Hugues de Wurstemberger – Pauline & Pierre

2 October to 13 February 2011


The Swiss photographer Hugues de Wurstemberger (*1955), who has been living in Brussels for more than thirty years, was already presented in the Fotomuseum Winterthur in 1994, in a reportage on the Western Sahara; many people are also familiar with his 1996 publication Paysans. The book Pauline & Pierre however, published in Brussels in 2005, has elicited little response in Switzerland so far. The Fotostiftung Schweiz would now like to present this key work to a broader public.

Pauline, Forest of Broceliande, 1989
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

Pierre, 1995
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

Initially a book, then an exhibition, Pauline & Pierre is surely the work by Hugues de Wurstemberger – or to use his own abbreviation, by H2W – which has preoccupied the photographer for the greatest period of time. What he designates as a “loose chronicle of his family”, above all, his children, emerged in the course of languid days which gradually became weeks, months and years. The result is a fragmentary narrative – a continuous oscillation between his two children, their mother and grandmother, but also between sea and mountains, the world of water and of plants and rocks. The idea for this photographic chronicle evolved in the late 1980s, around the time of the birth of Pauline, once the photographer had disengaged himself from his first large-scale work on the Swiss Guard in the Vatican. It is also in memory of François, a nephew who was lost in the mountains, and alludes to the cycle of life and death. At the time, H2W was working on a large project about the farmers in the Alpine foothills of the canton of Fribourg, which resulted in 1996 in the above mentioned-book Paysans – a project which subsequently took him to the Somme in France, to southern Portugal and to the arid regions of Ethiopia. As he spent most of his time then either on reportages in the “over-exposed desert” of Africa or in the “coma of the darkroom”, he wished to undertake something that might at least preserve the traces of his family life. This led to the images which we owe, so to speak, to frequent absences and separations.

Val d’Hérens, 1984
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

Porto, 1989
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

As one of the first members of the VU’ Agency and more acquainted until then with themes relevant to the International Section, in Pauline & Pierre the photo-reporter surprises us with insight into his private sphere. Yet on closer observation, the autobiographical also occupies an importance place in the other works by H2W. He describes for example how he became a photographer, one summer’ day in 1977, when he photographed his mother and sister in a flowering meadow in the Gruyere mountains. Be it fact or fiction – the anecdote alludes to two aspects which were to exert an influence on his later work: the family and the landscape. About ten years later, in Pauline et Pierre, he repeats: “In 1977, I leave Fribourg taking with me several pictures of my mother and of landscapes that I liked.”

Pauline and Pierre, 1996
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

For H2W, as for the American photographer Sally Mann, the members of his family and his immediate surroundings are pivotal. Whereas Sally Mann presents these themes separately in individual works (Immediate Family / Motherland, Deep South), H2W links them, enabling them to enter into a dialogue or confronting them with one another. Be it farmers or his family, the photographer mixes portraits and landscapes in such a way as to underscore the individuals’ rootedness in their surroundings. Their identity rests on their relationship to their personal milieu. H2W’s reportages about the struggle of the Sahrauis, the Ethiopian, Zambian or Fribourg farmers for their land always reflect aspects of his own family history. For example, that the photographer’s father, an agrarian engineer who lived with his family in Algeria and had a strong leaning towards Sufi culture, had to leave everything behind in 1962. In Pauline & Pierre, H2W recalls: “The family flees. … At the port, the Algerian French were hissed at by the whole of Marseille. We had lost everything, we were returning on foot. Fortunately.” Indeed, because: “The meadows of the Pays d’en-Haut are nice for taking a nap in”, the photographer confesses, adding, “Long before I started taking photographs, we scrambled around [in these mountains].” He uses the verb to scramble, alluding to a sensual, almost physically close contact with the earth, an earth he bears within him and which constitutes an important part of his identity.

The autobiographical aspect does not mean that H2W focuses on himself (and if so, than only fleetingly). He is more interested in his immediate surroundings. Even his report on life in the Swiss Guard is a kind of diary, a subjective visual documentation from inside that institution. Pauline & Pierre, his “booklet of notes wrested from time”, begins in a similar way: The narrative strand embraces people at relaxed, casual moments, but also at times of great concentration, jubilation or boredom – without adhering to any strict chronology. The photographs express the need for closeness and the wish for both independence and protection, isolation, development and decline. We see children and adults lost in contemplation, dreams or some observation. Sometimes the faces eschew our gaze. Blurred silhouettes and dream-like ghost images are expressive of fleeting or fragile identities. Some of H2W’s photographs are bathed in an uncanny light and so conjure up the mysterious and ambiguous world of fairytales; others explore the world of children and their games, where costume and imagination mingle, or where cruel stories about punishment, death and resurrection are interwoven. The flow of time, decay, and finitude contrast with the permanence of the earth and of rocks. Finally, the landscapes – cliff faces or mountains, canals, lakes, mysterious undergrowth or fantastic forests – mirror the fragility of man’s fate or confront his transience with their endurance and cold immutability.

Pauline & Pierre, with its allusions to childhood and the associated playful search for words and their pictorial representations, is also reminiscent of an ABC-book, an attempt to impose some order on the confusion of thoughts, words and things. The photographer’s narrow frames, which shift the motif to the centre, and his compositions, which play with clear lines, are indicative of his wish for a simple designation: the bird, the boy, the girl, the mushroom, the swing.

Brussels, 1997
© Hugues de Wurstemberger

We have become accustomed to photographers and artists revealing aspects of their private lives to us by intentionally taking amateurish photographs and pretending not to be able to master the technique so as to appear authentic. H2W has taken an approach which is diametrically opposed to this. His photographs attain their veracity because of their aspiration to general validity. Through his consistent use of the square format and black and white he avoids the anecdotal. As a result, what is chaotic and transient about everyday family life gains a stability and order which are actually alien to it, while the harmony of the grey nuances removes any jarring notes from reality. What emerges is an almost archetypal vision, an ideal of childhood and the family. Each photograph is an image in itself, containing its own story and yet communicating with the others. The large range of grey shades forces us to read each image slowly so that we become immersed in and relive the photographer’s visual experience. In the words of the photography critic Michel Guerrin: “The striking features of these photographs is that they are the result of physical work, not of a top athletic achievement but about a way of clearly responding to bodies, materials, landscapes, surroundings.”

Hugues de Wurstemberger is constantly on the look out for moments of gracefulness, for images that transcend the unspectacular instant by transferring it into a larger context: the childhood and family of Pauline and Pierre, which could to an extent be our childhood, our family – or at least the childhood or family we might like to have had.

Sylvie Henguely

Translated form German by Pauline Cumbers