The Ready-made Dream No One Believes in (On Duroy)

In Europe and the United States, Stéphane Duroy charts the course of “big” history. Read the full version here.

By Wilco Versteeg

Again and Again, Stéphane Duroy’s solo exhibition at Le Bal in Paris, arrives at the right time in history. Having won several World Press Photo awards in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Duroy has become an integral voice in documentary photography, defined by books like Distress (2011) and L’Europe de Silence (1979–89). His artistic development culminates in Unknown (2007–17), an ongoing attempt to exhaust the documentary, artistic, and political possibilities of his work. Seeing Again and Again, the first comprehensive exhibition to present Duroy’s work, is like being taken by the hand on an impressionistic journey through the decline of Europe and the United States.

Duroy was born in 1948 in Tunisia, then a French colony, and his life coincides with the major moments of postwar European history. He took up photography in the late 1960s as a means to document national and international upheavals. But Duroy has shied away from exhibitions, instead preferring to share his vision in books that focus on political change in the ’70s in Great Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe, and the United States. Inspired by the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, Duroy’s theme is how “big” history—from World War I to the Holocaust to the end of Communism—is reflected in the daily lives of common people. The title of the exhibition, Again and Again, as well as the character of his work, underscores his historical fatalism. Duroy witnesses the societies of Thatcherite Great Britain, post-communist Eastern Europe, as well as contemporary America, in particular the downtrodden victims of capitalism’s excess, yesterday and today.

The first part of the exhibition contains Duroy’s earlier work on the waning of Europe. The gallery walls are covered in demure gray wallpaper with a Second Empire pattern, a motif that returns in pictures such as one showing a chandelier in an abandoned hall in Portugal. One of his most striking pictures shows the falling of the Berlin wall. That epochal event is typically represented by images in which the wall is demolished by a jubilant crowd. Duroy, who has spent extensive periods of time in Berlin, managed the capture the wall while it was falling and suspended in midair; strangely, there are no people in sight. “In 1979, West Berlin became the link between cause and effect, the place where decisions were made about the major tendencies which have created the European tragedy and called our cherished values into question,” Duroy said last year. “Then from 1984 onward, the United States, splendid symbol of hope and great ready-made dream which nobody believes in, closed the circle.”

Duroy is a historical pessimist, but this pessimism drives him forward. The forces of history inevitably lead to the trampling of humanity, but Duroy tries to restore this humanity in his latest, ongoing project Unknown, to which the exhibition’s second part is dedicated. Unknown is a Tentative d’épuisement d’un livre, or, in the official translation that reduces the philosophical feel of the original French, “The endless reworking of a book.” (I would have suggested, “Attempt at the exhausting of a book.”) Unknown, begun in 2007, is an impressive twenty-two-foot foldout catalog and an exhibition in of itself. Le Bal presents twenty-nine different versions: Over the last decade, Duroy has reworked Unknown, adding, removing, or manipulating its pages to constantly create new forms and juxtapositions.

Duroy no longer describes himself as a documentary photographer, but there is an undeniably documentary impulse at work; while he adds newspaper clippings, paint, and text, his own images remain the groundwork of Unknown. This manic—indeed, exhausting—search for a form that fits our age of economic displacement finds its culmination in his pictures of life in Butte, Montana, a former mining community. One of Duroy’s pictures features a house reminiscent of any of Walker Evans’s images of small houses and barns in decline, except that the house Duroy photographed is on wheels and is being driven to another, perhaps better place. In Duroy’s universe, there is no stability, only, as he says, a “closed theater” of struggles between power and failure, hope and duplicity.

Wilco Versteeg is a PhD candidate at Université Paris Diderot.

Stéphane Duroy: Again and Again is on view at Le Bal, Paris, through April 9, 2017.