Corinne Vionnet, CIELS

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2020 (here). Plastic softcover with elastic, 28×18 cm, with 15 unbound black and white reproductions. Includes an insert card with a complete version of the work. There are no texts or essays. In an edition of 75 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: There is something inherently universal about a photograph of the sky. Almost regardless of where and when it was made, a photograph of sunny skies, puffy clouds, or stormy weather makes a connection with us all, as if we had just turned our eyes upward ourselves to see what the photographer saw. While we routinely classify and organize landscapes, cityscapes, and even portraits by their geography or country of origin, we hardly ever apply those same tags to images of skies – yes, one was made in California, another in France, and a third in Thailand, but we don’t typically put much stock in such differentiation. The skies belong to everyone, so much so that we have developed the romantic notion that people far away somehow share the same sky overhead.

The long exposure times of 19th century photographic technology made making images of skies difficult – motion in the sky quickly became blur, and ultimately washed into complete flatness, a problem that Gustave Le Gray famously fixed by compositing separate images of dramatic skies above his seascapes. By the 20th century, with faster speeds came a stream of skyward cloud studies, in particular Alfred Stieglitz’ Equivalents from the 1920s and 1930s, which turned the endlessly morphing patterns in the sky into meditative Modernist abstractions.

Corinne Vionnet’s self-published photobook CIELS (skies, in French) adds a decidedly 21st century perspective to this photographic timeline. CIELS conceptually reflects a world where digital photographs are taken by us all, and then uploaded, shared, and retransmitted again and again across the Internet, in a constant stream of image recycling. Like her earlier project Photo Opportunities, where she composited together hundreds of images made by visitors to tourist locations like the Eiffel tower and the Taj Mahal into shiftingly “perfect” aggregate versions of the most common view, in CIELS, she once again turns to images sourced from the Internet, this time stitching the source images together into one monumental black and white view of the sky. This full view composition (seen on an insert at the end of the photobook) is full of clouds and wanders from light to dark, seemingly incorporating all kinds of skies into one tumultuous hybrid vaguely reminiscent of an elaborately stylized Renaissance church ceiling.

A closer look at Vionnet’s sky reveals an interleaved striping effect across the entire photograph. This refers directly to wirephoto technology (invented by Édouard Belin in 1913, and in wide use by the 1930s), which transmitted images across telegraph and telephone lines (very slowly). The process involved breaking halftone images into single scan lines, sending them across the wire, and then reassembling them on the other side. Vionnet has run with this idea in her composition, digitally breaking her own photograph down into similar interleaved lines. These lines are very much visible, creating an oscillating visual effect (a little like a lenticular photograph) as our eyes attempt to merge the adjacent lines into a smooth continuum. (It’s also possible that Vionnet’s image merging process has taken even fuller advantage of this striping, mixing disparate images together line by line, essentially on top of one another.) The resulting conceptual framework is simple and elegant – Vionnet uses a contemporary technology to mimic the limitations of an old one, and makes us think further about how images were and are transmitted and recombined.

CIELS is an artist’s book in the best sense of that term. Following the overall theme of image deconstruction and reconstruction, Vionnet takes her single composite image of the sky and breaks it down to fill the pages of the photobook. 15 tiled images (each printed across a full spread) are folded, interleaved, and gathered together unbound. This construction process systematically mixes the imagery – when flipped as a normal photobook, the two sides of each spread consist of separate halfs of two different tiles. Penelope Umbrico used this approach in her innovative 2014 photobook Out of Order (reviewed here), and Vionnet has applied the same method here, smartly integrating it with her overall artistic concept.

It isn’t always visually obvious that the two sides of a spread in CIELS aren’t the same image, as the cloud forms merge together and the mismatches get lost in the gutter. This makes the underlying image assembly idea even more rich and complex – the skies keep morphing and reassembling, and if we want to, we can pull apart the book and reassemble it into a grid of 5×3 tiles to recreate the original artwork. The cover and title page graphically reinforce this unsettled seen-from-multiple-angles form, repeating the letters of the title out three times, which then shift and combine when viewed through the striped plastic cover.

Just like in her previous photobook Total Flag (from 2018, reviewed here), Vionnet has taken a single image and then broken it down iteratively. With her flag project, she repeatedly rephotographed an image of the American flag on her computer screen, the decay and distortion of each iteration ultimately leading to an unrecognizable dark blob. In CIELS, she has built a more layered and complex starting image, and then used the form and construction of the book itself to create the remixing and breaking down process.

The deceptive simplicity of CIELS (it’s a thin book of cloud pictures, after all) may lead some viewers to underestimate its sophistication, but that would be a mistake. CIELS is a thoughtfully constructed photographic project which has been tightly coupled to its ultimate photobook form, using the book itself to activate the imagery in specific and controlled ways. Once again, Vionnet has cleverly uncovered intricate layers of complexity in a hackneyed subject, using a 21st century perspective to reinvent a photographic cliché.

Collector’s POV: Corinne Vionnet is represented by Danziger Gallery in New York (here) and East Wing in Dubai (here). Vionnet’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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