Ephemeral Fictions. On Photography by Noémie Goudal

By Neal Eggenberger


Knowledge about the direct reference of photography to reality, the certainty that the object to be photographed was directly present at the time the release button was pressed, is a fact and of necessity just as old as photography itself. And yet the indexical credibility of the medium has never kept theory from constantly inquiring into its manipulative qualities and continuing on and on to doubt the truth-content of the photographic image. Since Postmodernism the complexity of the photographic medium has been ultimately obvious and theoretical discourses revolve around the social and media context in which photography is embedded. Even the producers of art have not remained unaffected and by them the discussion has been increasingly shifted from theory to practice; it is they who take part in the debate with conceptual approaches and “the photographic in general as an attitude, a special, time-bound construct of perception”.

Accordingly, among present-day artists there are not a few who deal with this photo-theoretical discourse in their work. This applies in particular to the younger ones among them, who have been accustomed to the constant presence of the new media from childhood. Is this sense of familiarity perhaps the reason why in their activities these above all inquire into the motif, the recognizable figure, the objectively identifiable something as a “truth” that may well have been constructed by the eye of the medium?

As members of a generation that is extremely aware of the manipulative uses to which the new media may be applied, the French artist Noémie Goudal (b. 1984) is also one who challenges the constructive possibilities of photography. She succeeds in this most impressively in her Observatoires (2013/14), a sequence of ten black-and-white pictures whose formal rigour manifests a conspicuous affinity with the architecture photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. With the strictly frontal view of the subject, the consistently diffuse sky in the background, the extreme minimalism of the image composition and the uniform image format of the entire series, Goudal positively quotes the basic parameters of the Bechers. This external similarity includes a substantial point: in this way the Observatoires allow us to assume, simply because of their cool aesthetic, their imperturbable presence, an indubitable documentarism; they do not, of course guarantee it.

So what was actually in front of Goudal’s camera at the moment the photo was taken? As viewers we take in modernist-looking tours, pyramidal constructions and sturdy central buildings, which rise above a centrally placed horizon. We recognize individual set pieces that remind us of the Pantheon in Rome, the pyramids of the Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá or the Indian Jantar Mantar, and which, encouraged by the monochrome prints, mimic a kind of concrete appearance. The monumentality suggested by the feigned material seems to be raised to a higher power by reflections in the water surrounding the constructions or by shadows cast on the ground, which reflect their apparent physicality—were it not for the many horizontal and vertical lines, which lie like a grid over the surface of the architecture, or the numerous kinks and dog-ears, which ultimately expose the whole thing as a set-up: Goudal’s typological studies are in fact elevations of montaged imaginary buildings, pasted as A3 prints onto man-high wooden boards. As such they represent totally ephemeral phenomena, whose credibility (and continuing existence) is guaranteed solely by photography. That the Observatoires nonetheless evoke the association of an irrefutable reality is due to the way they are staged by the artists, whose significant components include the choice of perspective.

With her current series, Southern Light Stations (since 2015), Goudal now shifts our eyes away from the observatories towards the sky itself, against which background, in one case, something like like a solar eclipse seems to be taking place, in another the circular excerpt resembles the telescopic enlargement of a nocturnal constellation of stars, and in yet another a weather balloon seems to float across the picture. But, here again, only half of what we see at first sight is actually “real”. For, as with the Observatoires, Goudal (by means of the hardly visible strings that stabilize the templates and mirror) very subtly draws attention to her own manipulation, thus making it clear that „the photograph does not lie, but the photographer does indeed.”