Photo critique – Martine Franck

Each month ‘Black+White Photography’ magazine features a discussion of a Magnum photograph.  The January 2019 issue contained an excellent piece by Elizabeth Roberts (magazine editor) on a photograph by Larry Towell.  I was astonished at the depth of her interpretation.

My skills in this area are almost non-existent!  As in most aspects of my life l seem to take a cursory glance and move on.  I just don’t see… but in reality I just don’t look.  Time to slow down me thinks!

So, without looking at Elizabeth’s own article and using Terry Barrett’s internal, external, original conceptual framework, I decided to prepare my own review of the February magazine’s photograph by Martine Franck titled ‘French painter Balthus at home in Rossinière, Switzerland, 1999’.

Martine Franck (1938-2012) was a Belgian portrait and documentary photographer and a member of Magnum since 1980.  She married Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1970.

The title tells us that the subject is the, then 91 year old, Polish/French modern artist, Balthus (1908-2001). He was a private enigmatic man empathetically portrayed here at home in a relaxed, reflective and gentle mood.  By including his walking stick, handkerchief and cat, Franck has chosen to show him as a frail kindly old man.  The angled head, staring gaze and stroking cat symbolise an old man contemplating his life and perhaps near death (he died two years later).

The external context of this image is that it featured in a photobook called ‘Chez Balthus’ by Franck and Cartier-Bresson.  It features shots taken by them of Balthus over the decade before his death.

So what was Franck’s intention when taking this picture?  Balthus is, by some, regarded as a controversial artist.  His images often depict young women who, certainly in today’s eyes, would be regarded by some as inappropriate.  Franck must have known Balthus well.  She photographed him over many years and knew his wife and, presumably, his daughter.  She portrays him in a kindly, grandfatherly way.

Perhaps she was doing her bit to set the record straight.

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