Tuesday, 5 October 2010

An unflinching eye: Georges Simenon's photography

While I was in Paris I was lucky enough to stumble across the catalogue for an exhibition of photographs by writer Georges Simenon. It's beautifully reproduced so, as with many photography shows, I don't feel too badly to have missed the original event, which was held at the Jeu de Paume back in the spring of 2004.

The prurient side of you might like to see pictures of some of the 10,000 women he claimed to have slept with - and the book's cover sneakily alludes to that (pictured) - but this is a rather splendid collection of travel photos, held by the University of Liège's centre for Simenon studies. The pictures are taken over only a few years (1931-5) but cover a wealth of locations, from north and eastern Europe to Africa and north America.

Some are unavoidably snapshots - they can be of dubious quality - but many are very beautiful; as exacting as Simenon was with words, he seems to have had quite an eye. Pictures from Sudan and the Congo are reminiscent of old National Geographic spreads (bare-breasted women with young children tied to their backs, or bathing), and predate Leni Riefenstahl's similar ethnographic work, but his images of people in Poland and Russia match those of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii for their humanity.

Simenon's pictures of Turkey and Tunisia are especially eye-catching, while those of Tahiti capture the expat world he depicted in such novels as Banana Tourist. It makes for a bleaker take than that of painter Paul Gauguin, currently on show at Tate Modern. (There is one topless beauty, sitting like Ady Fidelin in Lee Miller's photo of Roland Penrose, Man Ray and Co picnicking in Mougins.)

With his love of boating, there are many (shaky) images of harbours: Honfleur, Ouistreham, Concarneau, Boulogne, Marseille… (For the curious, Simenon's wife Tigy and her maid Boule are pictured onboard - he slept with both of them.) Best of all, though, are his pictures of the homeland he left, Belgium, many of customers or staff in bars in Charleroi (almost in the style of August Sander, also exhibited at Tate Modern at the moment), eerily quiet streets in the Flanders, even a haunting torn poster of a skull wearing a gas mask in Brussels. Simply stunning.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.