zondag 30 september 2018

Views & Reviews The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes Paris Photo Aperture 2018 Photography

The Sweet Flypaper of Life.
Photographs by Roy DeCarava. Text by Langston Hughes.
Afterword by Sherry Turner DeCarava.
First Print Press, New York, 2018.
In English. 106 pp., 141 black-and-white illustrations, 5x7½x½".

Publisher's Description
A photobook classic.

Originally published by Simon and Schuster (1955), followed by Hill & Wang (1967), and Howard University Press (1984), this fourth edition is a facsimile with vastly improved printing (Trifolio, Verona, Italy), and a new afterword by Sherry Turner DeCarava.

Heritage Edition: available both softbound and hardbound (hardbound edition limited to 1500 copies).

2018 Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Award Jurors’ Special Mention

The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a "poem" about ordinary people, about teenagers around a jukebox, about children at an open fire hydrant, about riding the subway alone at night, about picket lines and artist work spaces. This renowned, life-affirming collaboration between artist Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes honors in words and pictures what the authors saw, knew and felt deeply about life in their city.

Hughes’ heart-warming description of Harlem in the late 1940s and early 1950s is seen through the eyes of one grandmother, Sister Mary Bradley. We experience the sights and sounds of Harlem through her learned and worldly eyes, expressed here through Hughes’ poetic prose. As she states, "I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose." DeCarava’s photographs lay open a world of sense and feeling that begins with his perception and vision. The ruminations go beyond the limit of simple observation and contend with deeper meanings to reveal these individuals as subjects worthy of art. While Hughes states, "We’ve had so many books about how bad life is, maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is," the photographs bring us back to this lively dialogue and a complex reality, to a resolution that stands with the optimism of the photographic medium and the certainty of DeCarava’s artistic moment.

First published in 1955, the book, widely considered a classic of photographic visual literature, was reprinted by public demand several times. This fourth printing, the Heritage Edition, is the first authorized English-language edition since 1983 and includes an afterword by Sherry Turner DeCarava tracing the history and ongoing importance of this book.

Over the course of six decades, American artist Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) produced a singular collection of black-and-white photographs of modern life that combine formal acuity with an intimate and deeply human treatment of his subject matter. Grounded by a unified theory of the visual plane, his work displays a subtle mastery of tonal and spatial elements and devotion to the medium of photography as a means of artistic expression. DeCarava created images that carry an emotional impact in their immediate relationship to the viewer, while also revealing less-than-visible terrains. DeCarava’s pioneering work privileged the aesthetic qualities of the medium, carrying the ability to reach the viewer as a counterpoint to the view of photography as mere chronicle or document and helping it to gain acceptance as an art form in its own right.

Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a poet, novelist, playwright, and social activist. Known worldwide as a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’s work has been significant in introducing black history and culture into the corpus of American cultural history as well as inspiring with his humanistic concerns, writers in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America. While living in Harlem, Hughes maintained close relationships with other writers working in and around the city—Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman were all considered friends and they would frequently gather to discuss politics, writing, and literature. Together, this close group of writers was instrumental in giving voice to the communities that would not accept persecution and marginalization. Hughes’s dispatches for the New York newspapers raised quotidian reportage to an art, filing moving descriptions of the famed Harlem Brigade who were martyred during the Spanish Civil War. Later in his life Hughes turned toward collaboration, working with the German composer Kurt Weill on the 1947 opera Street Scene, with jazz musicians including Charles Mingus and with the photographer Roy DeCarava on The Sweet Flypaper of Life.

Sherry Turner DeCarava is an art historian, curator, and independent scholar in the fields of traditional arts and contemporary American photography. She has taught or lectured extensively at universities and museums, including Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), Brooklyn Museum, and Rockefeller University. Serving as the executive director, the principal focus of her professional career has been the development of The DeCarava Archives, which supports exhibition and scholarly research projects related to the work of her late husband Roy DeCarava. She is the author of two definitive texts on his photography, including that in Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1996) and in Roy DeCarava: Photographs, a monograph published by the Friends of Photography/Ansel Adams Trust (1981). Awarded the Prix de la Photographie by Les Rencontres de la Photographie, the Arles Center for Culture, in its annual survey of international photography, her 1981 text was lauded as the best photo/text collaboration of the year. In 2014 she initiated First Print Press, beginning a process to republish classic Roy DeCarava books, while bringing new photographic projects into print.

The Sweet FlyPaper of Life from artemus jenkins on Vimeo.

The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes – review
This singular hybrid of photography and poetry captures 50s Harlem on the brink of change
Sean O'Hagan

Sun 30 Sep 2018 07.00 BST

Joe and Julia singing, 1953, from The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Photograph: © The Estate of Roy DeCarava ​2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner

The story goes that Langston Hughes met Roy DeCarava by accident on a street corner in uptown Manhattan in 1954 and was so taken by his photographs of everyday life in Harlem that he took them straight to his publishers. Simon & Schuster agreed to go ahead only if Hughes, who by then had published several novels, plays and poems, provided an accompanying text. The result, which first appeared the following year, was a hybrid book that is now recognised as a pioneering exercise in merging image and text as well as a revealing glimpse into the everyday lives of Harlem’s black community.

Now reissued by David Zwirner Books, which recently took creative charge of the DeCarava estate, The Sweet Flypaper of Life continues to cast a singular spell. Revealingly, DeCarava saw himself not as a documentarian, but as a modernist who valued his quest for “creative expression” over any desire to make “a sociological statement”. His approach was quietly subversive in its upending of traditional – and usually reductive – portrayals of black Americans in the mainstream media, where, as he noted, they were often presented “either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem”.

Buoyed by a Guggenheim Fellowship – the first one given to an African American photographer – he spent a year working in Harlem, where he later said: “The people had no walls up. They just accepted me and permitted me to take their photographs without any self-consciousness.”

As its title suggests, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is an extended poem, both visually and verbally. Hughes chose to evoke the Harlem of the 1940s and early 50s through the eyes of Sister Mary Bradley, a grandmother, whose stoical lyricism speaks volumes about her neighbourhood and the wider America of the time. Her gaze, and that of DeCarava, moves from the personal – her family, her neighbours, her wayward grandson, Rodney, his girlfriends – outwards to the neighbourhood characters, children, streets, the disappearing tenements and newly built housing projects.

Graduation, 1949. Photograph: © The Estate of Roy DeCarava ​2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner

As the narrative progresses, the images and words dance together in a way that still surprises. One sequence of five photos of people doing nothing but hanging out is punctuated by captions that unfold as a series of associative thoughts: “It’s too bad there’re no front porches in Harlem: almost nothing except stoops to sit on… or steps... or doorways to lean in… And, in the summertime, maybe a vacant lot.”

What emerges is an intimate portrait of a close-knit community on the point of great change. “Tenements torn down and project houses building,” writes Hughes in the resigned voice of Sister Mary. “Some folks selling, other folks buying. Somebody always passing. Coming and going. Picket lines picketing. And at night street meetings on the corner – talking about ‘Buy black’… ‘Africa for the Africans...’”

The political and social tumult of the 1960s – civil rights protests, brutal state violence, the emergence of the black power movement, race riots – is still a decade away, but there are auguries here of what is to come. In her first spoken passage, Sister Mary insists that she will stay on Earth until she sees “what this integration the supreme court has decreed is going to be like”.

Later, she compares the political effort that was required to reach that same supreme court decision with her experience of the New York rush-hour subway, which “mixes everybody – white, black, Gentile and Jew – closer than you ever are to your relatives”. Everything is implied; nothing is overstated.

Of late, a few academics have noted how the narrative of The Sweet Flypaper of Life worked on two distinct levels back in the 1950s, speaking both to a white readership and, more subtly and subversively, to a black one that picked up on the nuances of Hughes’s vernacular and DeCarava’s deft rendering of the complex dynamic of life in Harlem.

It is a book, then, that continues to fascinate, even more so, perhaps, in the current political climate. Its timely reissue will hopefully alert a new generation to a still undervalued master of intimate observation and his singular collaboration with a writer who instinctively understood his radical vision.

• The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes is published by David Zwirner Books (£17.95). To order a copy for £15.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

DeCarava and Hughes: The Sweet Flypaper of Life
29/12/15 at 02:07 am by admin

The Sweet Flypaper of Life
Photographs by Roy DeCarava
Text by Langston Hughes
New York, N.Y. : Simon and Schuster, c1955.
Through Amazon is is possible to purchase later prints.
Trained as an artist, Roy DeCarava achieved some early success in serigraphy and like Ben Shahn took up the camera as a means to build up a body of imagery for his art work. By the later 1940s he began to concentrate on photography as his primary artistic mode, and in 1952 he became the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. His application reads: “I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people. Morning, noon, night, at work, going to work… talking, kidding… in the home, in the playground, in the schools… I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression….”

Langston Hughes by DeCarava.

A photo out of the book.

Pages from the book.

Pages from the book.

As published in the book.

In the summer of 1954 DeCarava showed this body of work to the eminent American poet, Langston Hughes, who was immediately enthusiastic. Using his contacts in publishing Hughes obtained a contract from Simon and Schuster, and in 1955 The Sweet Flypaper of Life appeared with 140 of DeCarava’s photographs. The monologue of Hughes’s fictional narrator, Sister Mary Bradley, who lived at 113 West 134th Street in Harlem, relates the trials and joys of her extended family. DeCarava’s photographs echo the social dimensions of the textual narrative. Combined, text and image create a powerful and complex commentary on issues of pride, family, racism, and the daily struggle that is life.

See also: http://africanah.org/roy-decavara/


zaterdag 29 september 2018

Ordinary Lives Extraordinary Photographs The Cost of Living Martin Parr Photography

Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs
Martin Parr is acclaimed for his brash, colour-satured images of the lives and foibles of regular folk. As he prepares to curate the prestigious Arles photography festival, he talks to Martin Gayford about the ambiguity that lies beneath his work
12:01AM BST 17 Apr 2004

‘I’m much more romantic and nostalgic than people give me credit for,“ says the photographer Martin Parr. “People like to assume I’m cynical and sneering. In fact, I’m an absolute softy. Many things I criticise in modern life because I’d almost prefer to have everything as it was in 1950. I shouldn’t be telling you that because I’m giving the game away.“

This analysis would indeed come as a surprise to many who have criticised Parr himself. To the picture editor, for example, who described him as “a gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people“. Or the veteran humanistic French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who took great exception to the attitude expressed in Parr’s pictures. Parr, he complained, seemed to come from a different planet. Parr replied, admitting that their photographic visions “differed“ – but added, “Why shoot the messenger?“

Parr certainly seems at times to be bringing bad news. Where the photographs of Cartier-Bresson and others who inspired Parr as a young man portray a dignified humanity in terms that are at most gently humorous, Parr, in his mature work, frequently shows us crazed with desire for the most tawdry of mass-produced goods, or weighed down with the boredom of shopping and tourism. And he does so not in sober black and white, but in the most brash and lurid of super-saturated colour. Such images have made Parr one of the most widely admired documentary photographers of the past two decades.

As such, he is constantly in the public eye. This month an important study of his work by Val Williams is published by Phaidon in paperback. On May 6 a major exhibition of his work opens in Hamburg. And he is creative director of this summer’s photography festival in Arles – the Venice Biennale of the photographic world – in which he will be concentrating on documentary work. “I make no apologies that this is the focal point of the festival,“ Parr says. “It’s an incredible open canvas to put on work that I believe in.

“Most photographers,“ he explains, “are very attached to things that are exotic, and to people who are in extreme and dramatic circumstances. But I truly believe that the ordinary is much more interesting than people make out. We are so familiar with it and familiarity breeds contempt, but when you go to something like a supermarket or an Argos, or a shopping mall, they are quite extraordinary places.“ A typical Parr subject from the 1980s was a trolley jam in a duty-free supermarket in Calais, with rival shoppers frantically waving massive cartons of cheap beer and fags. About the same time he produced a series that – at least in the eyes of their opponents – stripped the mask from Thatcher’s middle classes. Hard-faced, blazered characters socialise at Conservative Party functions. Disconsolate women queue at a Laura Ashley sale.

One irony of all this is that Parr himself, as he likes to point out, is almost caricaturally English and middle class. He was born in 1952, and brought up in a bungalow in Surrey, which he has described as “drab, suburban and dreary“. His father was a civil servant. In person, Parr himself could be a solicitor, a headmaster or an off-duty police inspector – affable yet firm, tall, and businesslike. Nothing about him suggests artiness, or social criticism.

He is fascinated by Englishness. But, he insists, his feelings are ambiguous – and that ambiguity is truly his subject. “I’m torn when I think about England. On the one hand, I have great affection for things like the classic English summer fête. There can’t be anything more pleasant, or more English, than having afternoon tea in a small village in Dorset. But the very people you meet there will have the bigoted views about Europe that upset me about modern Britain. I’m classic soft Left myself, but you can’t meet anyone more pleasant than an English Tory – on an individual basis. But collectively, I think, there’s something wrong with them. My feelings about Britain are a mixture of affection and concern. I’m trying to express that ambiguity.“

As a boy, Parr visited his grandfather, an amateur photographer, in Yorkshire. There he acquire a love of old-fashioned, nonconformist communities – his family were practising Methodists – and also of working-class seaside resorts. At 15 he was inspired to become a photographer by seeing an exhibition of work by Bill Brandt. “I went round,“ he has remembered, “and thought, ‘God! Photography is fantastic, this is what I want to do.’“

One of his first projects, the following year, was to record a Yorkshire fish and chip shop, which he represented as “bleaker than it really was“, because he felt that it was part of world that interested him and would soon be lost. “I went up to the North of England from suburban Surrey and was very taken with the sense of community that there still was there. So part of my job with photography was to celebrate that, whereas what I do now is almost a critique on society. My role has changed.“ In treading that path from romantic nostalgia to social criticism, Parr was following an orthodox English route. Among his predecessors were the writers George Orwell and Philip Larkin.

Parr’s first mature work, in the 1970s, was devoted to the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, much in the gentle black and white tradition of Cartier-Bresson and Brandt. But he had at the same time a quite different variety of photographic experience. While a student at Manchester Polytechnic he worked for a time at a Butlins holiday camp. There he discovered the postcards made for Butlins by a photographer called John Hinde. These were everything Brandt and Cartier-Bresson were not – brash, lurid in colour, devoted to an everyday, contemporary world that was invisible to highbrow people.

These postcards, and in general what Parr calls vernacular photography – someone snapping their family on the beach – influenced the way his work changed in the ’80s. “The bright, saturated colours are there, and that’s part of the reason why I liked those pictures. If you took serious photography in the ’70s, it was in black and white.“

Parr also began collecting postcards, which were eventually published in the hugely successful series of Boring Postcards books. These bring out another aspect of Parr’s work. It can be very funny. Boring Postcards – followed by US and German versions – is one of the few photographic books that can make you laugh out loud, time and again.

At the same time, like many truly hilarious things, it is shot through with poignancy. It is touching just to reflect that anyone, ever, thought it worth transforming these scenes – The Lounge, Manchester Airport; Butlins, Bognor Regis: The Reception Hall; Brent Cross Shopping Centre – into postcards. But these caravan parks, power stations and town centres represent, Parr says, “the whole idea of rebuilding Britain after the war in an optimistic time, the ’50s and ’60s. It’s that optimism that now looks rather sad, and funny.

“Boring Postcards is a misnomer,“ says Parr, “because they are fascinating. But if you called them ‘Interesting Postcards’ no one would be interested. They show so well how our attitudes change as only a postcard can. When the M1 was first built, people thought it was a fantastic novelty. I remember going on it for the first time, and it was a real treat. Every service station had a range of 10 or 12 cards.“

As a coda to the Boring books, Parr made a pilgrimage to the small town of Boring, Oregon, where he took 468 photographs of such subjects as Boring Middle School and the Boring Sewage Treatment Facility. It’s an extended joke on Parr’s fundamental idea – that the ordinary, and hence boring, is actually interesting.

In Parr’s own photographs, many of the themes of his postcard collection are present – the vulgarity of our pleasures and pastimes, the feeling of loss. But there is sometimes something else – a sense of physical distaste.

Recent projects such those devoted to the package tour Mecca of Benidorm, and the still life series Common Sense, focus on such things as a mass of pre-cooked bacon weltering in fat. A pallid mass of uncooked sausages is contrasted with a glistening piece of chewing gum at the side of an ashtray. The bloated, reddened bodies of sunbathers are seen, close up.

Again, Parr is ambivalent about what he is doing. “I like places like Benidorm,“ he insists. “Not in a patronising way. I genuinely like the glitz and the glamour that the seaside brings. I’m attracted like a jackdaw to colour and sweets.“ On the other hand, “In our globalised, consumer world, there are many things that are unpleasant to look at. So still life is a perfect way to explore an aspect of the modern world.“

For Parr, even iced cakes can tell a story of moral and social decline (he took a memorable photograph of a tray of them, decorated as little pink pigs). “At a fête,“ he says, “you see a cake somebody’s spent an hour making, the ingredients probably cost 50p, and it’s being sold for a pound for charity. That home-made cake, slightly skew-whiff, made with love, is very moving. But a similar cake in a commercial baker’s with its kitsch colours is the embodiment of the consumer society at its worst. So a cake can embody everything that’s good or bad about the world.“

‘Martin Parr’ (Phaidon Press, £24.95) is available from Telegraph Books Direct for £22.95 + £2.25 p&p. To order please call 0870 155 7222.1952 Born Epsom, Surrey. Father a civil servant, mother “quite posh“. Salient childhood memories are of birdwatching with his parents at Hersham sewage farm.

1970-73 Studies photography at Manchester Polytechnic. Makes Home Sweet Home, a model of a Bradford sitting room with cheap perfume and The Sound of Music on loop, for his degree show.

1973 Moves to Hebden Bridge, a town in the Pennines with a small artists’ community -where he meets his wife, Susie Mitchell.

Exhibits on the emerging photo gallery circuit.

1982 Publishes his first book, Bad Weather (of bleak, monochrome landscapes).

1986 The Last Resort, a book of photographs of holidaymakers at a rundown seaside resort, brings him notoriety. Parr is accused of knocking the working classes; he says he’s knocking Thatcherism. The Serpentine Gallery exhibits the pictures.

1989 His follow-up, The Cost of Living, takes on the middle classes.

1994 Joins photographic agency Magnum, a self-electing elite. Parr scrapes in by one vote – the most controversial entry there’s ever been.

1999 Makes the acclaimed social documentary Think of England for BBC2’s Modern Times series. Publishes the popular Boring Postcards – of motorways and shopping centres. Organises Common Sense, an exhibition of photocopies staged simultaneously in 42 galleries across the world, claimed as the largest ever.

2002 A retrospective at the Barbican seals his status.

2003 Subject of one of Alan Yentob’s BBC Imagine arts programmes, where he shows off his Spice Girls crisp bags.

dinsdag 25 september 2018

Views & Reviews Humphrey Bogart Jean-Paul Belmondo Zorro Flip Book John Baldessari Photography

John Baldessari: ZORRO (Two Gestures and One Mark), Flip Book
ISBN 10: 3896110454 / ISBN 13: 9783896110459
Published by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Germany, 1998

John Baldessari: ZORRO (Two Gestures and One Mark), Flip Book Baldessari re-animates gestures of Humphrey Bogart and Jean-Paul Belmondo from movie stills. These movements are so trademark as to be akin to Zorro’s Z. Inside this three part flip book, Belmondo rubs his lips in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless, Zorro cuts the Z, and Bogey chuckles. The cover has Belmondo from Breathless looking at Bogart’s photograph.Number 781 in an edition of 800. 4" x 6"

Breathless continues to shock and surprise 50 years on
Jean‑Luc Godard's masterpiece remains a startling example of the French new wave and marked the arrival of one of cinema's most influential directors
Philip French

Sun 6 Jun 2010 00.04 BST First published on Sun 6 Jun 2010 00.04 BST


Jean Seberg in Jean‑Luc Godard's masterpiece, Breathless. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Two trailers bookend my half-a-century of writing professionally about the cinema and bracket the career of the man who is arguably the most influential moviemaker of my lifetime. Fifty years ago this month I dropped into an Oslo cinema while waiting for a midnight train and saw an unforgettable trailer for a French picture. It cut abruptly between a handsome, broken-nosed actor I'd never come across before, giant posters of Humphrey Bogart, and the familiar features of Jean Seberg, whom I knew to be an idol of French cinéastes as the protegee of Otto Preminger. Shot in high contrast monochrome, rapidly edited, interspersed with puzzling statements in white-on-black and black-on-white lettering, it was like no other trailer I'd seen, and I was captivated. Not until my return to London did I discover that the broken-nosed actor was Jean-Paul Belmondo and the film was the debut feature of the Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard. It had opened in Paris six weeks before to considerable acclaim and had been made with the help of two fellow critics-turned-directors, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, whose first films I'd seen. When A Bout de souffle (aka Breathless) opened in London a year later, it did live up to my expectations.

Eighty years old this November, Godard has just compiled another trailer for his latest (according to him, his last) picture, Film Socialisme. As provocative and original as ever, the two-minute trailer can be viewed online. It is in fact the whole film, speeded up for an audience too impatient to concentrate for two hours. The movie, premiered at Cannes last month, has subtitles that are deliberately unintelligible to anyone who doesn't understand the various languages in which it's made. In an interview with that other onetime revolutionary firebrand of the 1960s, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Godard said simply: "Don't translate, learn languages." For nearly 40 years I've been convinced that whenever a Godard movie is shown at Cannes, everybody in the world interested in seeing it is present at the Palais du Festival, elbowing other critics aside as they struggle to get into the early-morning press show. Nowadays, I only see a new film by the aloof, hectoring, didactic Godard when wild horses turn up at my front gate to drag me to a London press screening.

How, then, to explain what Godard meant to us back in the 60s? Why did I put on the dustjacket of my first book a photograph of myself scowling in a leather jacket and dark glasses, a cigarette in the corner of my mouth, because I thought it made me look like Godard? Why was I thrilled when Truffaut, as the director in his La Nuit américaine, eagerly tears open a parcel of books on the cinema, one of which is a symposium on Godard containing my 1965 essay on Une Femme mariée? Why did we sit around discussing the ideas and innovations of Godard the way young filmgoers today talk about box-office grosses, special effects and continuity errors?

Since the mid-50s we'd been looking for the new in the arts, society and politics, and our latest hopes were being invested in our cinema's working-class realism, which came out of fiction and the theatre, and in the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague from across the Channel. The latter term was coined in L'Express in 1957 by Françoise Giroud to describe the whole postwar generation and was applied to the cinema the following year by Pierre Billard in Cinéma 58. Talk of the new wave dominated Cannes in 1959, when films as different from each other as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour and Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups were perceived as characteristic examples of the new movement. Of the three, only Truffaut was a critic, and along with Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. Their polemical writings were devoted to overthrowing the cinematic old guard they called "Le cinéma du papa" (Dad's cinema) and promoting the politique des auteurs. They saw directors (or at least a select group of them) as auteurs, a term soon introduced into worldwide usage. These omniscient figures, whose ranks they sought to join, were seen as imposing their personalities, at times almost mystically, on every film they made, wielding what the moviemaker and theorist Alexandre Astruc called "le camera stylo" or cinematic pen.

Between 1958 and 1963 an astonishing 170 French filmmakers directed their first features, happily marching under the new wave banner, which was as vague as it was in vogue. But few were truly radical and innovative. The chief exception was Godard, the 30-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual, as passionate about Hegel as he was about Hitchcock, an artist bent on transforming the nature of cinema and with it the world. "Godard is not merely an iconoclast," that prophet of modernism Susan Sontag declared in 1968, "he is a deliberate 'destroyer' of cinema."

Breathless was the real thing. It was what we'd been waiting for, and it has taken its place alongside 20th-century works that have become familiar landmarks yet not lost their ability to shock and surprise: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Dali and Buñuel's Un Chien andalou, Picasso's Guernica, Welles's Citizen Kane, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Burroughs's Naked Lunch. They are what Ezra Pound was talking about when he said that "great literature is news that remains news".

Claude Chabrol, who served as supervising producer on Breathless, famously warned that great subjects rarely make great films. And Godard, the master of the gnomic epigram and perceptive paradox, once said: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." This was the basis of the brief scenario that Truffaut, a fellow admirer of film noir and série noire pulp fiction, provided for Breathless. Its antihero, the swaggering, misogynistic petty criminal Michel (Belmondo), steals a car in the south of France and kills a policeman on the road to Paris, where he takes up with an old girlfriend, the well-heeled American, Patricia (Seberg). They talk of life and literature (in particular Faulkner's The Wild Palms) in a seedy hotel, make love and visit the movies while he tries to get money owed him by criminal associates. The police close in, Patricia betrays him. Hardboiled B-feature stuff. But the style is everything, a calculated destruction and remaking of traditional film grammar, and Godard formulated his much-quoted idea that "a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order".

The film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the celebrated B-movie studio on Hollywood's Poverty Row, the camera is handheld, the editing is abrupt and inconsistent, Raoul Coutard's masterly monochrome photography is harsh, hard-edged, reliant on natural light. The much-admired director of existential gangster pictures, Jean-Pierre Melville, makes an appearance as himself, the first of such cameos in a Godard picture. The work of other directors is evoked or alluded to, among them Budd Boetticher (Westbound), Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns), Otto Preminger (Whirlpool), Robert Aldrich (Ten Seconds to Hell), and Bogart is a looming presence. We are constantly distanced in the manner of Brecht's alienation effect, told that what we are watching is a film, but also that movies, like our lives, are halls of mirrors.

Godard's methods of work on Breathless were purposefully chaotic. He admitted that he deliberately created confusion to achieve "a greater possibility of invention". Shooting in the busy streets of Paris, he avoided crowd control, and at one point a policeman leapt from a passing bus to assist an apparently dying Belmondo.

Over the next eight years Godard made a dozen feature films and contributed to several portmanteau pictures that defined and refined his art, and they've influenced several generations of cineastes from Nagisa Oshima through Wim Wenders to Quentin Tarantino. Yet the playfulness, the apparent sheer love of the movies, eventually gave way to a deep ambivalence, as his doubts about Hollywood changed to loathing and his sceptical attitude towards the States became unabashed anti-Americanism. "Do you love the cinema?" he was asked around the time of Breathless. He replied: "I have contempt for it. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it."

Most of his 1960s films are masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Several ran into trouble with the censors. Some didn't get released in Britain until years after they were made. Godard managed to attract major stars both then and later. He was constantly at the centre of controversy, debate and even scandal, ever ready with a quote for the press or a quotable line in a film. He mocked the film business in Le Mépris, subverted the musical in Une Femme est une femme, questioned the very basis of marriage in Une Femme mariée, showed present-day Paris as a horrific, depersonalised city of the future in his bleak sci-fi film Alphaville. But none of the later films had an impact comparable with Breathless, and as the decade progressed, his characters turned from nihilistic outsiders to slogan-mouthing revolutionaries. His farewell to anything resembling the mainstream came in 1967 with Weekend, which ended with the title "Fin du cinéma". He then worked within a leftwing collective on low-budget pictures, most of them on video, before moving with his collaborator and third wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, to Switzerland, which has been his base ever since.

Yet if Godard was ever a mainstream director, then he started to paddle rapidly towards the river's parallel tributaries as early as 1963. That was when he made Le Mépris, a million-dollar production financed by American producer Joseph Levine and the Italian tycoon Carlo Ponti. They wanted a combination of art-house chic and upmarket sexploitation that would show off the naked charms of Brigitte Bardot. She was cast as the wife of a French screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) working on an Italian version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang and produced by a snarling Hollywood mogul played by Jack Palance. The producers didn't like the fractured masterpiece they were given, edited their own versions, and were denounced as "King Kong Levine" and "Mussolini Ponti". Godard slapped Ponti's 69-year-old Paris representative in public and got a 500 franc fine.

This was the first of a string of confrontations and demolitions that included helping to close down the Cannes film festival in May 1968 as an act of solidarity with demonstrating students and striking workers. Six months later he punched Iain Quarrier, the British co-producer of his One Plus One (AKA Sympathy for the Devil), in the face and stomach on the stage of the National Film Theatre. Richard Roud, author of the first book in English on Godard and director of the London film festival, had brought Quarrier and Godard together for a public discussion on the film's re-editing, and the assault was preceded by Godard advising the spectators to demand their money back.

The worst conflict, however, was the split between Godard and his oldest friend and collaborator, François Truffaut, the man whose first act on gaining a certain industrial muscle by winning a prize at Cannes with Les Quatre cents coups was to help his colleague get his feet on the feature film ladder. There was jealousy and principle on Godard's side, a mixture of guilt and exasperation on Truffaut's. They traded public insults during the 1970s and their irreconcilable differences were never repaired. When Truffaut died in 1984, Godard praised his criticism but refused to make any favourable comments on his films. Truffaut had come to terms with the film industry, Godard would never consider such a compromise. Not until the publication in 1988 of Truffaut's collected letters, which contained a 1973 exchange between the two, did most of us understand the depth of the breach between them. Godard's letter pointed out what he considered the dishonesty of La Nuit américaine, calling Truffaut a liar for not mentioning his affair with its star Jacqueline Bisset. He then demanded as his right that Truffaut should invest 10m francs in his new low-budget movie, Un simple film.

Truffaut's scathing reply, which occupies six full pages of the book, lists a succession of slights, insults and betrayals, calls Godard a shit several times, and begins with the statement: "Jean-Luc. Just so you won't be obliged to read this unpleasant letter right to the end, I'm starting with the essential point: I will not co-produce your film." It has to be added, however, that Godard wrote an affectionate introduction for the Truffaut book, a characteristic mixture of eloquence and obscurity, in which he said, looking back on their youth: "The cinema had taught us how to live; but life, like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, was to take its revenge."

Breathless opens in cinemas on 25 June and is released on DVD on 13 September

An exhibition of Raymond Cauchetier's photos, Raymond Cauchetier: La Nouvelle Vague, runs at James Hyman Gallery from 14 July to 28 August. www.jameshymangallery.com

Jean-Luc Godard, À Bout de Souffle / Breathless (1960)
Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  The editing and camera antics—those are fun to watch.

    This is a hard film to think about, because it is so dense; so many things are going on in it. But as in any good film, the opening shot tells it all—or much of it. Even the dedication, not to a person but to Monogram pictures!, has put us into Godard-world. The media are the fact, not persons, even trashy media like the Monogram B-movies. They are, in a word Godard hallows, cinéma.

    The first thing we see is a girlie comic (themes: media as fact; sex). The paper slips down to reveal Michel Poiccard, a petty hoodlum (Jean-Paul Belmondo in the role that made him a star). “Après tout, ” he says, "je suis con.” After all, I’m an asshole. But, of course, he doesn’t mean that. Or does he? His dying words echo the sentiment.

    This is really the first of many instances where words lie or don’t mean anything. Then, “Il faut,” I must—must what? He rubs his thumb across his lips, a gesture he has copied from Humphrey Bogart and the first instance of many in which an outer action, particularly one from media, defines the inner person. As things develop, Michel steals whatever he has, cars, money, girls. He has nothing of his own except an uncashable check (cashable only with a fictional character from another film).

    What drives Michel, what makes him race from Marseilles to Paris (casually shooting a cop on the way) is his wish to bed an American girl, Patricia Franchini. Godard states the motive in his typical outside-in way: “I wanted to see if I’d be glad to see you again.” Throughout, the film raises questions about intention and identity, normally we think of intention as determining action, but in Breathless it’s the other way round. As Patricia says, “Because I am mean to you, it means that I don’t love you.” And Michel: “C’est normal. Squealers squeal, burglars burgle, lovers love.” A person’s intentions are defined by actions; a person’s nature is defined by outside in, not inside out. And the outside is what appears on the screen—cinéma.

    Patricia is played by Jean Seberg, quintessentially American, from Marshalltown, Iowa. (Critics would speak of her “corn-fed beauty.”) This was to be, sadly, her one great role. And Godard loudly labels her as American. She hawks the New York Herald-Tribune, indeed wears its name on her chest. She speaks error-ridden French with an American accent and often asks the meanings of French words. (Further instances of words as inadequate compared to cinéma.)

    Patricia is in Paris to study at the Sorbonne and pursue a career as a journalist. She plans ahead, meets her commitments, and calculates consequences. She embodies another of Godard’s themes: France vs. America. As late as 1971 Parisians would stop my wife or me on the sidewalk to thank us for what America did in World War II. But by 1960 the French Left had come to detest America in her role as superpower: greed, duplicity, wars, fanatical anti-communism, U.S. involvement in French Indo-China, and so on.

    In this film, impulsivity is good; Patricia’s planning and scheming is not. Contrast the jazzy piano theme for Michel with the Hollywood-y strings for Patricia. Or her shaky French with his fast, slurred slang. And Godard echoed that theme in his impulsive method of planning his film: he would write the dialogue in the morning and film it in the afternoon, often calling out lines or actions to the actors while shooting or dubbing. (All the dialogue had to be dubbed post-production, because the cheap Cameflex camera he was using was so noisy.)

    Michel embodies impulsivity. As the first scene goes on, he and his current girlfriend (sex again) signal each other, and—his first act in the film— he steals the big American car of an American army officer. Hah! So much for the vaunted American military might. But little does Michel know how America, in the person of Patricia, will pay him back. And, as it turns out, because she wants to study at the Sorbonne and pursue her career, she wants him just to go off to Italy and leave her alone. She enlists the police in her cause, and Michel dies. This is, of course, classic film noir stuff: the femme fatale is more dangerous than the killer.

    As Michel drives his stolen American car from Marseilles to Paris, he talks to us, and this is another of Godard’s ideas: that the crucial relationship in a movie is not between the characters (Michel’s easily dumped Marseilles girlfriend, Michel’s elusive debtors, Patricia’s betraying Michel) but between what is on the screen and us, the audience. This is the relationship stated in the last shot of the film. Patricia/America stares out at us, having betrayed her lover, having misunderstood his last words, and having taken over Michel’s Bogart gesture. Then she turns her back on us—the movie is over.

    Godard says he makes essays. “I consider myself an essayist, producing essays in the form of novels or novels in the form of essays, only instead of writing, I film them.” In that same interview he has said that his essays for the legendary film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, were in fact film making. In other words, in his movies he is not telling a story; he is making statements.

    In Breathless, this idea translates into Godard’s camera constantly calling attention to itself, circling, irising out, showing passersby gawking at the camera, Michel’s speaking to the camera, and of course the celebrated jump cuts. These were almost accidental. Godard filmed 30 minutes too much, and to shorten the film he chose to cut into scenes instead of cutting whole scenes. These jump cuts, slicing into the normal presentation of time, made the film, his cinematographer said, “more electric.” And they put Godard on the map.

    Pictures, looks, cinéma, are what count. It is a newspaper picture that traps Michel, and it is Godard himself who shows up in the film to see it and tell the cops. He irises that shot out to make sure we see what he is doing. By contrast words become mere jabber. There is the journalist Van Doude (played by himself), trying put the make on Patricia by telling her how he forgot that some girl had said she would sleep with him. Surely a doubtful tactic. Or the sex-obsessed interview with the novelist Parvulesco (played by Jean-Pierre Melville, godfather to the nouvelle vague). These talkers demonstrate word sex instead of the 25-minute foreplay in Patricia’s room, body to body, image to image.

    Words don’t work. Indeed, Godard’s 2014 film (3-D, no less) is titled, Adieu au Langage or Goodbye to Language. Words produce paradoxes and contradictions: “I’d like to think of something nice but I can’t.” “The French always say it’s all the same when it isn’t.” “I want to become immortal—and then die.” The last words of the film are problematic. The death-dealing police inspector with the life-giving name Vital (writer Daniel Boulanger) lies to Patricia. Michel’s last words were, “I am really nauseating (dégueulasse). Patricia asks what he said, and Vital says, “He said you are nauseating.” What is not a lie is Patricia’s image on the screen and her taking over Michel’s Bogart-gesture. The tragedy Breathless portrays is that the old way of making movies, planning, scheming, the bourgeois values triumphing over amorality, in short, classical Hollywood style in the person of Patricia, wins out. But happily that didn’t happen. Godard’s radical methods won out. Otherwise we would never have had classics like Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1969), The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969), and many another.

    What then was—is—so radical about Breathless? Godard is insisting that we look at the film as itself the fact, that we not look through the film to some story that it represents, some story behind the screen, as it were. “Why do I need a story?,” said Godard. “I don’t make films. I make cinema.” He does have stories, to be sure, usually about ill-fated love and death, as with the references to Romeo and Juliet in this film. But it’s not a normal narrative; it has a 25-minute dialogue in the middle discussing whether the anti-hero and anti-heroine will have sex. Story is not important, just as Michel and Patricia ignore the consequences or morality of what they do. What is important is what’s on the screen. That is the fait, the fact, and French helps us here: fait is also the past participle of faire. It is what is made, done—what Godard made, not the words, not the idea (which happened to be by Truffaut), not some fictional story. It is whatever we see on screen (including plain text like the dedication, a device Godard will use again and again in his later films).

    Not many directors have been willing to go as far on this track, film-not-story, as Godard did in his post-1968 work. The most radical directors of today still tell stories: Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch—perhaps only David Lynch and Burmese director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have followed Godard’s theories about the fait of cinéma at least part of the way. But Godard is still out there in the lead, as with his bizarre and challenging Histoire(s) du Cinéma, (1990-98), a five-hour cinéma making his ideas about twentieth-century film into images, faits, on the screen.

    Again and again, polls of critics name him as one of the three most innovative directors ever, along with Griffith and Welles. His influence has been huge. His films in their strange anti-aesthetic way still captivate audiences. He is one of the movies’ immortals, and Breathless is not only his manifesto, but a great film.

An item I’ve referred to: Godard, Jean-Luc, “Talking to Cahiers, 1962.” 36-47. In À Bout de Souffle, booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD of Breathless, #408. Trans. and ed. Tom Milne. 36-47.