Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier, L’Atlas des Régions Naturelles Vol. 2

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by Poursuite Editions (here) and GwinZegal (here). Softcover (17×32 cm), 384 pages, with over 600 images. Includes a fold out map of France with the selected regions highlighted. There are no texts or essays. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The idea of trying to photographically document an entire country, even a relatively small one, seems like a hopelessly implausible task. It feels almost delusional to think that any one set of photographs could come close to capturing everything going on, so if the photographer wants to persist, the intellectual task then becomes to figure out how to develop something approaching a representative sample, one that limits the scope of the effort to a workable subset, but still captures something of the overall essence.

Most nations are divided into smaller regions, like states, districts, and municipalities, largely to make the tasks of government more local, and so a logical overlay to a nation’s map generally exists, whereby a methodical approach could then be taken to document each region or subregion, making a unwieldy project potentially more organized and manageable. Ultimately, taken to its extremes, this approach breaks down in the Borgesian problem of the map being the same as the territory itself, but for Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier and their ambitious project to document France, using the 450 relatively small natural regions that constitute the territory of the country as a framework has provided them with a way to effectively bound their artistic problem.

Tabuchi and Monnier began their project some five years ago, and published their first book of images ARN Vol. 1 in 2021 (here and here); this photobook ARN Vol. 2 continues the series, in essentially the same format. With a nod to design of the vertically-oriented Michelin guides, the ARN volumes are tall and thin (but relatively hefty), filled with color images instead of text, with each region getting the same amount of space and attention. ARN Vol. 2 is divided into 16 chapters, gathering together images from 12 specific regions from around France, plus 4 thematic sections that collect like imagery from various locations, like a cross weave that knits the divided country back together. Each regional section begins with a title page and map (helping us to geographically locate where we are), and a full map of France with highlighted regions is included in the back. Overall, the design is crisp and functional, with handy edge marks to separate the sections.

Photographically, Tabuchi and Monnier have further narrowed their scope to the built environment of each region, and to a lesser extent its land. With a very few exceptions, there are no people in these pictures, and no effort has been made to capture the cultural or social specialties of any particular region, in the ways that many tourist guidebooks highlight markets, fairs, festivals, and other gatherings that seem regionally significant. Tabuchi and Monnier have instead looked closely at buildings, both old and new, with a particular eye for the unique vernacular architecture of the particular region. Like Walker Evans and Bernd & Hilla Becher before them, Tabuchi and Monnier have applied a sparse, frontal eye to the structures they have discovered, photographing them in ways that notice their details, highlight their eccentricities, and preserve their traditions. Many of the sections begin with a wider landscape that sets the scene a bit, and from there, the photographs pile up as a parade of individual building portraits, the placement and sizes of the images varied on the pages to keep the page turns lively.

What’s fascinating about this conceptual structure is that it really does work in terms of capturing the spirit of a region in a useful shorthand way. The northern region of Cambrésis is characterized by small chapels, elaborate brick facades, and a few more modern forms mixed in. To the east in the mountains, Chablais is filled with chalets, older valley structures (in stone and wood), and ski resorts. Médoc, on the south west coast, boasts water views, fancy estates, and beach lowlands. And further north, but still on the water, Presqu’île guérandaise is dotted with salt flats, abandoned bunkers, and the seaside services (like hotels) required by visitors.

Many of the more central regions have farming at the core of their slower rhythms, with older stone  and wood barns and huts, rolling hills with cows and plowed fields, modest town centers, and various grain elevators and out buildings adding to the built environment. Adding to these understated discoveries, Domfrontais offers castle gates and a coal mine, Pays d’Othe shows off a Roman aqueduct and some elegant stone buildings, and Valentinois introduces a few more chunky modern commercial buildings and industrial remnants. But even in these abbreviated summary portraits, each region feels wholly different, with its own unique architectural qualities (and histories) worth seeing and appreciating.

Cutting across this regional individuality are a series of themes Tabuchi and Monnier have pulled out of their visual archives. In a sense, these four sections of ARN Vol. 2 suggest that wherever we might go in France, we can expect to find some commonalities of lifestyle and national personality – some altogether predictable, others more unexpected. An engaging selection of images offers a taxonomy of French signage, and in particular those signs that use objects as eye catching symbols – an extra large walnut, a similarly large wine bottle (with a bird’s nest on top), both a shark and a dolphin, and various cars and boats hoisted into the air. Another group offers us a range of examples of the humble storage shed, in rotting wood and rusted metal, in concrete blocks and stone, and in creative combinations of all kinds of materials, all in the same practical rectangular form.

More unexpected are a series of images of buffets à volonté, the all-you-can-eat Chinese (and more broadly Asian) restaurants that dot the country, their clichéd architectural motifs and decorative design making them stand out from their typically bland parking lot locations. And a clever gathering of images titled Non finds the pulse of the French attitude of active negation, with signs and graffiti announcing positions against road expansions, school closures, radioactive waste, genetically modified foods, wind turbines, police violence, and other causes. Regardless of the specific location in France, it seems there’s always somebody who’s against something, and unafraid of publicly voicing a strident opinion.

At this pace, it will take Tabuchi and Monnier something like forty volumes to complete the entire project, which dauntingly feels like a lifetime’s worth of effort. But if they can continue at the same level of visual granularity and aesthetic clarity, and somehow come up with a system for dealing with much denser and more populated cities and urban areas (which the first two volumes have largely avoided), their ARN project will likely gather momentum and build into a treasured photographic reference of 21st century France. Whether the two artists have the kind of obsessive Atget-level dedication in them that the full project demands remains to be seen, but they’ve developed an initial framework that could certainly lead to something durably valuable. In the meantime, they’re ably reintroducing corners of France that may have been overlooked, and documenting ways of life that are slowly disappearing. Such a project is undoubtedly a marathon not a sprint, so hopefully we can check in on their progress a handful of years from now and find the map filled in with many more successfully documented regions.

Collector’s POV: Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier do not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artists via their individual websites (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Eric Tabuchi, Nelly Monnier, GwinZegal, Poursuite Editions

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