under house arrest
 by Sebastien Girard

reviewed by critic and historian Gerry Badger
Gerry Badger, The Photobook Review, Issue 1, p.26
published by Aperture in November 2011

Under House Arrest is the third in an ongoing series of self published books by the Toulouse-based photographer Sébastien Girard. 

The first, Nothing But Home, dealt with the remodeling of his house. The second, Desperate Cars, examined cars in his neighborhood that had been slightly damaged in some way. Onecould say they had been “stressed,” because that reflects the anthropomorphic nature of much of Girard’s imagery.

Now Girard has turned his attention to the fences and hedges that protect properties. French property-owners value their privacy, thus life in France is often conducted behind walls, fences, doors, and gates (just think of Eugène Atget). In the suburbs, the fence is combined with thick walls of greenery to keep out prying eyes. But Girard regards the hedges(nature) as being fenced in, imprisoned by man (culture), and in his anthropomorphic way sees them as yearning for escape.These must be among photography’s most uneasy plants. They are fierce-looking, certainly, as befits their function, like caged animals straining to escape, reaching out through thebars of their confinement. Like the “desperate” cars he photographed, Girard somehow manages to elicit our sympathy forthis greenery.

In all three of his books, Girard demonstrates the power of and a fascination with the forensic close-up. I use the term“forensic,” because he utilizes unremitting flash lighting to create the impassive look of a true documentary image, the aesthetic seen in crime or scientific photography, where the photograph is an evidential document of something that has  happened. An experiment. A crime. A natural phenomenon. What has actually happened in Girard’s imagery ? Nothing, though we are familiar enough with crime photography forthese photographs to suggest strongly that something—probablysomething not very nice—has taken place. But Girard is clever and these pictures are not as harshly forensic as they look, in part the result of the design and sequence of Under House Arrest. The imagery is not quite typological, yet the small differences, between the hedges and also the fences, are important. It’s amazing how these superficial differences helpto create not only a narrative flow, but also a sense of characte rand psychological nuance. Indeed, the whole series demonstratesthe expressive potential of moving in close. Sébastien Girard has taken great pains to signal that this is a coordinated series of books. Each is the same size and superbly printed, the designs are similar, although not absolutely identical, and a colored, diagonal pattern runs down each spine, a different color for each volume, as well as for both the ordinary and deluxe editions.

Photobook lovers will want this series to grace their bookshelves, and these color-coded books will stand out on them, although the high quality of Girard’s work would surely ensure that in any case.

GERRY BADGER, a photography critic for nearly thirty years, is himself a photographer, as well as an architect and curator. He has written for dozens of periodicals and his previous books include The Photobook: A History, Volumes I and II, coauthored with Martin Parr, and The Pleasures of Good Photographs (Aperture, 2010).