François Brunet (1960-2018), In Memoriam

my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me

            Psalm 131

Magic and Loss: François Brunet (1960-2018)

François’ posture unfailingly indicated the time of year. Around March the burden of classes, conferences and cumulative bureaucratic tasks visibly strained him: he slumped over slightly and seemed to smoke more than he usually did. Not rarely did our meetings take partly place in front of the university, allowing him the joy of having a cigarette without interrupting a baffling work rhythm. Come la rentrée, re-energized by the summer break, his shoulders seemed straighter again, his gait energetic, and his mind set on what would be ‘a crazy year, really’. His body was synchronized to the odd rhythms of academic life, a rhythm that, through his emails, initiatives, comments, publications, classes, talks, punctuated the lives of those we were lucky enough to have met him.

François Brunet was, in all respects, an impressive person: his kindness and attention, his didactic talents, and his intellectual brilliance made you wish he was batting for your team. A delicate thinker without much patience for the ‘tarte à la crème’ of far-fetched theories, he was foremost an example on how to remain a caring person in an institution that demands the utmost of its inhabitants. I first met him in 2011 when I came to Paris Diderot, then still located in the Marais, to complete my master’s and to figure out if and how I would like to prolong my stay in academia. François’s course on Images in the U.S. was, if I remember well, held in a basement room that didn’t seem particularly suited or equipped for any discussion, let alone one on visual culture. During these Thursday mornings I was introduced to a discourse on images, to a way of thinking about and working with photography that was far from anything I had seen, heard, or done before. To prolong the pleasures of these visual and intellectual inroads, I bought his book Photography and Literature, and, later, we started discussing a PhD-project that he would supervise.

A relationship with a supervisor is slightly paradoxical. Working together for years you can’t help but to get closer without necessarily getting to know each other intimately. The German language is right on the money (as compound languages often are) in calling a doctoral supervisor doktorvater, or doctor-father. He is an intellectual father to many generations of students. Sitting in his office or in his living room on the night of my defense, my eyes inadvertently wandered to his bookshelves and the stacks of books scattered all around. Book everywhere, as befits an academic. Recent catalogues and monographs not rarely still wrapped in foil, but also Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and many Russian books. Leaving his spaces, I often thought ‘So I should have these books, too, if I want to be a serious scholar’. After our last meeting I finally bought all important books by and on Robert Frank, even if I’m not currently doing anything with that sort of documentary photography.

Doing a PhD means feeling guilty: guilty for not doing enough, for not sending work sooner and work that’s better. François’ humanity and humility made this guilt dissolve. Taking your sweet time to round of a chapter he did not take personally or as an affront to his discipline. I felt he saw it as his sole task to protect you and your work from the scrutiny of the outside world before it and you were able to stand the test of the critical dynamics of academia. ‘What you say is very relevant, even if I wouldn’t say it in these words and in this way’ is one of his critiques that I will not only gladly remember, but that is a definition of academia. Through his example, he showed how to become a scholar, which in our field means finding your own voice.

For years, I have been living around the corner from him at Cite Universitaire. The image of ‘the supervisor’ was often off-set by seeing him play jeu de boules with family and friends, or, suddenly, seeing him walk a dog, a dog that, I later learned, did not really listen to his commands the way his students listened to his advice. During my defense, last September, François mentioned that I was self-governed. This is only half-true: I was, but only because he allowed it. Letting me discover how I work best is the most important gift a teacher can give. We didn’t meet often during the first years of my research: I was too busy ‘thinking’ about research that actually doing research. When the time came when not working on the PhD became more exhausting than setting my mind to it, our meetings became more frequent. His critiques were always short and to the point: ‘too bombastic’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘pompous’, and the unquestionably clear ‘?’. To a Dutch (and therefore Calvinistic person) comments like this mean the world. For François, a great communicator, great and important ideas are to be packed in humble language so as not to get lost in superlatives, in the spectacle and the fashionable. To me, his character and style can be located somewhere between the meaning of two words I learned from him: pedestrian (adj) in the meaning of dull, unexciting, and (by far the most extravagant word I ever heard him utter) ‘braggadocio’.

I discovered he was brilliant upon reading his important book, La naissance de l'idée de photographie. Even though he talked a lot in class as well as during meetings, he never talked about his own work much. It is a sign of a strong personality to be able to remove the ‘I’ from your language. Like the renaissance mystics who, in order to renounce their personality and accept the Cloud of Unknowing or the ultimate Nada as their final dwelling, first had to discover themselves. Being in intellectually impressive and emotionally in control, he was comfortable to self-efface. François employed the language of humility. He did not try to impress anyone, which is, as every teacher should know, the only way to be a good teacher: it is easy to impress people who don’t know much yet and who certainly know less than you. It is difficult to appeal to them in a language they understand and that stimulates them to discover what has already been discovered. Because, as anyone who has worked with him knows, François was always a step ahead of most people: in his thinking on photography, in giving career advice, in anticipating new projects…one wonders if the ‘pardon pour les doublons’ that started many of his emails didn’t imply that he was sometimes ahead of himself too.

When preparing a talk for a symposium at Paris Diderot in 2016, I told him my talk would be entitled “Magic and Loss in the Archive”. ‘You’re probably too young to know this, but that’s also a record by Lou Reed’, he said. I happen to be a big fan of Reed and the reference was intentional. Some of the songs on this record are brilliant, others much less so. I think we were both surprised to find out we shared something of a musical culture. Did he admire Reed, too? And does it even matter? The lyrics to the title song reflect partly who François was to me: smart, in control, thoughtful, caring and, as these things go, somewhat somber at times, humble and radiant, doubting and decisive. The loss of my mentor, everyone’s mentor, leaves an emptiness that cannot be grasped. The world shines less brightly now that he passed on, but his too brief presence here will continue to mark the lives and thoughts of those who have known him. “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out”, as Lou Reed sang.