August 31, 2007

Didier Massard

I don’t know of a single, ready-made term that satisfactorily describes the art of Didier Massard. His beguiling photographs could be considered works of pictorialism, given their almost painterly style; and they are certainly tableau photographs, given their ‘staged’ execution—but the tableaux Massard constructs are, specifically, miniature ones: models. The only other photographer I’d heard of who worked in anything like a similar manner was Charles Matton, but in Matton’s work the miniatures take on lives of their own as self-contained objects, whereas Massard’s do not. Moreover, Matton’s photographs are all interior scenes, where Massard gives us landscapes…

Detail from 'La Grille' (The Gate), a photograph by Didier Massard, 1997.


Detail from 'Le Manège' (The Carousel), a photograph by Didier Massard, 1999.
At first glance, Didier Massard’s photographs create a disturbing impression which we quickly realize has been achieved by means of photographic techniques. The photographs play on the ambiguity and confusion which takes hold of us as we try to establish the relationship between what we see and what actually existed. […] We want to believe and yet, cannot quite believe, that this “has really existed.” Explaining how the photographs were made would rob them of part of their mystery, that fine, taut defining line that links the apparent and the impossible—Christian Caujolle.
Detail from 'Arbre en automne' (Tree in Autumn), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2001.


Detail from 'Arbre en hiver' (Tree in Winter), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2000.

My initial source for the first six of these pictures was a book simply entitled Images, which presented Massard’s œuvre as of 2002. While corresponding with the artist, however, he professed dissatisfaction with the quality of the reproductions in the book, and very kindly offered to send me copies of the works I’d intended to feature, also attaching another four more recent pieces. He writes that a new volume of his photographs, provisionally titled Artifices, is in preparation, to be published in November this year by Gourcuff-Gradenigo, Paris. Anyone intrigued by these photographs who happens to be in the Boston area next month, should check out the upcoming exhibition of Massard’s work at the Robert Klein Gallery, which is due to open on Sept. 7th.

Detail from 'La Pagode' (The Pagoda), a photograph by Didier Massard, 1996.


Detail from 'La Palais Mogol' (The Moghul Palace), a photograph by Didier Massard, 1997.
[Massard] was born and raised in Paris where he received his Baccalaureate degree in art and archaeology from the University of Paris in 1975. For twenty-five years he executed commercial work as a still photographer for clients in the world of fashion and cosmetics including Chanel, Hermes, and many others. After the completion of his series Imaginary Journeys, executed over almost ten years, his career was launched and he now works exclusively on his personal projects.
Detail from 'La Jardin Obscur' (The Underwater Garden), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2005.


Detail from 'Le Mangrove' (The Mangrove), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2003.
His series are conceived from his imagination while drawing from our collective romantic and touristic notions of nationality and place. His exotic locales created in his studio have evoked Ireland, China, India, Holland and the cliffs of Normandy. Massard works for long periods on each of these tableaux, and ruminates that “each image is the completion of an inner imaginary journey.” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times “color and space combine with fastidious detail to create a sense of illusion and artifice that is more usual to painting, Magic Realist painting in particular…one’s willingness to suspend disbelief is a measure of Massard’s skill.”
Detail from 'Le Marais' (The Marsh), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2006.


Detail from 'La Grotte' (The Grotto), a photograph by Didier Massard, 2003.

While compiling this post, I have learned of other photographers besides Massard (and Matton) working with miniature tableaux: notably James Casebere, Edwin Zwakman, and Oliver Boberg. In an article about Boberg, I read that he seeks ‘to create unerring representations of the world without relinquishing the satisfaction of craftsmanship:’ a characterization that could similarly apply to Massard, provided we remember there is no way for us to inhabit the world he represents… For these sculptor-photographers, the craftsmanship is twofold, the construction of an image presupposes the construction of a model. In Massard’s case, both are done with the utmost attention to detail, but also with great imaginative flair. The present ten images are copyright © Didier Massard, and have been reproduced here with permission.

Posted by misteraitch at August 31, 2007 11:46 AM

Lori Nix is an artist who's work also fits well into the sculptor/photographer approach.


a video of a studio visit:


Posted by: prifti on September 2, 2007 03:43 PM

prifti—many thanks for the links: I’m not sure why exactly, but I do love this flavour of photography, whatever one might call it. And I must say your work is very impressive too.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 3, 2007 09:22 AM

I appreciate that you announce the ambiguity, but in what sense are these photographs at all? I don't see that this has been satisfactorily answered, and it isn't merely a question of semantics.

Posted by: Conrad on September 3, 2007 07:17 PM

Conrad—they are photographs (by which I mean images extracted from the arse-end of a camera) of table-top models/dioramas constructed and lit by Mr. Massard. In what sense are they not photographs?

Posted by: misteraitch on September 3, 2007 08:13 PM

Nah nah, you got me wrong guvnor. I weren't being all criticising like, I just didn't know how 'e did it. Maybe I missed something. Now you said 'table-top models, dioramas', well, fair enough then.

But what happened to the models themselves? When an art historian uses a photograph of a Picasso in his book, do we praise said historian for his beautiful photograph?

Posted by: Conrad on September 3, 2007 10:12 PM

Conrad—Apologies for the misunderstanding. As for what happens to the models, I don’t know: but this picture (also the last link in the first paragraph above) shows a collection of them.

We might praise the art historian (or the photographer hired by the art historian’s publisher), if the photograph were an improvement, to our eyes, on the original painting. I can only guess that specific lighting & focus, and a single point-of-view is required to exhibit Massard’s models to their best advantage.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 4, 2007 08:55 AM

Massard, Lipton, Matton, Johnson... When it comes to contemporary art, you like the fussy, meticulous ones, don't you?

Posted by: e.b. on September 5, 2007 04:31 PM

Astonishing images of astonishing models. Good stuff, Misteraitch.

Posted by: Scott on September 5, 2007 05:36 PM

It appeareth to us high and mighty that our lord Conrad is working with a concept of art which is somewhat -- shall we say -- narrow? :) Presumably stage sets are not -- art? Or the tea ceremony? Or flower arrangements? Or masques? Or a ball? Interesting thought this -- for those who have the time to think of things of this sort -- when a painter artfully arranges some nature morte before him in order to paint them, why is the painting a work of art but the arrangement -- not? In any case, great photos, Mr H, or, not-photos, as the case may be.

Posted by: Gawain on September 6, 2007 04:52 AM

e.b.—yes, I do have a general (but not exclusive) predilection for the detailed & the intricate, and not only with respect to contemporary art…

Gawain—I think Conrad’s notion of art is wide enough! As to your other points, I suppose it must be easier for the ‘art’ label to be made to stick to something in a convenient and recognizable package, like a painting or a book, than it is to something as temporary as a flower-arrangement.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 6, 2007 10:39 AM

Actually, I was pulling everyone's leg: the thought may be an interesting one but has no substance to it; and it does more ill than good, as it prevents us from enjoying some splendid things -- Imari plate, say, or Chinese embroidery, or tea ceremony, as somehow non-art. Besides, Conrad is OK in my book, too.

Posted by: Gawain on September 7, 2007 02:41 AM

Leg-pulling aside, I didn't question that this is art--merely that it was a photograph. As we've discussed before, though, the 'what is art' question is one of the dullest. With a still-life the art is in the execution--not much interesting execution in the average bowl of apples--as opposed to a diorama, or, at a lower level, a flower-arrangement.

Posted by: Conrad on September 8, 2007 06:35 PM

I fear I may have only commented once in the great long while I've been enjoying your journal and your commentaries.

I've only just clicked on your brief bio again and was dismayed to see there may be an end to what I consider rather a vacation spot of it's own among the noisy jostling of the web.

Best to discover it now rather than too late and to thank you for all the wonderful, inspiring, humorous and obscure windows you've opened over the years.

Posted by: v.a.watts on September 9, 2007 12:04 AM

I'd like to add David Levinthal to the list, a personal fave, though admittedly his work has an entirely different feeling to it.

Aitch/Conrad did you catch my recent post on Diableries? These were also photographed from table-top dioramas. The great benefit in this case (and by benefit I do not mean our general enrichment, but rather "benefit of simplification") is that the dioramas themselves did not survive, and so the photographs are, without question, the art.

I concur with Conrad on the crushing dullness of the "what is art" debate and adhere to a strict "art is whatever an artist calls art" policy. Within that the only question left is whether I judge it great, good, bad, or crap. In the case of Massard he is presenting the photographs as his art and leaving the dioramas out of it. So that's his art, by his own intention.

I might also just mention that diorama built specifically to be photographed with a macro lens, rather than looked at with the naked eye, would differ substantially and would be optimized for that manner of viewing, which is to say looked at as objects on a table Massard's dioramas may not be nearly as beautiful. Impressive from a skill standpoint surely, but less transportive and gorgeous.

Anyhow, beautiful stuff Aitch, thanks.

Posted by: jmorriso on September 9, 2007 03:14 PM

Like the previous commenter, I hadn't read until now your bio suggesting you may be giving up your journal at the end of the year - I hope very much you change your mind. Giornale Nuovo was one of the first blogs I started reading, and it set the bar pretty high, being endlessly interesting, thoughtful and inspiring.

These Massard photos are great by the way - particularly the magic roundabout.

Posted by: Emma on September 16, 2007 02:24 PM

I, for one, was instantly drawn to these images while scanning your blog for updates. My attention spanned into focus when I saw them, then my mind relaxed as I took in the dreamy aura. My favorites are the first three, and the seahorses. Thank you yet again for such a lovely and interesting topic of discussion, and for informing me (and, inadvertently, my boyfriend who is an artist very fascinated with miniatures) of Massard and some of the other artists mentioned.

Now, please consider changing your mind about giving up this blog. Please don't stop writing and thinking and sharing your findings and learnings. This is really one of my most favorite blogs on the web.



Posted by: T. on September 18, 2007 06:44 AM

Emma & T.: I am sorry, but my mind is made up; I’ll be shutting up shop about this time next month.

jmorrison—I did indeed see your ‘Diableries’ post, further to which I have failed thus far to formulate an articulate response. I suppose one could consider those photographs accidental forerunners of Massard’s, Nix’s, & so on. I personally do not tire of hearing or reading responses to the ‘what is art’ question, though I do agree that it is a futile & tiresome issue to debate.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 23, 2007 01:06 PM

A seriously creepy addition to this trend:
"In 'The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death' photographer Corinne May Botz explores a collection of eighteen crime scene models that were built in the 1940's and 50's by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The crime scene models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Like a forensic detective herself, Botz meticulously re-traces Lee’s footsteps with her camera and lights. Her large-scale color photographs shrewdly frame the idiosyncratic and haunting details from these captivating murder scene dollhouses".(By way of Le Divan Fumoir Bohémien).

Posted by: Michelangelo on October 1, 2007 08:02 PM

Wow, fascinating, if indeed rather macarbre: thanks Michelangelo.

Also: Kim Keever, who constructs his landscapes in a fishtank (by way of MeFi).

Posted by: misteraitch on October 1, 2007 09:55 PM
Comments are now closed