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Chris Marker, La Jetee, 1962, black and white photographs and 35 mm film, 28 min

‘He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, 1921’, according to Wikipedia. Already one feels in a no-man’s-land between fiction and document. The footnote to the entry cites David Thomson’s authoritative New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition, 2002, along with these words from Thomson: ‘The previous edition and other reference books give Belleville, France, as his place of birth—but Marker told me himself that Mongolia is correct.’

Perhaps, instead of fiction and document, I should have said rumour and truth. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know much about Marker until recently; yes, I’d seen La Jetée, his legendary avant-garde sci-fi film of 1962–28 minutes of nothing but stills, or rather almost nothing but, since there is eventually a motion, small and explosive—but nothing of what turns out to have been the considerable body of films he’s made since (and before) then.

Suddenly, though, Marker has become a presence in the art world—featured in important exhibitions like Passage de l’image at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and documenta X, for instance, and honoured with a retrospective of his still photography at the Wexner Center in Ohio.

Here at home in Paris, 37 images selected from among the 200 displayed in Columbus (along with an 8-channel video installation), suggest the reason for the surge of interest; they are striking and enigmatic. All are newly printed. Shown without regard to chronology, the images that are dated (most aren’t) range from the 50s until 2006, yet demonstrate an impressive stylistic consistency. In this show of what can mostly be called portraits—some of them are stills from Marker’s films, including a famous shot of Alexandra Stewart from Sans Soleil, 1982—an individual is always only ever to be understood with reference to the mass.

Generally reputed to be a political artist, Marker is revealed in these images as the quintessential aesthete. For him, it would appear, people are simply more beautiful when they’re demonstrating. ‘If we dissect this many-faced crowd’, according to one of Marker’s films, ‘we find that it is the sum of solitudes.’ It’s as if, within the clamour of a scene shot by William Klein one had discerned the intense gravity of a classic like Paul Strand.

Thus the photographs possess an exquisite melancholy, perhaps also owing in part to the impressively sombre vividness of black in them. In fact it seems almost too banal to speak of these photographs as black-and-white; they’re more like black with greys and whites painstakingly carved out of it.

This melancholy only loses its savour in the video piece, ‘OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men’, 2005, with its text from TS Eliot. A brilliant essay in the visual integration of text and imagery through rhythm, the work is let down by the famous poem itself, a period piece and far from Eliot’s finest moment.

Barry Schwabsky is a writer living in London