Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

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