There are no traces of the original 1920s ballroom at Le Bal, the new exhibition space in Paris dedicated to ‘the document’. Unusual, in a city that often enjoys going about the present while keeping faded-but-somehow-rejuvenated remnants of the past. Ironic, too, that director Diane Dufour couldn’t find a single photograph of the building in its former life. But Le Bal is a serene space in which to contemplate documents of the world beyond its newly plastered walls, and its second show Five Strange Family Albums is as enthralling as its first.  

Le Bal’s opening exhibition, Anonymes, investigated political, cultural, and social alienation in North America, exploring, as its co-curator David Campany described it, “one of the defining characteristics of the modern era”- anonymity. From Jeff Wall’s cinematographic Men Waiting (2006), to Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese’s haunting archive of found photographs in Detroit: A Self Portrait (2009-2010), the selected exhibits demanded the attention of both the dedicated document enthusiast and passing flâneur. The placement of photographs in printed context by Walker Evans, alongside contemporary works such as Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture and Sharon Lockheart’s Lunch Break, showed an evolution of the ‘image document’ and created a new dynamic for each exhibit. What would Dufour conjure next?  

Five Strange Family Albums shows five representations of family from different, though mostly American, pockets of the globe. Whether the strangeness resides in the treatment of the subject matter or the subject itself, abandoning the conventions of the family album reveals a consoling and sometimes disturbing honesty about family relations and identities.

Erik Kessels

In My Sister, the distinctive colours of Super 8 film take us to the 1970s, and the suburban back garden of Erik Kessels. The stretched frame of a young Erik is playing ping-pong with his sister. It is a scene reminiscent of the Peter and Jane Ladybird books of the 1960s and 1970s, where illustrations of happy, white, middle class children, paired with repetitive language were used to teach children how to read. Kessels chooses similarly instructive sentences to spell out the tragedy that his sister died in an accident. The digital waverings of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack, paired with the stop-start edit of the scene creates an eerie blend of innocence and foreboding. Kessels leads us into a trance, contemplating loss and memory but the clunky use of text distracts from any meaningful meditation.

Within earshot of Sakamoto’s disturbing soundtrack, is Emmet Gowin’s The Clearest Pictures were at First Strange (1965 -1973). Gowin is known primarily for two extensive bodies of work: the natural landscape as seen from above and a chronicle of the everyday life of his wife Edith and her extended family. The latter is exhibited at Le Bal. What Gowin’s aerial work achieves by distance, his family work achieves by close proximity. On the wall above the small black and white prints is a quote from Gowin: “The mystery of a photograph is only fully revealed when everything in the picture seems obvious, then it is up to us to reveal its meaning.” His wife’s unfazed expression while peeing or flashing her breasts shows their quotidian relationship both with each other and the camera. These uninhibited scenes might otherwise seem voyeuristic, but there is a strong sense of the photographer’s relation to his subject and with that, there seems to be warmth, rather than strangeness in the familiar. There is nothing unfamiliar in Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, a portrait of a young girl standing in the garden holding an egg in each hand. Yet the fluidity of her arms entwined like roots, a graceful continuation of the tree branches that appear to grow from her hair says so much more than the objects alone.  

Ralph Eugene Meatyard

From the strangely obvious, to the obviously strange: downstairs Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s black and white series, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater (1970-1972) is brilliantly mysterious. The images have the appearance of casual family portraits, but when we look for faces, we find masks. Meatyard’s wife, Madelyn appears in every picture wearing a hag’s mask, and next to her stands a family member or friend with a semitransparent cover over their face. The name Lucybelle Crater was taken from a character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find and while captions such as, ‘Lucybelle Crater and close friend Lucybelle Crater in the grape arbor’ or ‘Lucybelle Crater and her editorial friend’s symbolic son’ hint at a narrative, they leave us ultimately baffled. The mystery perhaps serves as a reminder that the family album is primarily a personal document only really understood by those within it. Although even then, does the familial sense of mutual recognition go beyond the mask? Is there a danger that family members only see what they want to see? Perhaps something can be made of the notion that sometimes we wear masks in our most intimate surroundings.

Sadie Benning

Masks recur in Flat is Beautiful (1998) by Sadie Benning, a film documenting the life of an androgynous 12-year-old girl (Taylor) who lives with her mother and a gay roommate. The Pixelvision picture and handmade masks worn by each character create an animated montage of ‘real’ people with two-dimensional faces. It is as though entering Benning’s psyche, and picking up fragments of remembered events and feelings. The exhibition is certainly worthy of a return visit, and you may need one solely to take in Benning’s 56-minute film. There are only a few headphone spots so find a quiet time.  

Alessandra Sanguinetti

The only contemporary work on display is the most uplifting. The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams (1999-2010) is an ongoing project by Allessandra Sanguinetti tracing the thoughts and imaginings of cousins, Guillermina and Belinda as they grow up on a farm in Argentina. Three walls, painted red highlight vivid photographs of the pair, and a screen opposite plays out the ebullient fictions they construct within their everyday surroundings and philosophical discussions they have with Sanguinetti. Verified by the large crowd gathered to watch, the documentary is compelling and inspires an emotional connection with the photographs. In a poignant moment, we learn that while the young Belinda dreams of marrying prince charming, Guille is afraid of marriage. “I’m afraid of being abandoned,” she says. “Why do you think you’ll be abandoned?” asks Sangunetti. “It’s something I’ve seen and that’s it,” she replies knowingly, “I’ve seen a lot of films”. The clip of ‘Archibaldo’s funeral’ deserves several viewings. Dressed as nuns, the pair have constructed a funeral tableaux in a field. Guille plays the part of ‘mourner’ and Belinda does her best to conduct the service. ‘ARCHIBALDO’ she announces, fighting off the giggles, ‘You had beautiful green eyes…it was a painful tragedy’. Occasionally a chicken nonchalantly passes-by or an ant crawls over the lens giving the scene a great sense of place. From adolescence to adulthood, Guille and Belinda’s imaginary worlds give way to the realities of responsibility. “Why can’t we stay little?” asks Belinda, now expecting a baby. “When the baby arrives… no more siesta”.

In a recent interview with FOAM magazine, Dufour was asked about her ambitions for Le Bal. “We want to make people think about the relationship between the real and possible ways of representing it”, she said. At a time when social media makes it easy to share personal pictures to an extended online audience, Five Strange Family Albums is a timely catalyst for deeper thoughts about the ways in which we choose to represent the family. The works exhibited may have been made 10-40 years ago, but essentially the conventions of the album have not changed and it is still the means by which family memory is continued. As the family archive becomes digital, how does this change the way we encounter these documents? How will this change our collective memory of the family?

By presenting these works under the umbrella of the family album we are aware of them both as personal and public documents. We are all familiar with the conventional family album, but here the subject is not obliged to smile for every picture and each photograph reflects the life of a family in which many different emotions are contained. Collectively the exhibits work as if in the same family in which no individual or group is allowed to dominate. Each is given its own well-considered space, but recurring features such as masks, eggs, and the home lend Five Strange Family Albums a unique identity unconstrained by the context of the times in which its individual parts were made.

So far, American work has dominated at Le Bal. When it comes to presenting the image-document, does Europe have some catching up to do? It will be interesting to see where Dufour takes us next. Will Le Bal continue to jive or will it give us a waltz and a polka too?

Eleanor Farmer

Five Strange Family Albums is on until 17 April