This spring, the world watched as French voters locked horns over the fate of their country and the nature of its character. The winner, we know now, was a gentler, more global vision of France. But the battles persist. In American photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti’s series Le Gendarme Sur La Colline, on view through June 29, they manifest themselves visually, more as questions than as quarrels, in images that are quietly probing and subtly illuminating.
Sanguinetti traveled the country by bus, train, and car, starting in the port city of Calais and ultimately traversing a wide swath of the country, from Paris to Marseille. Her photos, presented with sparse titles, leave much to the imagination. There are occasional place names and people’s names, but they do little to reveal the context of the moment captured.
But taken as a whole, they present a narrative of sorts, one of a country grappling with its myths and, at the same time, its metamorphosis. Picnic by the Trees, Paris (all images 2016) presents a group of Hijabis clustered together, a nod to the nation’s changing religious and ethnic demographic. The Jungle, Calais, Pas-de-Calais shows a lone stern-looking police officer, no doubt a reference to France’s heightened anxiety over security in the aftermath of several deadly attacks. The young boy decked out in modern urban apparel in Eidel, Marseilles playing the traditional game of pétanque hints at generational differences.
Other photos of France’s transformation are more obviously open to interpretation. What to make of the whistling woman in the countryside featured in Natalie Jean, Castéra-Verduzan, Gers? Or the gastronomic still life of Mise en place, Calais, Pas-de-Calais? Or the smashed door in Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s door, Nice? The ambiguity in Sanguinetti’s work sometimes strikes one as poetic and mysterious. Other times, a bit of context would give her photos more power.
Sanguinetti has described the sensation of traveling though the country as “a bit like that of being in a moving theater.” Indeed, the photographer has a keen eye for the artifice of French icons, like the cheap souvenir Eiffel Towers for sale in The Vendor, Jardin Des Tuileries, Paris, or the miniature model in Château de Saumur, Maine-et-Loire.
Sometimes, Sanguinetti’s photos seem to require no larger explanation or meaning. A photo of a girl flipping her hair backward in the Tuileries Garden is simply stunning. Same goes for Claudine, Deauville. a classically beautiful portrait of an uncommonly beautiful subject. It is France after all—it would have been a shame for Sanguinetti to spend all that time there and not allow herself to admire the place and its people.