Marey”



Moving along, we find the first of many photographs by Simoneau’s mother, with what appears to also be the author and perhaps a brother feeding baby ravens/crows. The images pulse with sweetness, but are also set with purpose as they are followed quickly by a series of photographs of a hawk chasing and killing a raven along the rooftops of Japan, which Simoneau’s camera bears witness  in extraordinary detail. This sequence is cinematic and recalls the stop-motion photographs of Etienne Jules Marey (FR). I have chosen Marey carefully here as to enlist Edweard Muybridge (UK/USA) or Ottmar Anschütz (GER) would not be incorrect, but there is something of an indebtedness to things French, but also Marey’s Chronography being at times fixated on fowl and moment. This sort of sequence would normally jar against the archival use of Simoneau’s mother’s imagery by presenting two very different eras of exploration and the difficulties of working between color and monochrome in sequence, but it is successful in this work mostly because of Simoneau’s use of compacted frame and denuded color. He had also set the expectations for this match between color and monochrome very early with the airport and tree line image-both of passive restraint informing the audience of a link between monochrome color and the possibility for its distribution within a larger sequence.


It is very important to note that in stylistic terms, Simoneau has layered the first passage of this book in an incredibly nuanced, but successful variation of structural aims. He is at once considering a mythology of an important predecessor. He is activating his own family within the use of archival considerations. He is considering the history of the medium and its indebtedness to cinema or several frame sequence and the historical motions that brought them to surface. There is also a heavy consideration of the natural world which features into previous bodies of his work creating a strong personal identity in itself. He has also included an image of himself and later will include Fukase in very concrete terms either through images of self/family or direct acquisition of images related to the person history of both authors, notable the Ravens bar/pub seen later in the book where Fukase’s legacy hangs heavily in Japan. I cannot explain in concrete terms how evasive it is to combine two elements in a book sequence, let alone the number of successful ingredients that Simoneau employs to loosely narrate the mythology that he seeks to represent in symbolic order. If handled differently and without stylistic grace, the work would be a mess.


Terraforming an Interior Landscape.



Continuing through the first quarter of the book, we find striking vistas and portraits of Japan and its people, which are again, woven in between archival images and a stellar set of two images of the predatory hawk that will ultimately kill the crow it is chasing a few pages later. The two images are closely cropped and leave a political assertion hanging in the wind. Just as the original Ravens considered Fukase’s inner state of depressive and moody thought, it was also a strange reflection of post-war Japan and the state that it inhabited as awkwardly shamed, guilty and ultimately castigated under control from a foreign state.



We see this element represented in post-war photographs from Germany as well-both places where the eagle or hawk of America and its war machinery pinion the subjugated country and oppress its post-war state with new ideology and surveillance. It is hard to say if this was intentional in Murder, but I suspect that even if my reading of it were wrong, associations, however perilous can be drawn from the political landscape. This use of style-the two portraits of the same bird magnified in subsequent frames is another response for how we mitigate the use of photography and its role as a fixated frame of political possibility. Simoneau suggests that for every photograph, there is a moment before and after. This sounds nearly trite to pen, but in its elasticity of use, the potential for this, as Paul Graham certainly knows, is to engage a wider response to how we disseminate the photographic frame and what lies directly outside of the primary moment captured-what is rendered just to the side of the frame or a few moments later creating a larger dialogue. This is a reminder of the fallacy of photography, but does not occlude it necessarily to the dustbin of failure. It instead re-enforces a systematic potential if harnessed and illustrated through sequences such as this. It is stylistic and it has a history. This will be used again by Simoneau-half-way through the book in a beautiful nighttime diptych of (presumably) ravens flying over a building in Japan. This is the most direct consequence visually to Fukase’s legacy as it mirrors a number of his own ornithological images. It creates a particular dynamism and its use is informal and fleeting, but repeated thus solidifies his intention to work through Fukase posthumously.


“This is the most direct consequence visually to Fukase’s legacy as it mirrors a number of his own ornithological images. It creates a particular dynamism and its use is informal and fleeting, but repeated thus solidifies his intention to work through Fukase posthumously”


The second half of the book continues with some of the metrics Simoneau uses to distribute several complex layers of reading. One approach to this book that I am particularly fond of is the use of style that repeats. We tend to see the book form as somehow linear and chronological and this makes some sense as this is historically how we interpret the quotidian, not art-related digestion of book materials. Simoneau is aware in his sequence that in using several small stylistic tactics such as mini-sequences with the hawk and the raven, that he must repeat this later and he does, notably and circularly with the images of his aged father gardening. He also continues the use of place by very carefully repeating one color photograph of a Japanese breakwater wall from the position of the beach, which if I am inclined to believe his sincerity reflects, if not in direct terms, Fukase’s own photographs of a similar pier/breakwater. The use of this image in the first and final third of the book, even in its repetitive state shows a grave understanding of thickening the narrative ands use of photographic style that refuses to let the story become aggrieved by one-off tactics. There is something reminiscent of how Roe Etheridge uses the doubling images like this in his work, though with differing intentions. It is the opposite of how we use the single defining image in a book to thwart monotony that we can assume as fair, if jarring play. I have mentioned notably Collier Schorr’s color photograph of a radio in her Nachbarn/Neighbors masterpiece as example of this tactic. This is a variation of style that is often lost on artists making books. Simoneau refuses to untie and let loose his considered tightness of layers within the work to his credit. I believe that is because the tightness of this book and is off incredible importance to building the link to Fukase, but also to giving respect to his own family and the work of his mother found within. It is a highly personal pursuit and the structure and sequencing reflects passion, trust and love. Imagine paying homage to your heroes and parents in the same book while trying to retain your authorship-not the easiest of challenges.




Hero worship; a difficult Litany


If I had to state the obvious differences between Simoneau’s hero worship of Ravens and his own…Murder, It would be to suggest that though he has handled the subject well, the intervention of his family and the overly less bleak post-war Japanese feel of the original are at odds in the most positive of ways. This is resoundingly because the authors are two different people and although the myth surrounding Fukase and his best known work are implicit, what I exact from the authorship of Murder is Simoneau his own self within the work. It is semi-self referential, but only so through the use of archival images of his family and his native Canada, which gives it a more elegiac repose fit for honor to his own roots as well as the tempest that was fukase. The difference between the two authors egos is massive and pressing within the work. To be frank, Simoneau, whom I have to the pleasure to be acquainted with is a warm and introspective artist. I cannot say with 100% accuracy that the same can be said of Fukase. The myth of Fukase certainly suggests differently with a litany of accusations by his wife and other family member. Fukase’s own family, unlike Simoneau’s seemed to be comprised of relationships built on austerity if not fear.



In conclusion, I question whether Fukase’s legacy needs Simoneau’s intervention to enable his mythology-and my answer is no, but I think that the work exists as such stabilizes and promotes legacy if not mythology. Does Simoneau need Fukase’s legacy or the mythology that has been built around the artist for his own legacy-also, no. Both artists and their work can be read as sympathetic and are incredible contributions to the value of the book medium and the elements of photographic style. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.


Guillaume Simoneau 



(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Guillaume Simoneau.)

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