Annie Ernaux Inspires an Exhibition about Fleeting Encounters

In Paris, the Nobel laureate’s words are set in dialogue with striking images by artists including Daido Moriyama and Mohamed Bourouissa.

Dolorès Marat, La femme aux gants (Woman with gloves), 1987

The work of French writer Annie Ernaux, who won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, lies somewhere between memoir and sociological study, with books like The Years (2008) documenting what reviewers have coined “collective memory”: her personal experiences turned universal. In her highly visual prose, Ernaux often presents fragments of memories through descriptions of photographs, artifacts of a past life she describes in precise detail, down to the patina of the print. Though her medium is the written word, could she be described as an image-maker herself? This idea was explored by the writer and curator Lou Stoppard during a curatorial residency she began two years ago at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, which culminated in the new exhibition Exteriors—Annie Ernaux and Photography. The group show displays Ernaux’s texts on the walls alongside work by nearly thirty photographers from MEP’s collection, including Martine Franck, William Klein, Daido Moriyama, Garry Winogrand, and Hiro.  

Although Ernaux has a photographic element throughout her entire oeuvre, Stoppard chose to focus on her short book Exteriors (1996), comprising seven years of observations while on the Parisian metro or RER, the commuter train line. Unlike the descriptions of photographs in her other books, such as The Years, these brief bursts—some only a single sentence long—represent to Stoppard images that Ernaux has created in her own right. Stoppard sought out works from MEP’s collection that share a similar ethos with, rather than simply mirror, Ernaux’s texts—a sensibility toward capturing fleeting, everyday moments. Or as Ernaux described at the exhibition opening: “To preserve moments that come and have no intention to remain.”

I recently spoke with Stoppard about how she developed an exhibition that posits that a photograph could be more than just a chemical process on light-sensitive paper: it could be an alchemical one left in the imagination.  

Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 1979
Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 1979

Christina Cacouris: In France, people love the phrase ce n’est pas possible, meaning “it’s not possible.” But it seems like when you approached the MEP’s director, Simon Baker, he was really receptive to the idea of the exhibition. Were there other people you had to convince about this unique project? And what were their reactions? 

Lou Stoppard: I still live in absolute disbelief that this project has happened. Often when you work independently, when you’re not in-house at an institution, trying to get any exhibition off the ground—let alone something that is more unusual—is really, really difficult. When I first read Exteriors and I first had the sense of, why has no one done something with these texts and treated them as photographs, I remember thinking, is anyone going to get this? Is anyone going to let me do this?

It was late 2021 when I first approached Simon with the idea, and spring 2022 when I did my residency at MEP; it was a different time, because while Annie is beloved and duly very celebrated in France, but she hadn’t won the Nobel at that point. I remember when I was talking to friends in London or in the US about the project, it did seem pretty strange to them. But Simon was very receptive. And I think part of that is to do with the MEP having that great collection, which they are very keen to have approached with fresh eyes and treated as a tool for research. But also, the MEP has this history of bringing together photography with other disciplines, so I think they were open to a project that questioned what a photograph could be, and which united text and image.

Mohamed Bourouissa, L’impasse, 2007
Mohamed Bourouissa, L’impasse, 2007, from the series Périphérique
Courtesy the artist and Mennour, Paris
Johan van der Keuken, Rue de Rivoli, 1957,
Johan van der Keuken, Rue de Rivoli, 1957, from the series Paris Mortel

Cacouris: The MEP’s collection is twenty-four thousand photos and thirty-six thousand books. Once you had this go-ahead to do it as an exhibition and not only a book or an essay, where does one begin when you have that much material at your disposal? 

Stoppard: That was actually a flipped process, because the confirmation that it would be an exhibition came after I’d done the research. While I was doing the residency, I spent time in the MEP library and in the MEP collection, and then it became clear to me through that process that it would be best suited to being an exhibition—because the nature of questioning whether Annie’s texts could be perceived or understood as images really relied on reception, and on the process of a public encountering and reacting to them in a new format. Going through the collection was an amazing process, but it did require a lot of structure and intention because there is so much there. And I’m really grateful to Annie that we met so early on in the process; we had a conversation about what she meant by “writing as if through the eyes of a photographer.” We talked about this idea of giving weight or dignity to certain things, or certain communities, or certain spaces, by the act of observation and recording, and that was really what set the parameters for that process of going through the photography. That was where I decided that I wasn’t just going to be focusing on French photography, or just looking from the period 1985 to the period 1992, which is when Exteriors was written. I really wanted to broaden my gaze out into ways of seeing, and there were projects that I came to quite quickly, because there were some real gems in the MEP archive that I knew were there, such as Henry Wessel’s Incidents series.

Bernard Pierre Wolff, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1981
Bernard Pierre Wolff, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1981
Clarisse Hahn, Ombre (Sahdow), 2021
Clarisse Hahn, Ombre (Shadow), 2021
Courtesy the artist and Gallery Jousse Entreprise, Paris

Cacouris: You mentioned that things that are routinely dismissed as ephemeral, Annie would record in this book. That’s not unlike our relationship to photography now; with iPhones, we’re taking photographs of things that one hundred years ago, nobody would have pointed their camera at because they wouldn’t have considered it important to document. So, I’m curious about that relationship between the way that we’re using photography now and the way that Ernaux records the mundane and the typically ephemeral. 

Stoppard: Annie and I were discussing something similar to this, in relation to general use of iPhones. She noted to me how some of her observations would be more difficult now because people use public space in a different way because of the presence of an iPhone. A lot of Annie’s observations are taken on the Metro or the RER, and she captures these snippets of people talking to each other or looking at each other. We were talking about whether these scenes would exist in the same way anymore, or whether everyone would just be on their phone. What you’re saying about contemporary image-making and recording of events is relevant because I think there’s never been a better time to question what a photograph is.

Janine Niepce, <em>Restaurant époque 1900. Le garçon de café</em> (Restaurant in the 1900s style. The waiter), 1957″>
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Janine Niepce, Restaurant époque 1900. Le garçon de café (Restaurant in the 1900s style. The waiter), 1957
Ihei Kimura, <em>Yuraku-cho</em>, Tokyo, 1948″>
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Ihei Kimura, Yuraku-cho, Tokyo, 1948

One aspect of this project is that it’s a celebration of photography around public space, like street photography; it’s a celebration of Annie and her ambition that she has brought to writing and the way that she questions what writing can be and pushes beyond the confines of literature. But it is a project about text and photo, and what both of those forms and disciplines can be. And that feels contemporary to me, this idea of probing what our expectations and habits of thinking about imagery is, particularly in relation to themes around truth and reality. The ability to observe neutrally, the impossibility of that, is this undercurrent through Exteriors, of Annie’s struggle to record things as they were. She’s admitting the impossibility of that the whole way through, because she inserts herself at points and talks about how she’s learning about herself through the process of observation. So it’s this admittance of the impossibility of that the whole way through, and I think that’s really interesting in relation to how we think about photo. 

Claude Dityvon, 18 heures, Pont de Bercy, Paris
Claude Dityvon, 18 heures, Pont de Bercy, Paris (18 hours, Bridge of Bercy, Paris), 1979

Cacouris: Is that why you decided to only focus on Exteriors? Because so much of Annie’s work is punctuated with other visual descriptions of photographs. 

Stoppard: It is exactly. Photo has a presence in a lot of Annie’s work, and she has a really rich and complex relationship with photography; it’s something that she has written about in the book L’usage de la photo (2005). Descriptions of photographs of herself appear across her writing, as do descriptions of photos of her family and descriptions of the way they, and others, behave in photographs and behave in front of the camera. That’s one aspect of the way that Annie deals with photography. Another part is she often refers to her memories in a very photographic way; she often uses the words scenes or images. She talks about trying to save something from a time where we will never be again—this idea of trying to put a pin in time. Annie describes it as seeing time rushing by and trying to tear away at that process of escaping and that has a real photographic element to it. I felt like what was going on in her writing was often responding to images. Exteriors is very different in the sense that it’s almost like she’s trying to author new images there, and really make the writing itself an image.

Annie Ernaux and Lou Stoppard, Paris, 2024
Annie Ernaux and Lou Stoppard, Paris, 2024
Installation view of <em>Exteriors — Annie Ernaux and Photography</em>, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, 2024″>
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Installation view of Exteriors — Annie Ernaux and Photography, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, 2024

Cacouris: I was really curious, coming to see the show, how you were literally framing her work. And it was interesting to see that it was printed large and tacked directly into the wall. How did you navigate that process? I could imagine becoming precious about even the paper that it’s printed on, or whether it should have a frame around it. How did you think about that? 

Stoppard: That was quite tough, that process, in terms of the paper stock, the sizing, the typography. I realized quite early on, as did the MEP team, that the more we messed with the text in terms of any kind of design or hanging, the more you made it scream, “This is a text.” It’s not really about the form, because you’re questioning the form. You’re trying to say: this is an image, not a text. So it has to just be about what is literally there, what is described, what is happening in that scene. You really just need to let the visitor be encountered with that in the smoothest way possible without distracting them with design interventions. So that’s why it’s quite literally printed out on the wall. I did briefly think about framing, but it felt unnecessary; it felt a bit almost performative, really enforcing that this is a photo, whereas I think the words themselves do that. We did use lighting in a way to show that it was lit like a work, but other than that we tried to really create the smoothest possible path between the visitor and the words themselves.

Issei Suda, Nabari Mie, 1977
Issei Suda, Nabari Mie, 1977, from the series Fushikaden, 1971–78
Courtesy Akio Nagasawa Gallery
Daido Moriyama, Untitled, 1969
Daido Moriyama, Untitled, 1969
Courtesy Akio Nagasawa Gallery

Cacouris: Have you heard from any of the photographers in the show about having their work placed next to or around Annie’s? 

Stoppard: I have, and I’m really thrilled about that. I saw a few of the photographers at the opening but also a few children of some of the photographers. Claude Dityvon’s son was talking to me about how thrilled his father would have been and how he was such a fan of Annie. I also saw Jean-Christophe Béchet, who made work based on different European cities. That was hung in quite a straight line; for me, it was symbolizing construction of buildings, because Annie talks about the fractured, compact, complex identity of Cergy being a town bereft of memory because it’s new. But she also talks of it being a place sprung up from nowhere. So, you have a building-like structure with that hanging. And then you have a very long and thin hanging of Hiro’s Shinjuku Station, Tokyo (1962), which is the train leaving, going from place to place. I spoke to Jean-Christophe about his inclusion and he was really happy as well, which was wonderful. He talked about how his goals as a photographer have always been very similar to what he feels Annie was describing of her goals, which is not making pictures or observations of things that could be in the news. It’s not about headlines; it’s about life and trying to make images of banal or seemingly simple things. Pictures that mean something has always been his goal, but he’s not interested in the obvious or the wrought because that would almost be to easy. He’s looking at more commonplace things. And you see so much about life by looking at the world like that.

Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère et son enfant, 1965
Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère et son enfant (Council estate in Vitry. A mother and her child), 1965
All photographs courtesy MEP, Paris

Cacouris: You’ve mentioned that this show is about seeing and looking and our impressions of things. Has this project made you look at life and the outside world differently?

Stoppard: It has. Annie has completely changed so many things for me. Most of all, it is a project about observation and who has the ability and the right to do that and to move through public space and be present and engaging with the world. Annie talked about how part of the reason she could write this book and she could make these images was because she had grown-up children, and she had the time and the ability to move through the world and interact with it. When she was married with young children, she wasn’t able to do that. 

In the process of working on this project, I had a child, and most of the time that I worked on transitioning it to an exhibition, I was either pregnant or I had a very small baby. And my role has now flipped. I was present in the world; now, I’m in that stage that Annie describes where you don’t interact with public life as much because you’re so wrapped up in this little private world. When you’re in public you’re pushing a pram, or carrying a baby or just trying to make sure you haven’t dropped a toy or a sock or a hat. And I can really understand what Annie described about wandering around Cergy like she had these fresh eyes, and she could just engage and look at things. I understand that now in a very personal way. When I walk down the street on my own now, when I’m not with my daughter, I’m ravenous for observation. 

Exteriors—Annie Ernaux & Photography is on view at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, through May 26, 2024. The accompanying catalog was published by MACK in spring 2024.