Géraldine Lay, Far East

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Poursuite Editions (here). Perfect bound softcover (20 x 28 cm) with pull-out poster dust jacket, 112 pages joined in pairs, with 49 color photographs. Design by Benjamin Diguerher. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The French photographer Géraldine Lay (b. 1972) can be loosely categorized as a street shooter. Wandering various built environments on foot with a handheld camera, she encounters people and artifacts in situ. “I walk a lot,” she explained once in an interview. “I observe, I’m not staying long in the same place…I don’t necessarily take many photographs, but there are moments when everything is organized in the frame and makes sense.” She observes with cool remove, her 50 mm lens allowing moderate distance. When boldness and fortune conspire, her exposures can transcend the moment to capture unlikely serendipities, cultural rhythms, and perhaps something of the deeper human experience. At least that’s the goal. Easier said than done.

Lay’s photos have been collected into several monographs to date, most shot within a time zone or two of her home in Arles. They demonstrate an instinct for subtle palettes and a dogged consistency of purpose, as do their titles. Happenstance is an integral aspect, and appellations like Impromptus, Failles Ordinaires, and Un Mince Vernis de Réalité hint at Lay’s open ended methodology.

A photographer working in this vein operates a bit like a radio receiver, dependent on whatever signals are nearby. Ambient waves can vary considerably depending on location. If the radio is set down in, say, Japan, the signal—and subsequent output—will speak a language distinct from other locales. Lay’s latest photobook Far East is a case in point. It contains 49 photos shot over the course of four annual trips to Japan. Traces of Lay’s European work can be identified, but this project is a departure of sorts. Perhaps the evolution can be ascribed to artistic maturity? A “far east” mindset? The disruption of transglobal relocation? In any case Lay seems reinvigorated. She handles color, composition, and empty moments in Far East with skill and sensitivity.

Several photos shine with newfound formal rigor. A picture of a salaryman running across a narrow street might seem to document just another humdrum moment. But Lay has neatly cleaved the frame into halves, one dark and one brightened with white, yellow, and red. The man’s suit jacket contributes an improbably perfect link between car and house—and dead vertical too. Another photo of young woman reading a bus schedule casts a similar spell. The white paper in her hands blends into a clever V with the blank wall behind her. In yet another frame, a woman forms a sharp boundary for background vegetation, an alignment which reflects a precise vantage and moment. Candid permutations like these are quite difficult to capture in the flow of daily events. They’re commonly overlooked or, worse, pinched into one liners. Lay avoids both hazards in Far East.

Bystanders encountered in passing are daily grist for street photographers, and Lay’s previous monographs are no exception. With Far East her scope broadens. Many of these photographs—perhaps the majority?—show inanimate objects with no people present. Lay captures alleys, plants, facades, totems, apartments, sign posts, and the civic bustle of Japan. To some extent the shift is a natural artifact of travel since, as any snapshotting tourist knows, exoticism heightens attention. The radio receiver is sensitized to mundane subjects as well as spectacles, and vernacular structures become more noticeable. Other European photographers visiting Japan —e.g. Anders Edström, Gerry Johansson (reviewed here), and Renato D’Agostin (reviwed here)— have been similarly bewitched. 

Relishing the prosaic, and Japan’s morning light, Lay’s eye lingered. Somewhat improbably, some of her best photos occurred when she bored in on average homes, walls, roofs, and neighborhoods. An image of a water stained wall with gutters, gate, tiling, windows, and distant radio tower is packed with visual nuggets. The eye wanders here and there, marveling that one rectangle can squeeze everything together. It’s a nice counterpart to the image across the spread, an open chiaroscuro of blankness, shadow, and color blobs. In another photo of persimmons, cart, and door frame, she’s taken an alternate strategy, moving in close to fill the frame with strange hues and textures. For a photographer typically attuned to the fleeting whims of people in motion, Lay seems right at home shooting static subjects. “I like it when the scene seems fictional,” she says. Indeed some of her found scenes appear as deliberately crafted as stage sets.

Minor absurdities are the bread and butter of any street photographer, and this book is liberally spiced. A photo of a red ball intruding on a distant excavation site is both ominous and funny, recalling Winogrand’s giant balloon photo or Mark Cohen’s gum bubble. It bears some similarity to an even stranger image of distant figures shown as small specks against a large brown mass. What’s going on here? Who knows, but we are surely entertained. The cover shot is just as bemusing and unlikely, with scaffolding and a corrugated yellow shed intruding over a distant pool and palm trees. Who would think to take a photo here? If this vacation setting is meant to convey glamor, or impart any actionable information, it’s poorly designed, but as a weird slice of reality it does the trick. Photos of an inverted umbrella, volcanic billboard, and feline trio keep the reader guessing. There are many more examples. Far East zigs and zags with oddities, a radio tuned to the college station at 2 am.

Speaking of curiosities, Far East’s French fold design deserves mention. The pages are bound in uncut pairs, which are handled and turned as individual pages. The precise reasoning is unclear, but it’s a design distinction which helps push Far East further into its own orbit. Poursuite’s Benjamin Diguerher has had some fun with the layout as well. All of Lay’s photographs are shot in landscape orientation. But the book is portrait format, and the photos are rotated 90 degrees to accommodate. Far East is best browsed like a calendar, with the spine horizontal and pages flipped over and down. For fans of the long running Photo Poche series— Géraldine Lay has been its director since 2019—this will be a familiar ritual. Many of their books adopt the same strategy to accommodate horizontal photos into small vertical books. Far East won’t fit into anyone’s pocket, but its sideways rotation has the same flippant spirit. 

Design and photos combine to lend Far East an adventurous spirit. The book seems a perfect encapsulation of foreign travel, with its daily trickle of small discoveries and reassessments. They’ve coalesced into a transformative experience, leaving Lay and her photographs pleasantly altered.

Collector’s POV: Géraldine Lay is represented by Galerie Le Réverbère in Lyon (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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