• PrintMag

Observer: Paper Trails

I was traveling back to London from the French region of Provence when I saw the posters. The Eurostar train leaves from Avignon; I had some time to kill before its departure, so I left the bags at the station and wandered in the direction of the Cours

Jean Jaurès, which leads into town.

The posters start up immediately as you enter the city walls through the Porte de la République. Every street sign, every lamppost along the road ahead is festooned with printed paper. Not just one poster per pole, but six, seven, or more announcements in different sizes, often glued to pieces of cardboard to give them extra support, and haphazardly lashed to the street furniture with lengths of string. It’s obvious that these flimsy, makeshift constructions have developed in stages over several weeks. Someone will see a patch of remaining space between two posters, seize the opportunity, and put up yet another one. Most of the posters advertise plays, concerts, and other public events.

Few of the designs have any great merit, when judged by the standards of international competitions, but that’s not the point. The combined effect of hundreds of posters riotously mashed together is amazing, as though your workaday, flat-surface bill plasterer has morphed into some kind of wild installation artist and is now aiming to achieve total viewer immersion in a multidirectional environmental experience that fills the entire street. There are many of these vertical assemblages. Farther along, this collage improvised by many hands becomes more of a frieze. Temporary fences around construction sites and iron railings in front of park areas and buildings become a bright, clashing patchwork of images. Strings slung between the lampposts and trees like back-alley clotheslines display row upon row of posters, sometimes one above another, and the same image of an actor or singer is often repeated many times just to make sure you notice. These fantastical garlands of paper run alongside a street market selling paperback classics, old bound volumes about art and travel, piles of ancient issues of Paris Match meticulously arranged in chronological order, and—you would expect nothing else in a place so deliciously papery— thousands of postcards and posters.

What is so remarkable about this scene is the way that unofficial graphics are permitted to overrun the official postings. The posters multiply on the tarmac and climb like weeds. Words and arrows intended to direct traffic and maintain order fight a losing battle with the hand bills. The same thing happens to the official street advertising posters in frames. Even the pedestrian stop-and-go sign at a junction has no more status than the casual layers of graphic flotsam that threaten to engulf it. You might think that rigorously enforced safety laws would prohibit any reduction in visibility, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. When you look along the street, none of the official signs are covered up, yet they still disappear into the babble of messages that surrounds them.

I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else (though it might happen in other parts of France). In the rest of Europe and the U.S., the authorities tend to come down hard on unsanctioned poster-sticking in city streets, if they can find the perpetrators, while paid for advertising naturally flourishes without restriction. Elaborate street assemblages like those found in this part of Avignon are unthinkable elsewhere.

In some ways, this vision of French graphic anarchy stands against everything that designers often hold dear. Official signage strives to make the city “legible” by imposing a planned structure on it. While such graphics solve a real problem, there are other desires and needs—other mentalities, other possible ways of living in the city— that these postings necessarily disregard and perhaps even help to suppress.

Car traffic, also, often dominates urban space, especially in European towns with smaller streets that weren’t built for motor vehicles. In this section of Avignon, the people seem to say, “Let’s do something else here, because this is the way we feel and it could be a lot of fun.” The authorities appear to be going along with it, and it works. For once, what you see is not administrative attempts at control (represented by street signs), or commercial attempts at control (represented by large-scale advertising), but the energetic and playful graphic expression of a local culture. Yes, these posters are also a form of advertising. They simply invite you to go to an event. True, the streets look messy. They also look joyfully alive. You would have to be a stuffed shirt, or a cranky ad person, to regard this as visual pollution.

There was another side of this for me. I had spent the previous two weeks in Arles, where a huge photography festival takes place every summer—this year it ran to more than 60 exhibitions. I brought along my camera, planning to take some pictures of my own, but hadn’t come up with much I liked. The more photographs you look at, the harder it becomes to take any picture that isn’t a repetition of other pictures— professional and amateur—you’ve seen many times before. Just as it often seems that our language “speaks us,” rather than the other way around—in an endless recycling of stock phrases and sentiments we have heard elsewhere—so do our photos. A good graphic example of a photographic convention is the torn-poster picture. I love such pictures myself, but Walker Evans and Aaron Siskind explored the form long ago, and every new example we take simply endorses and prolongs a mode of seeing that they defined.

On the way back to the station to catch the train, I decided it would be crazy not to take some pictures of the posters. The subject matter was similar to countless other street-poster photographs, but the way it all hung together was different. I didn’t have long, so I started shooting anything that looked interesting.

Somewhere in the back of my mind were some pictures I had seen in a book shown in an exhibition of about 500 recent photography volumes, which concluded the Arles festival. One example in the book, from German photographer Wolfgang Zurborn, appealed to me. His image seemed to drift off course—hence the book title, Drift— sliding from one subject to another and combining different, sometimes wildly disjunctive planes of experience and aesthetic reality within the same shot, rather than singling them out and making the world seem consistent and coherent, as photographs often do.

Since then, I have bought a copy of the book, and Zurborn’s pictures, taken between 1999 and 2005, strike me as genuinely original: They capture something essential about contemporary experience in a new way. They show how, despite our best efforts to design, style, and regulate the visual environment, it stubbornly fails to cooperate, perhaps because people actually prefer its disorder. This is how we see things for much of the time, too, except we usually take it for granted. It is smoothness, rather than discontinuity, that catches the eye.

Later, looking at some of my pictures of the Avignon posters, it seemed that the more interesting ones had picked up traces of Zurborn’s way of seeing—mostly by chance, since they were taken on the fly with little calculation. It was only then, away from the fierce glare of the Provence sun, that I saw how oddly these strangely formed paper totems, sprouting on the sidewalk, relate to their backgrounds. The spatial divisions are angular, irregular, broken. The parts won’t fit together. I especially like what the pictures do to the traffic: The cars become blurred elements relegated to the back and margins of the images. It makes the city seem more human.