Invited to take photographs in a faded tobacco town, the French photographer sought to put fresh eyes on the American image
What’s your vision of America? Dominating popular culture for years, it’s a country nearly everyone has an image of, encountered via films, TV, books, and music. French photographer Rémy Artiges first went to the US “a few decades” ago, experiencing the country “at her climax”, as he puts it, “carrying in her all the past and present photographic projections, accounting for all the technologies of contemporary representation of a time when she invented herself, images emissaries of the one who we served so many examples without really knowing why today”.
When he was invited to go back by the festival Eyes on Main Street, he tried to go with without preconceptions, to let “reality there catch me up”. It helped that the residency was so open-ended, with no parameters other than that he stick around and make work in Wilson, North Carolina during November, 2017. Wilson has a population of roughly 50,000 people and, once at the heart of the tobacco industry, saw a decline in its fortunes when the tobacco warehouses closed down. Today the city is reinventing itself through the arts, with the Eyes on Main Street festival very much part of the process.
Artiges shot people he found in the street or via the festival organisers in abandoned buildings, and shot details and landscapes he found during his stay. Beyond that he had just a few ideas in mind, such as taking portraits with a smoke machine, and shooting the landscape with an old digital camera to which he’d deliberately added dust on the sensor. The result is an enigmatic, atmospheric body of work, which suggests a place slightly down on its luck, a deep America that’s “the queen of obsolescence” as Artiges puts it.
“The series has a lot to do with images but I can’t say that I wanted to show things,” he says. “I went there with no pre-defined project but with different ideas. I wished not to confront myself with the American myth or American photography.”
Growing up with two keen photographers for parents, Artiges was given a camera for his sixth birthday and has been taking photographs ever since. His work often centres on nature that’s been changed by humans in some way, and has been exhibited around the world, including at prestigious festivals such as Rencontres d’Arles and Visa pour l’image. Eyes on Main Street has also become a sought-after festival since its inception four years ago, exhibiting work by photographers such as William Klein, Eugene Richards, Mary Ellen Mark, and Raymond Depardon.
Artiges’ work was exhibited there in April 2018, but is now also going on show at the Pingyao International Photography Festival from 18 September – giving a Chinese audience to a French vision of a contemporary US city, beyond the American myths.