Armelle Brusq The Black Circus, a distrurbing strangeness
Translated from French by Philippe Patry, Eyemazing Fall 2012
Sara Imloul, 25, a French photographer who lives in Paris, started the Black Circus series 4 years ago when she discovered the calotype process (19th century photographic process using a negative paper leading to picture reproduction through contact).The original prints are small in size, no more than six inches high. Her exhibits are therefore an invitation to come closer, to discover a mysterious world of intimacy, where the theatre performance of a black and white world is on. A precious little world that is reminiscent of surrealist photography and the expressionist cinema of the thirties.Sara Imloul’s characters are often white or glittery, white clowns, mermaids, dancers, transvestites, passers-by, shadows amongst shadows, live deep inside an intense darkness. Do these characters escape from the night of her childhood, from her dreams as much as from her nightmares ?
Just as a voyeur or a mesmerized observer, because that’s what the photographer invites us to be, we sometimes notice ageless faces, as if their souls had been drained out : as if left with only their cheap finery for identity. Look at this white clown, whose make-up and face disintegrate, soon left only with the whiteness of his costume. And this mermaid, so beautiful that we would almost forget that she is without a face. Maybe that is why she is beautiful, pure sparkling form ?
Hidden behind a seemingly simply theater for children, could the work of the young Sara be her first steps towards a reflection on identity ?
And since it is claimed that all work of art is a kind of self-portrait, when asked “where is it hiding ?”, she chooses to remain mysterious and gives no reply.
Sara works with different types of old camera casings. The first one ? A gift from her grandfather that he gave her when she was a teenager. The others were acquired in flee-markets. And never mind if the camera she fancies is unreliable, a faulty lens or a faulty shutter release. Surprises are quite common, Sara even relies on them ; she loves to defy chance in order to give her pictures the sort of imperfection she won’t be able to control, that will make all the difference…
“The lighting process is the one used in theatres », she explains. She never uses a flash during a shoot, only continuous lighting which gives the pictures their strange and penetrating charm : are characters the motionless, moving, unique or split in two ? Is it really their image we see reflected in the mirror ? The outlines vibrate, all bearings are lost yet everything seems to be exactly in its place.
To look at one of Sara’s pictures, is to look at a living scene of disturbing strangeness, that cannot be defined as moving or still, as real or dreamt, but as a scene in weightlessness, as if held in space by invisible threads pinned to the silence the shoot takes.
« Faced with the circus scene I have just created, I press the shutter when I have a strong feeling of déjà vu. I am the observer of the image I have created, and at that very moment I forget where I am, I forget I am caught in my own trap and I play with that.”
But all remains to be played for when the time comes to develop them, because when it comes out of the developer, the magic of the picture should remain intact. So the second act begins, in the dark room where actors leave the stage for their paper fantasies to enter
Each print is touched up with brushstrokes by the artist : she enhances the whites, working on tinges for the backgrounds, the fabrics, the glitters. It is meticulous work which makes each print unique. From the very first development of her theatre scenes to the ultimate chemical touch, she does it all. As a perfect plastic artist, Sara Imloul loves being in charge of her work, artistically and technically, down to the minute details.
« It’s a small price to pay”, she says humorously, “in order to choose my pictures, amongst all images in the world. Given that they manage to be, for me, the exact representation of my imagination.” No wonder this is a quest for identity… Sara, so reserved and yet daring to talk about her work with such dangerous frankness, is not a narcissist ; she has the enthusiasm of a young Rimbaud.
In her sets, she reveals a taste for frontal positions similar to the way anthropomorphic pictures are taken ; for barely noticeable actions ( the raising of a hand, a floating petticoat, the turning of a head), she also displays a taste for exploring the border between the similar and identical, leaving illusion its full place so that everyone can dive into what Roland Barthes calls “this remarkable trembling of time”.
For her, the notion of human body esthetics was challenged from a very early age.
Her inspiration ? Apart from the obvious influence of the surrealists and the constructivists, there is also Muybridge and her work on breaking down movement. She was also influenced by naked, motionless bodies against a black background, by the first anthropomorphic pictures, some of which could well be the sign, in the heart of the darkness, of a redeeming possibility of magic challenging the photographer.
Having discovered Freaks and its parade of monsters, she felt attracted to the unbelievable strangeness of human beings, able to expose their most extreme deformities. She watched the Crazy Horse shows on television when she was barely out of childhood and was fascinated by the formal beauty of the bodies, sublimated by lighting, cut out, adorned, where the woman, as if divided, is never quite herself, but yet never quite someone else either.
In her work, beauty is mainly a question of devices. When Sara Imloul dresses her models with crowns, pearls, glitter, it is with cheap and fake stuff. The cheaper an accessory is, the more priceless it is in her eyes. Only reminiscence and memories are irreplaceable.
Ghosts in the attic, tutus found in the old wardrobe, hats and coats from another time.
She tries to capture the revival of something that is buried. Is this why all her models, without being at the origin of her inspiration, are all people close to her, capable of being manipulated by the photographer just like the cheap accessories she adorns them with ? The shooting session is not a declaration of love at all, but a feeling from the past magically transformed by the action of picture taking. Her timeless ghost reconstruction work is as much a refuge as a shield against fear.
«The beautiful is nothing but the beginning of terrible, that we are still able to bear; we admire it because, in its indifference, it doesn't consider it worthwhile to destroy us. All angels are terrifying. » Rilke
Sara Imloul seems to catch the frightening angels in full flight. As in the games of children, the old camera with bellows can become a bird cage. Just like butterflies pinned on paper, it is only when fallen angels, ghosts and souls become pictures that the artist will be allowed to rest.