Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / December 12, 2012

Portraits and Tactics: The Photographs and Video Works of Quebec’s Emmanuelle Léonard

When making the video Le beau, le laid et la photographie in 2011, Emmanuelle Léonard asked students at École Louise-Trichet in Montreal about the aesthetics of photography. The work features 12-year-old girls in school uniform who, one after another, address the camera from behind a desk. Some hesitate before starting to speak, while others dive in spontaneously. They are palpably ill at ease; their discomfort generates silences and pauses filled by strange facial expressions. Their comments—from stereotypical to original, from unwitting to well informed—allow the viewer to consider the question asked by the interviewer as they answer: “A pretty picture is…”

Léonard is investigating how the students look at photographs. She exposes the judgment that takes place in interpreting images, and she does this by asking the girls what characterizes an image’s beauty or ugliness. The work also reveals an omnipresent preoccupation with the face and with issues of appearance. The pre-teenaged girls’ responses shift from the photographic image to the personal image: many of them state that ugliness is embodied in a scar, a mole, “bad hair” or a lack of makeup. The video indicates that, for some of the students, photography is characterized by self-representation. It also conveys the ambivalent and conformist mindset of early adolescence, when appearance plays a predominant role in social relationships. By putting their voices and faces on screen in a static shot, Léonard shows the students’ evident similarity while at the same time accentuating variations of rhythm, tone and movement caused by each girl’s way of expressing herself. Framed in a way that recalls formal portraiture, Le beau, le laid et la photographie presents girls poised somewhere between self-assertion and assimilation.

Several of Léonard’s projects revisit the portrait genre and highlight the fundamental and contradictory relationship between personality and social role, individuality and uniformity. In addition to engaging in formal interplay that recalls the conceptual photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, her works feature serial structures that establish a distance from their subjects, making these subjects generic. However, the intimacy of the works’ tight framing and the attention to signs that betray interiority, thought and nervousness emphasize that these are individuals acting according to personal experience in a specific situation. The portraits fall somewhere between individual and group, private and public.

Infiltrating different milieus to make her photo and video series, Léonard provides a glimpse of worlds usually closed; her investigations offer small moments of insight into Others who cannot be grasped totally. The video medium allows the artist to explore different modes of constructing narrative: pursuing a documentary approach anchored in real events and settings, Léonard conceives situations and forms of presentation that stress the ambiguity of reality. The resulting works are intentionally fragmentary and open-ended, and leave the viewer room to contemplate the complexity of the questions raised. Her works purport to zoom in on a subject, yet always blur the boundary between reality and fiction.

The situation conceived for Le beau, le laid et la photographie produces a polyphonic portrait played out in the reality of seventh graders. The video La motivation (2010) proceeds in a similar manner. One after another, seven students from the Police College of Finland tell the artist why they enrolled in the school. Each is shown head-on, centred in the screen, in a head-and-shoulders view. All are in uniform and express themselves with a combination of seriousness and pride appropriate to the job they will perform when they graduate. The soundtrack includes a simultaneous French translation, off screen. While conserving the spirit of an interview, this creates an incongruity between the expressiveness of the students, who bring up their personal backgrounds, and the depersonalized, almost telegraphic translation. The subjects speak of their interests in similar terms and present the same vision of their future profession. Their motivations and the order in which they list them, too, are almost identical, which suggests a hidden connection between training and indoctrination. Yet their common vision takes form in varied personal experiences, recounted anecdotally and with a degree of spontaneity. By focusing on how different people talk about an inherently ordinary subject, these works express forcefully and with finesse—and perhaps also a touch of irony—the personal and conditioned nature of judgment.

A related reflection on the portrait, the photo series Les citoyens, manifestation, 15 mars 2009 (2009), presents police officers’ faces through the visors of their riot gear. The photos introduce a tension between individuals’ intimate facial expressions and their professional stances on duty: the police officers’ gazes place them between event and interiority, between intense observation and distraction. While their poses make us think the scene has been staged, the title relates the series to an actual event, though it is blocked out by the close framing. Since the artist has photographed these officers without their knowledge, the images question what is public and private in a different way, by considering the “public” nature of an individual exercising a state function.

The same theme lies at the centre of Guardia, resguárdeme (2005), a video installation made up of sequences Léonard filmed in the streets of Mexico City. Walking through the crowded streets with a camera concealed in her hat, she tried to catch the eye of the many guards and security agents she passed. The installation reverses the roles of watcher and watched; we observe the disparity between furtively exchanged glances with a seductive intent and an attitude more in keeping with these agents’ responsibilities.

The uniforms that appear in these works allow Léonard to examine the complexity of identity in greater depth. As a means of identification in the working world and a symbol of authority for the forces of law and order—as well as a dress code at school—uniforms tell us something about belonging to a group and the performance of duty. If uniforms are sometimes meant to prompt their wearers to adopt a particular behaviour, they also alter our perception of the people wearing them. In her works, Léonard focuses on uniforms to call into question mechanisms of standardization and control, while also exploring their ambiguous relationship with the notion of social conformity.

Taken together, these portraits emphasize the unpredictable, incalculable nature of our behaviour in spite of structuring frameworks. The works not only show that the reality of existence resists the mechanisms of uniformity, but they also draw attention to our indeterminate ways of being, described as “tactics” by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). In focusing on the way existence overflows and oversteps control and surveillance systems, Léonard’s portraits make visible the tactical shift that occurs at the core of existence.

In a neoliberal era that has seen the expansion of strategies of subordination—the increasing use of legal instruments in ideological conflicts, a rise in lawsuits of all kinds, the privatization of various spaces, a heightening of security measures, and the implementation of identity-control systems that regulate access to restricted areas, border crossings and discounts on purchases—Léonard explores subjective, individual experience in contexts of control. She also raises ethical questions about the legitimacy of power in situations where the judgment and prejudices of individuals in positions of authority (police officers, judges and so on) come into play when analyzing conflicts and determining outcomes. Her works allow us to sense how individuals move from accepting dominant discourses to constructing personal judgments—two dimensions that are inevitably at work in the exercise of authority. 

Léonard’s exploration of the portrait intersects with another recent segment of her work involving forensic photographs: Assemblée nationale (2009) and Homicide, détenu vs détenu, archives du palais de justice de la Ville de Québec (2010) reuse images of two crime scenes—the 1984 shooting in Quebec’s National Assembly and a prison murder—directly from courthouse archives, but transplant them into the context of art. Both series investigate the capacity of a photograph to generate narrative and to be transformed into evidence according to how one looks at it: in a court case, such images call attention to the minutest detail, which might provide a valuable clue; in an exhibition at a gallery, the images are displayed on an equal footing, either side by side or gathered into a magazine-style layout, which encourages the creation of narratives, as if one were examining the images with a suspicious eye in search of clues. These works thus reveal the influence of context in interpreting an image.

In the series Une sale affaire (2007), on the other hand, the images hide the event itself, or present it with a certain neutrality. The photograph Fusillade, rue Rimouski, Brossard, for example, shows the white-brick exterior of a suburban house, and Noyade, Rivière-des-Milles-Îles, Laval shows a police car parked near some columns under a bridge. Although taken at the scene of a crime and an accident, respectively, these pictures yield little information about the nature of the shooting and the drowning named in their titles. The artist reveals the codes of fabrication for news photos in order to show that images and the meanings we attribute to them depend on a surrounding discourse that involves the judgment process that constructs their interpretation. She opens us up to specific realities while examining the relationship images maintain with the law, surveillance and normativity—but also with the truth. 

The issue of “truth” is raised in Le polygraphe (2011). The video shows a woman in an office being subjected to three lie-detector tests. The unusual nature of the situation is counteracted by its repetitiveness and the main figures’ monotonous tones of voice. Devoid of all affect, the proceedings are again located on the boundary between reality and fiction. Although it seems that the operator of the lie detector is exercising his real occupation before the camera, the fictional nature of the meeting becomes evident from the kind of questions asked and the woman’s composure, which does not suggest a criminal context. Nevertheless, close-ups encourage the viewer to observe the slight movements of the woman’s feet, hands and face while she is being “interrogated,” as if they were meant to be noticed by a suspicious eye. Our awareness of these tics makes the idea of achieving any level of objectivity seem precarious; using the camera as a lie detector, the artist calls into question the image’s capacity to record a reality.

Le polygraphe resonates with earlier works focused on the working world—on the places where professions and trades are carried out. Examples are the photographic projects Dans l’œil du travailleur (2001), Les travailleurs (2002) and Statistical Landscape (2004), in which the task of shooting images of the workplace was left to the employees themselves, using cameras provided by the artist. Léonard then assembled the photographs into a portrait of the working world, which gives testimony on how narratives are constructed. Throughout her work, Léonard shows a wavering between revelation and concealment. Her art tracks the tenuous but tangible way our individual behaviour escapes the structures of power.


This is a feature article from the Winter 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. This article was translated by Donald Pistolesi.