Marcelline Delbecq . Photographic Writing and Narrative Persistence: Performing the Photobook

Une conférence inédite prononcée à Montréal en 2014 lors du colloque L’imaginaire contemporain (Figura – UQAM) et traduite en anglais (sans filtre) à l’occasion d’un colloque sur “Raconter avec la photographie” en 2017.

I would like to thank Elisa Bricco and the French Institute for inviting me at this conference on “Photographic Telling”, and the effects of images on writing. This gives me the opportunity to develop some thoughts and esthetic issues on Marcelline Delbecq’s works. I must also thank her for helping me in finding precious documents and answering my questions.  You may not know Marcelline Delbecq, so I will do a quick introduction that will help positioning her in the contemporary art and literature landscape.  Marcelline Delbecq was born in 1977 in France, she is a photographer, an artist, a writer, and now a PhD student at the Ecole normale supérieure under the supervision of Antoine de Baecque, a Godard and cinema specialist. Like Sophie Calle and Valérie Mréjen, she is part of the artist-tellers or artist-writers generation that hatched in the 90’s, that is keen on mixing various media with a storytelling.

Thanks to these intermedial narrations, this generation has reinvented the very notion of literature – that I call now neo-literature – by hybridizing visual forms with narration to turn them into a plastic literature, a form of neo-literature connected to the contemporary creation and experience of the world. This creation is characterized by hybridization, transmediality and its non-finiteness.


This presentation was first pronounced in Montreal for a conference on the Contemporary Imaginary, but remains unpublished. At this time, I worked specifically on the dialogue on the book making with photographs and a narrative. In Marcelline Delbecq’s approach of image and writing, we note three ways of presenting them: the first was initially performances, the second, books and the third, exhibition – which was to her the end of a process from which she decided to withdraw. The main idea of my analysis is the game unreeled by Marcelline Delbecq between the flicking image and short texts coming along, making transition between images, or absent images, and creating a non-linear story. The photographic image is not only accompanying the text or illustrating, or adding information, it creates cracks in the story and opens to other temporalities or spatialities, sometimes by superposing images and text.    

Esthetical context

The photographic work of Delbecq shows a clear continuity with the American documentary photographic tradition, comprising Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lewis Baltz, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston (for the use of color) but also Diane Arbus. On the book making side, we can find echoes in her work of Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Gas Stations (1963) which is the canonical model of modern artist book as described by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix in her major study. Delbecq borrows, quotes and extends traditional forms through rhetorical and esthetic processes by slowing down, blowing up, using ellipsis or narrative extensions. It produces then distortions of perspective, as much on the text or the image side.   

Delbecq takes from some photo-narrative the possibility to introduce plasticity and even, elasticity both in photography and literature. Her preference goes to the fragmentary form, as it is designed first to be part of reading performances or phototextual display. The book makes possible the image and the narration to meet in a still form, like a “film still”, cutting a piece of text and picture. As expressed in the presentation of Silence trompeur, her last exhibition in 2016 in Paris, “Delbecq turned from visual takes to note taking (prises de vue/ de notes)”. The documentary collection of images and moments, feelings, could be considered as “factographies” (as Marie Jeanne Zenetti described it), or indexical traces of real events. But in the contrary, they take part to the construction of a fiction of perception or memories ignited by pictures. The components of the story are given bits by bits, as an unfinished scenario. The images look deserted, the setting abandoned and the scenery are desperately empty of any presence. In the texts, a similar sensation of emptiness and isolation is noticeable, enforced by the reduction of the text to minimalist descriptions. The texts show a sharp cut, in the form itself, as we can see in Camera: each fragment has the shape of a picture and has to condense the very short story told inside. Close to prose poem, it shares many aspects of the nouveau roman, Marguerite Duras or Claude Simon, as Pascal Mougin showed. This nouveau roman heritage has been described by Jean-Max Colard in artist’s writings, in an interview with the late Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the style of “écriture blanche” (blank writing) or “neutral”, can also be found through Roland Barthes and Georges Perec’s conceptual influence on contemporary artist writing. Marcelline Delbecq is herself at the crossroads of the minimalist influence, the blank writing, but also the cinematographic quote, very much at large in French contemporary literature (for instance see Christine Montalbetti, Olivia Rosenthal, Tanguy Viel or Jérôme Game). For this presentation, I will only comment on her fictional writing, and not on the recent essay form that she started to experiment in her small book Camera (2015), for instance.

First level of reading: from pictures-tableau to animated book

Trained as a photographer in Chicago and New York, Delbecq comes back in France to reinforce her practice in art school. From a single medium, she experiments pluridisciplinarity and plurimedial expressions, becoming what is called in French a “plastician photographer”, that is to say a non-modernist approach to photography, as Douglas Crimp called them “pictures”, meaning that they are included in a process as an item, and not as a goal. The image can also be part of an installation, a performance, or a phototext, dealing with the fact that they need a context to be read. Close to the American conceptual artists, Delbecq starts to mix bits of texts with “photographie-tableau” – which is quite different from Christian Boltanski who borrows the archival aspect or vernacular aspect of images, and different from Sophie Calle too, who insists in her early works on the truth of stolen pictures. She only starts to stage photography as a substitute to the original, an illustration of the telling. So the fact that photographic-tableaux, as described by Jean-François Chevrier in 1989 (1990) in his catalogue Photo-Kunst, are associated with texts is pretty peculiar and uncommon.

This remake addresses a double issue: on the one hand, she perpetuates the photographic modernist culture, giving a visual autonomy to the “pictures”. We can see that she pays a great attention to composition, balance and transparency that deal with a pure photography research process. 

On the other hand, the texts, the music and the performance of images (usually in a very simple slideshow projection), opens an alternative way of showing photographs, and of telling with photographs.

The picture does not have the story in it (as we point often the fiction in photography), nor it illustrates a narrative, but it comes along, as a modernist picture (trace of an esthetic past), to talk with a text and vice versa. Still, the pictures exist as a photographic series as we can see for West, even if a text is always presented close to the images. The text itself, as it has been published, has only two black and white images. What do they document? No elements of the story. In fact, they are peripheral images that inspired the text : they have been taken in the US in various settings that led the author to get into Nathanael West, a mythical screenwriter who died in a car accident at the age of 36 in Arizona in 1940.

Let’s have a quick look on these intersection between modernist photography and the margin of the literary in contemporary art, in order to perceive the singularity of Delbecq’s work.

As announced, Delbecq’s pictures derive from a documentary photographic trend, Stephen Shore being its lead figure. Shore works with chambers, as similar to Delbecq ones, they penetrate in details the frame of what is showed, scrutinizing every corner of the real. Indeed the chamber allows to perceive the depth of a sight or a landscape and gives a better sharpness to the details. Delbecq’s views also recall Wim Wenders and Edward Ruscha pictures, focused on places you don’t pay attention to, in between spaces where nothing seems to happen. In a Michael Fried sense, they are anti-theatrical (no drama in it), on a other, the theatricality is included in the image itself. Delbecq use this aesthetic of modernist pictures while guiding our look into specific patches of the image, orienting the vision, visually scanning the frame or setting it into a imaginary scenery (like for West), or featuring all at the same time.  

Let’s look at some pieces such as Daleko. Here the focus is clearly indicated by a clearer circle in the image, the rest being shadowed by a mask. Artificially oriented by a ray of light or a telescope, the look is guided to a specific detail of the landscape, and this technique of explicit reframing is also used several times in Un Battement de cils (a blink) but also in Camera (even if the pictures are not shown, except one on the cover) or A la dérobée, a recent project commissioned for the Musée d’Orsay exhibition Who is afraid of Woman photographers?.

In Un battement de cils, the framing of the pictures indicates an acute selection that creates a mise en scène of urban sights and details in the book, as the Surrealist did in The Peasant of Paris or Nadja. The pictures of the city of Metz are taken from the point of view of the wanderer, alternating from rectangle to square format, which evokes the historical Rolleiflex 6×6 format. (I must mention that Instagram did not exist at the time and that the vintage look of instaphotos comes also from the square format). In fact, these are “fake” as Delbecq take digital pictures that she reframes later. For Un battement de cils, some details are being repeated and reframed, here a façade of a building, where we notice the same detail twice, depending on the fold of the page, which is a way of disturbing a linear reading through an editorial device. The hand of the reader is needed to make images and text appear, recalling also the old in quarto and in octavo pages that the reader had to cut to access to the content of the book. A specific rhythm of vision and reading is created in this anti-touristic guide in the city of Metz, inducing a specific experience of reading and seeing based upon the appearance, disappearance of incomplete views and the action of the reader.

A second level of reading: the film still model

As Delbecq states herself, her writing is indebted with the cinematographic model. First, she organizes her texts and performances with cinematographic figures, such as the black screen or the zoom in as we saw it. She also follows the thread of the story of a screenwriter: West I to VIII, is presented as a fragment of novel in progress (in 2013). The starting point is a series of 12 photographs, in the “new topographics” style of American landscapes. The story follows Nathanael West, aka Nathan Weinstein, a famous screenwriter who died in a car crash near El Centro, between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona.

As the book is not translated in English, I will just mention the fact that the scene have many connections with David Lynch’s films atmosphere or Last Year in Marienbad, by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, a movie turned later into a cine-novel. For instance, a women without age, met by the main character in an elevator talks to him in English, whispering in his ear:

– He killed in the tower, once, bang, shot in the head, twice, bang, shot in the heart, once, bang, shot in the back, bang, too many girls, transparent dresses, champagne… He’s still there, I bet you he’s still there, see the bullet in the walls. (my translation)

The bullets figure comes back when West leaves a diner to drive to El Centro: he just saw a picture of a couple shot the night before in the surroundings, and on the road, notices bullet holes in a sign post. The attention, in this very short story, is immediately drawn to these details.

The form of the road-movie is also a recurring pattern that we can use to qualify Delbecq’s narrative: it follows more a zig-zag shape than a straight line (see Truby, Anatomy of a scenario), a shape used to book-bind Landscapes, the book she co-realised with Marina Gadonneix. A loitering hero, trying to reach his destination, but easily distracted, echoes to the stroll in Metz but also to another fiction written with images, Pareidolie.

 The latter is a commissioned fiction based upon an artistic work in the collection of Frac Aquitaine, the regional contemporary art collection of Aquitaine. Delbecq, first interested by Diane Arbus pictures, decides to start from another conceptual work, Returning by Robert Barry. The narrator, only voice that we can identify, has no real substance, no characterization, he turns into an conceptual voice, as we don’t know anything about him : is he a investigator, he is the author herself, who then became transgender? The apparent neutrality of images and characters have a tight bond with the nouveau roman credo, as stated in the Pour un nouveau roman manifest in which Alain Robbe Grillet called for the suppression of the psychological portrait and the realistic plot.

In that sense, Pareidolie meet with this literary tradition, while intertwining unfinished plotted segments and mysterious dialogues that create changes in the temporality of the story. Trying to sketch a logical reconstitution of events, the narrator and the reader are facing a skipping and repetitive story, exactly like in Last year in Marienbad or in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. We can see other similarities when Delbecq activates a storytelling on the basis of a film still sequence (in the sense Barthes analyses cinema through film still), for instance with Si j’avais quatre dromadaires a photographic movie by Chris Marker commented with a voice over. These source of inspiration but also image-making lead Delbecq to talk about “ekphraseis” to qualify some of her writings, even if the rhythm of reading and of the storytelling itself has its own dynamic, a syncopated off beat and articulates the images in their potential imaginary mobility (that is to say the images are not fixed by the text but remain in a uncertain, floating scheme).

Pareidolie, from the greek para – on the side – et eidolon –  form, spectral image, is an optical illusion : we can recognize shapes of objects where they are not (rocks or animals in clouds). As I mentioned, its starting point is 1975-77’s conceptual artwork Returning by Robert Barry.

I can’t detail here the content of the text but it comprises: a car ride, an ongoing inquiry and the phenomenon of fantasmagories invented by Etienne Gaspard Robertson : projection of color images on smoke or screens in the end of the 18th century. Of course we must understand that Robert Barry’s returning is the hypotext of Pareidolie in which we must recognize it, the fact that Pareidolie follows a semi-narrative artwork, made of a slide show, repeats Delbecq’s project. In Returning, we can see beach views, houses on the sea side, in the forest, roads, gas stations, black screens and words appearing in an apparent meaningless order : alone, alive, apart, destined, rather, during, chance, there… They form a simulacrum of narrative, a kind of illusory narrative in which no plot is to be found. Returning, the title, gives an indication on the potential autobiographical dimension of the project : Pareidolie returns itself on the images, and on the memories of the narrator (the artist? Robert Barry? ). It remains in the realm of fiction, and the black screen replaces the original picture, and makes the perception “sway”:

We can resume our recording.
Whenever you like. Where was I again? Oh yes, the house, let me
Total black-out, then, I couldn’t say for
how long. You always think the rest of the world
faints along with you… If only that were
true… Well then I fainted and obviously regained
consciousness on that same spot. I hadn’t
seen much of the second floor before the walls
started to sway.

The pareidolic fiction produces two objets in the book: a reading of a conceptual work, made of photographs, a kind of pre-cinema, a visual and literary phantasmagoria, and a fiction following the loose line of the wandering in landscapes, with mysterious signs and words that appears like screen-memories. The fiction is tightly knotted with its original palimpsest, unfinished, showing voids and gaps, leaving only specters of narrative, what I call the persistence of a narrative, and of an absent work.

As a conclusion, the photograph mediates the writing process

As contemporary as these experimental writings can be, they pay tribute to traditions of modernism, artist book, nouveau roman, photo-tableau, cinematic writing, using them as solid and identified basis to engage an active dialogue on photographic writing. Photography is for Delbecq a starter but also a persisting vision that goes along the story, as a specter or a setting. The pictures of Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, the temporality of these images give also the rhythm to the gaze, slow, precise, deep into the image, scanning, focusing, as a photographic eye could narrate its own movements. It encompasses also the rhythm of showing pictures, in a slide show, sometimes very regularly as ancient slide carousel did, which a click sound at each view. Delbecq then tries to recreate this hypnotic pace, the haptic effect produced by the pictures in her storytelling, generating cuts in the form and in the narrative line. 

Her books have a kind of narcotic effect, as a long car ride or as a contemplative gaze of a small detail in a landscape, or a room, or a building, as a long gaze on the city lights seen from above while landing, or after the blank screen of a movie. The images have an imprint effect, remaining in a dimming glow even after they have completely vanished.

The quality of Delbecq’ writing is a subtle mixture of esthetic of the photographic image, a simple style that put the subject in the background, and the reader in an position of observer.

No autobiography, nor irony, no constraint writing or novelization effect, writing and photography goes along together to create a fictional world that derives from an mediated experience of the real, and this mediation is photography itself. The writing is based upon the visual fiction of image.

Unfortunately, I cannot develop on recent issues addressed by Delbecq in her last work, A la dérobée: still, I can mention that she continues these exploration of the mediated real and the visual world put forward by the photographic image, introducing furthermore the specific position of the feminine eye, an insecure or non-authoritarian position, depending on the point of view, that generated these surreptitious “takes” and readings. But I also invite you to take this opportunity to have, through Marcelline Delbecq’s gaze, a closer look to women photographer and what they have to say about photography.


Citer ce billet
Magali Nachtergael (2021, 9 mars). Marcelline Delbecq . Photographic Writing and Narrative Persistence: Performing the Photobook. Les Contemporain·e·s. Consulté le 15 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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