From films to photos

Robert Loï, the Marseillais photographer of Sardinian descent born a little over forty years ago the youngest of six siblings, began his observation of the city at an early age.

Already as a child and teenager, he watched television and never missed the midnight movies, despite their late-night broadcast time. They taught him a lot about humanity and the city, which often served as the setting. He developed a passion for American film noir of the thirties, forties and fifties. His list of favorite film-makers in order of preference (although this list is far from exhaustive) includes Jean-Pierre Melville, with his “crime stories full of betrayals, pretences and set in urban environments”, plus others such as Marcel Carné, Marcel Pagnol (in whom he admires the genuine precursor of Italian neorealism), Julien Duvivier, Henri Georges Clouzot (for his harsh portrayal of human relationships), but also Jacques Becker, Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott…

In June 2004, Robert Loï set up a website hosting an encyclopedia of the cinema. The website included a vast database and personal knowledge built up over a number of years and that he wanted to share. The venture lasted until March 2007. The figures are impressive: “18,172 film records of which 3446 included the film poster or photos, 79,017 actor records, 258,128 film/actor cross-references (using hypertext links)” ; and then along came “2007”, the year everything changed. There was no going back: he had decided to begin a new chapter in his life and “tame the city” -once and for all this time– through photography, in a bid to rediscover his inner self and, from that starting point, perhaps prompt a questioning of what the city is through the use of images. The same year, in order to bring some discipline to his sensitivity, he also created a blog entitled "Ways of Dust" dedicated to poematic writing. From then on, Robert Loï was no longer the filmgoer watching a screen but a director-cameraman who had learned his lessons from the cinema.

At the same time as he was diversifying his activities, he progressively expanded his field of action while retaining the same visual themes. A series of exhibitions between January 2008 and March 2011, with titles such as Couleurs Urbaines, Marseille en Noir et Couleurs, Décryptages Urbanistiques and (Des)Enchantements Urbanistiques, gave the public visual food for thought. With one eye glued to his camera –as always-, Robert Loï then took the job of director of photography on L’Ennui d’Un Jour, a short film by Adrien Lhoste filmed in Paris. But for this photographer, any excuse is a good excuse for a picture... He made use of the opportunity to pursue the research begun in his home town of Marseille with Paris, then Brussels, serving as a backdrop for new works that show a definite maturation. Academics Giorgio Pigafetta(**) and Patricia Signorile have taken an interest in this research work too. They see in it a fundamental questioning relative both to the new methods by which city dwellers “live” their city and to the ever-changing city of today.

fictionalizing" reality

Using the city as a pretext, Robert Loï in fact meditates on the links between form and color and between humanity and urbanity; initially, we don’t know whether the latter interact or are opposed. The screenplay of the motionless film reveals sequences of chance happenings and of encounters, proving that the city is full of paradoxes. Robert Loï has chosen to question the individuals in today’s city in the way they participate in the daily flows, experience encounters, signs, the vagaries of life and public spaces, while suggesting a different way of functioning.

With these images, the photographer thus provides a conceptual framework that demonstrates man’s relationship to space. In it, “living” is explicitly mobilized and linked with the “urban condition” and the prospect of instigating an “ethic”. These provide a key to comprehending the modern metropolis and, in particular, the mobility of the flows and beings that move within it. Moreover, certain photographs reflect the diversity of the issues raised by this “living” and the ways of addressing them outside the confines of the dwelling. All refer back to the intimate, social, architectural and universal dimensions of the urban condition.

The only trickery the photographer allows himself is partially graying the digital image, a device he uses to highlight the details, the wanderings of the individuals passing through or living in each location. Mystic blue is set against warm yellow; the varying stillnesses of whites and blacks; the passion of red; colors that the photographer associates with circles, triangles and squares; open and closed lines. The image thus takes on a spirituality (…) It is life, in fact, caught in a cosmic outburst, in a spiritual explosion, that is captured by Robert Loï’s camera. The composition is always articulated around the primary colors. The different elements harmonize in a game of opposites and complementarities.

The urban condition

He also reveals the beauty and alienation engendered by steel, glass, concrete and asphalt as well as “the potential evolutions in societies and their functioning in terms of organization: justice, transport, housing, culture, moral elevation”... Robert Loï does not content himself with recording reality; his pictures also contain a powerful ability to “fictionalize”. It’s therefore the “reality” of this type of depiction that the photographer sets out to question throughout his quest for meaning.

Whereas Roland Barthes -in his book Camera Lucida- opposes motion pictures and photography, since the latter –being still- tends towards retention rather than depiction, the self-taught photographer Robert Loï, who is fascinated by images, has managed to transfer from the cinema to photography the same world built around two permanent features: a changing city with its lines, places, typical characters, scenes of daily life and its hopes and shattered dreams. Henceforth, the past is as certain as the present. The power of depiction prevails over the power of authentication. This passing from one form of artistic expression to the other is in a way a feature of Robert Loï’s life. His photographic inclination has its roots in the cinema; he dissects the “entrails of the fragment”. His eye is that of the film-maker.

urban ethnography

For Giorgio Pigafetta, there’s much more to these photographs of cities than the mere documentary or “city glamour” aspects; they are about real life and a nostalgic imagination. It’s as if the city dwellers were actors in search of a lost city, or in search of the city such as they would like to “live” it. But photography in this case is used as an aid for memory in the same way a field journal would be. So, from this standpoint, the feat lies more in documenting change by manipulating time (the seasons, the months) and space (the neighborhood, the metropolis) as well as objects: the urban morphology, the way the space is used by society, the non-verbal forms of communication. Underneath this, it remains a type of urban ethnography

By Patricia Signorile - Translated by Martin Pachy

(*) Patricia Signorile, master of conferences at Aix-Marseille University (France). Her research work focuses on the interaction between the processes of artistic creation and the framework of culture. The subjects studied include philosophy, literature, painting, drawing and architecture. The author of numerous multidisciplinary essays, she examines art in the light of science.

(**)Georgio Pigafetta, associate professor at the University of Genoa (Italy). His extensive bibliography is divided into three main areas of research: the relationship between aesthetics and architecture, the history of mechanics in modern-era treatises and contemporary architectural theories. In addition to an editorial output specifically devoted to architecture, he is the author of many essays in which he provides a multidisciplinary analysis of the arts.