Classic Photo #2

View from My Window, 1935, Florence Henri

There’s a concept in art called repoussoir, from the French ‘to push back‘, which refers to the use of foreground devices or objects to draw the viewer’s gaze into an image, towards specific figures or areas in the canvas, creating a sense of perspective, depth of field. I mention it because it’s what came to mind when I first began to consider this image. I thought, oh yes, I see what she’s doing here, drawing our gaze to the beach beyond, the array of fishing boats on the muddy shore.

Capturing the view from your window is, of course, part of photography’s DNA, going right back to the oldest known recorded image, Joseph Niepce’s 1826 heliograph View from the Window in Gras. But the use of the window as a frame, a frame within a frame, makes the image more subjective. It isn’t about the scene beyond so much as it’s about the act of seeing. Henri could, for instance, have moved her camera a few inches forward to eliminate the window, or she could have made her way down to the beach and captured the fishing boats there in all their haphazard charm. But, on some level, this would’ve made it less personal, more generic. The frame of the window makes this a shot specifically from inside, and that inside is the artist’s point of view, her way of turning looking into seeing, scenery into personal vision.

Shot in Brittany in 1935, View from My Window is a deceptively rustic image, all these fishing boats seen from the shuttered window of (I imagine) a guesthouse, a creaking, salt-eaten place, heavy with shadows. There’s something ageless about the scene. The boats look like they’ve remained unchanged for decades, since the 19th century probably. The tide’s out, leaving them exposed on the shore like a shoal of fish stranded in dawn light. We think of the timeless authenticity of it all, lives intimately connected to the processes of nature, opposed, we assume, to modern life elsewhere, shallow, disconnected urban existence. Except, and here’s the thing, few photographers were as urban and modern as Florence Henri.

If you knew nothing else about her you might miss an important element in this photograph. While she was a successful portraitist, producing compositionally clever, glamourous images of actresses and artists, she was also one of the leading avant-garde photographers around, a graduate of the Bauhaus with roots in 1920s Surrealism. Her work abounds in modernist play with perspective, mirror images, framing and multiple reflections. She’s often considered a contemporary rival to Man Ray in the field of experimental photography. Which makes this image more complex than it at first appears.

It’s not really about repoussoir, or depth of field, but form and pattern; notice the rectangular lines of the shutter echoing the insides of the small boats, the spiderweb curlicue of the ironwork (a circle inside a square inside a square inside a circle) ending in a tight spiral like the headland of the coast, the sequential repetition of clustered boats on the damp shore, their oval curves, those mast lines against the grey horizon. It all seems to flatten the image into an abstract composition.

If, as Geoff Dyer suggests in The Ongoing Moment, there’s an inevitability about the photographer’s retreat inside, ‘a return to first principles,’ the camera reverting, he writes, ‘to its origins…to the room into which light – and dark – enters,‘ then I think this image can still be seen as a continuation of that tradition (window as stand-in aperture), an expression, also, of the artist’s private reality, and a modernist subversion of that tradition. Inside and outside, old and new, deep and flat.

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