Sabine Mirlesse on Alix Cléo Roubaud at BnF

Alix Cléo Roubaud is virtually unknown, but an exhibition in Paris sheds light on her ethereal photographs.

“All photography struggles against death and the passage of time,” Alix Cléo Roubaud says in a video titled Les Photos D’Alix (1980) by Jean Eustache, on display in her exhibition at Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s gallery in Paris, titled Quinze minutes la nuit au rythme de la respiration. Yet those words grow eerie, as one quickly learned that the dozens of photographs on view were from not a lifetime’s work spanning decades, but rather from the four-year period before Roubaud’s death in 1983, at the age of 31, of pulmonary disease.

If death is represented by darkness, Roubaud’s images confront it with light—literally burning it out of her images, bathing her subjects in white, her landscapes seemingly floating in ether. Roubaud also drew on her negatives and prints, often stopping the development process before it was finished. She also layered texts and made double exposures, as in La Dernière Chambre (1979), where she overlaid text and image to create visual palimpsests. In some cases, she moved the frame itself and made it the central element of the final image, as in the Non Contact Theory series from 1980; in others she used burning and dodging techniques to completely remove elements of an image that didn’t interest her. She believed “the only real photographs are the ones of [one’s] childhood,” and so perhaps considered her own photographs less sacred and thus ready candidates for manipulation. But she also rephotographed her childhood album images, creating new material to play with. Perhaps because she used her negatives like a painter uses a color palette, self-awareness successfully melts away into the permeability of being both photographer and artist simultaneously, rather than separately—her formal choices feel natural rather than as though a gimmick were at play.

Born in Mexico in 1952 to Canadian diplomats, Alix Cléo Blanchette grew up in various countries, including Egypt and Portugal, moving according to her parents’ professional obligations. Because of Roubaud’s fragile lungs, she preferred warmer climates and decided to study philosophy in Aix-en-Provence rather than at Cambridge or in Paris. She wrote her thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1979, she met the writer Jacques Roubaud (whom she later married) and decided to become a photographer. A year later, she presented her first, and only complete, series—on view now at the Bibliothèque Nationale for the first time—entitled Si quelque chose noir (If anything black), a seventeen-image sequence mirroring the syllable count of a haiku. Following the medieval Japanese tradition of “Rakki tai” or “taming one’s demons,” in the series she imagines her own death in order to confront it. She passed away before completing her next major project.

Roubaud kept journals her entire life and wrote candidly, likely with the idea that her words would be read after her passing. Snippets of her writings decorate the walls of the first exhibition room at the Bibliotheque: they are excerpts from her journals, fragments of her life philosophy, her thoughts on photography in general, and loose memories and musings. These words enrich the photographs on view, adding another layer of intimacy to the palimpsest, and echoing the sound of her voice streaming from the video playing in a room at the far end of the space. “I used this photograph to seduce a man once” she says at one point during the film, gesturing towards an image she has laid out. Describing another she says, “I was very, very hot that day, which I indicated with the incorrect, overexposed whiteness,” signaling that she burned into the frame. Her personal life informs her technique, and everything seems to be part of a carefully plotted plan—so much so that she destroyed most of her negatives and only left behind unique prints.

Alix Cléo Roubaud is virtually unknown, and any of her minor notoriety has arrived posthumously, thanks to her husband’s dedicated archiving and promotion of his late wife’s work. Yet her images seem to find a place alongside that of artists like Duane Michals or Francesca Woodman, who also have used the photograph as a canvas to explore and transcend intertwined layers of process and metaphysics, intimacy, and philosophy. Roubaud had no time to waste, infusing each frame with her own sense of mortality and pushing back against it. It is now possible to view these poignant proofs of her existence, and to feel her absence, imagining the possible career she might have had—a duality that she perhaps sought to manifest. It’s rare today to feel as though one has stumbled upon an important talent about which few people know, particularly when that talent has departed and left an oeuvre created with purpose and deliberation, mysterious yet knowing.

Quinze minutes la nuit au rythme de la respiration ran from October 28, 2014 to February 1, 2015 at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s gallery in Paris.