Article main image

You only realize to what extent alienation drives one’s experience of city life when you travel to a distant locale where the rules of conduct differ. Transplanted to Tokyo, a Western visitor will find that certain things simply are different, even as the underlying ideas and principles of co-existing in a large city with millions of people are exactly the same. Rush-hour traffic in a subway there will subject you to a fascinating bodily brutality that shocked me even though I am familiar with commuting in Germany. At the same time, where there would be loud complaining and yelling in Germany, things evolved in almost complete silence.

The city is a moloch that can only function if there is a basic set of agreed-upon rules of conduct. If everybody does the same thing, every person will give away a minor aspect of their freedom in exchange for an altogether more convenient way to go about moving through a space with possibly many thousands of strangers. It ultimately is foolish to contrast and compare, and it certainly is foolish to draw conclusions from what is observed abroad (even as that makes for cute fodder for social media — witness the emergence of comedians that only focus on the supposed strangeness of the people in their adopted home countries).

If anything, the city amplifies the separation between the self and the outside world, the world that begins in that little sphere we all carry around us. Other people — strangers! — might intrude for no particular reason at all. And that offends us. In fact, even the possible thought of it happening charges up every trip through an urban space. We prepare ourselves accordingly, where we haven’t already acquired a mental suit of armor that we put on before we leave the house.

To encounter people means to judge them (unless, of course, you’re trained enough in Buddhism not to do so). To move through the city provides an endless stream of such judgments, and it is such judgments that form the core of Annie Ernaux‘s Exteriors, a relatively short book that is now available in truncated form, with photographs added. The latter — from now on, the title will always refer to this version — is the brainchild of Lou Stoppard, a writer and curator who assembled it during a residency at MEP in Paris.

Exteriors contains a series of relatively short vignettes, in which the narrator describes encounters with strangers in a city. In the pithy observations some judgment is implied just enough for it to become easily discernible for a reader.

In a much earlier period of my life, I spent about three or four months in Paris on a job. The job — a cheap suit among other cheap suits — involved a daily commute from some hotel to the hellscape that is the world of office buildings at La Défense. I have since had to commute in a number of other cities — Munich, Stockholm, Boston, Tokyo — but it is the Paris ones that were brought to mind when reading the book.

As should be clear from the above, I do not mean to apply any value judgment tbydescribing Exteriors as being very French. And maybe a reader who has never had my commuting experience in Paris might encounter Ernaux’s words very differently. Regardless, there is tremendous poignancy to her writing, as one brief encounter, one brief observation follows the next.

In Exteriors, the written vignettes are interspersed with photographs. As you might imagine, these photographs for the most part are part of the “street photography” genre. Some were taken by well-known photographers, but there are also others. What’s interesting is how well this works. I now cannot imagine reading the text-only version of the book (even as I’m curious about all the parts that are excluded in the image-text version) because I enjoy the interplay between the text and the images so much.

The spirit of city life, of random encounters, is communicated very well, which makes for a mesmerizing experience. That some of the photographers hail from very different locales does not matter all that much. There is the occasional shift in perspective, but that shift is entirely because of the person behind the camera: Daido Moriyama’s photographs fit in a lot better than Issei Suda’s, say. They both took their pictures in Tokyo, but they projected very different ideas onto their shared home city.

(You will note that I described Moriyama and Suda as shifting ideas onto the target of their photographs. There’s that judgment again. Photographers do not observe as if they were automatons, and neither do writers.)

Unfortunately, Exteriors includes catalogue-style captions underneath each of its photographs. This has one form of text clash with another: the functions of Ernaux’s words and the captions are completely different, which mars the overall effect of the combined text and images. If you read the book and look at the pictures, you will definitely have to force yourself to ignore the captions.

Reading and looking through Exteriors, I was left with the impression that Stoppard had not realized what she actually has produced. Even as there already is that text-only version of the work, the new one with its added photographs is a work of art in its own right. And it’s quite an impressive one, certainly one of the better examples of adding photographs to pre-existing text.

Consequently, I was very disappointed when the text-image section ended and I encountered a text by Stoppard around how she had produced the work. To some extent, I can understand the basis for the inclusion of that text. But the temptation should have been resisted. Much like artists are well advised to not explain their work, in this case reading this particular text does absolutely nothing for the absolutely amazing text that precedes it.

To be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself more and more disenchanted with the world of photo writing. This is entirely on me, of course. There is nothing wrong with regurgitating the same  ideas and sentiments (“Is that not exactly what a photograph does? Stop time.” — Stoppard) in the hope of extracting insight, however meager it usually ends up being.

Still, if photographs stop time, they only do so in the most superficially literal sense. Yes, a photograph shows what a physicist might describe as a projection in space-time: a three-dimensional space with time passing projected onto a two-dimensional plane in which only a very short and fixed period of time is contained.

But no photograph arrests time for a viewer, whoever they might be: in fact, the best photographs open up a seeming infinity of new ideas, new meanings, new possibilities — all of them propelling the viewer into an unknown and tremendously exciting future. A good photograph arrests nothing and compels us to consider our better future selves.

And what exactly does one gain from regurgitating the same trite sentiments (Garry Winogrand is quoted in the book as is Susan Sontag) in every photo text — as if they were a part of some religious ceremony?

I just don’t understand how the world of photography can insist on treating the medium like an art form — only to then mostly discuss it as if it were a petty craft, as in Stoppard’s essay at the end of Exteriors.

I don’t intend to be too critical of this curator’s work: after all, photographers struggle with the exact same challenge. At some point, you will have to realize that what you’ve made is smarter, deeper than yourself, and you have to resist the temptation to explain it or to press it into a Procrustean bed of limited meanings.

That all said, get yourself a copy of Exteriors. It’s absolutely amazing — as long as you only read Annie Ernaux’s text, and allow yourself to get fully immersed in this world that the photographs added by Lou Stoppard have created. Don’t look at how the sausage was made.

Exteriors; texts by Arnie Ernaux and Lou Stoppard; photographs by various artists, ed. Lou Stoppard; 144 pages; MACK; 2024

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!