A bird flying across a dark sea is a familiar motif on almost all of Alain Gualina’s seascape photos, representing a call to freedom and hope and in some ways, his signature. Its recurring presence is certainly appropriate, an example of Gualina’s mastery at capturing images that are always disciplined without ever being rigid. The intense black and white in his work is of a striking beauty. In its own way each photo achieves artistic perfection. However, there is no excessive estheticism in Gualina’s work which is distinguished by its thematic and formal consistency, as the magnificent Dopo Eboli series, shown during 2017, forty years after it was created, attests. The landscape has always been at the heart of his photographic quest, as much for its visual power as for what it reveals about the relationship between man and his environment. A piece created in 2007 entitled Éloge de l’eau, led to Gualina’s splendid series on the shores currently being shown in Manosque.
It’s the sea for its own sake with its effortless power and travelled surroundings that interests Gualina, far more than anything scenic. Most of his photos do not immediately suggest any particular region; except occasionally when a small detail (a minaret in the corner of the image, for example) gives us a clue to the locale. This artist’s work is not likely to be found on a postcard; there are never or almost never any clear skies, no beaches filled with swimmers; instead there are turbulent skies and rocky shores that reveal a more complex, more bitter world. The proof is frequently shown by framing shots through obstacles strewn by man between himself and the sea; like walls, grids, doors, portholes… It is as if we are tempted to close that which by its very nature is meant to be open and unpredictable, brought to life by the fleeting dance of the surf. It is as if it were necessary to protect ourselves from the sea by representing as something external. The hideous and the ridiculous are blended together in these cinder block masses, these chunks of concrete which we assume seek to compete with the almost eternal quality of the rocks or the age-old power of the wind, that major sculptor of trees. The remains that Gualina likes to photograph sometimes have the beauty of a rope coiled up on the shore and sometimes they also have a bitter taste like the scraps that litter the waters and the coasts.
It is here that the photographer’s sea wandering achieves its rightful significance, as indicated in the very title of the Manosque exhibit The Castaways or the Geography of Doubt which is a direct reference to the tragedy of Mediterranean migration. Yet, there is no pathos in Gualina’s images, no close-ups of the migrants in distress. But there are still traces, reminders that upset our gaze, beginning with the sight of barbed wires between earth and sea. The image then, bears witness to a major crisis of our time; the refusal to honour the basic value of hospitality
In the Mediterranean, hospitality is celebrated through many legendary tales. Alain Gualina is fond of discussing myths and that is evident in his photographs. The human figure is rarely a dominant presence in his work – at least in this series. Women and men are nothing more than passersby, mere silhouettes. The photographer himself does not even appear, except once by accident, like a shadow. The light, the sky, the sea and the rocks dominate the action. They are not, like us, transitory figures. Their display suggests that we have everything to gain by placing ourselves alongside this unconditional welcome – open to the breath of the sea, whether a breeze or a storm, and to what it brings us, or rather to those that it brings us, those who have, as the poet says, made their way across the sea where there are no paths. Alain Gualina’s images possess a perfect beauty, simultaneously calm and anxious, and therefore have nothing to do with immediate seduction; they sear themselves into the memory, as legends do, and give us something to think about for a long time.
“The Castaways or the Geography of Doubt”, Manosque Foundation Carzo, from March 2 to May 5, 2019
Illustrations : photos Alain Gualina – DR.