Roger Catherineau — ou l’irréalisme



Roger Catherineau
ou l’irréalisme

Past: March 11 → July 3, 2021

From March 11 to June 12, 2021, Les Douches la Galerie presents Roger Catherineau or Unrealism, curated by Éric Rémy. Composed of over twenty vintage prints made between 1952 and 1961, this exhibition reflects his expressionist practice, his technical virtuosity and his great freedom of experimentation.


At the end of the 1940s, a new trend in photography was taking shape in Europe, with its theoretical bases established mainly in Germany. In a devastated country with nothing left but ruins and desolation, where humanism had taken a beating, a few photographers were freeing themselves of all constraints. They aimed to distance themselves from strict documentary photography in favour of moving towards a ‘productive subjective photography’, according to the theoretician Schmoll Eisenwerth. The German Heinz Hayek Halke, a talented experimenter and specialist of photomontage, was just coming off a rich experience in the 1930s and had been one of the most important purveyors of images for magazines in the 20s and 30s, up until the arrival of the Nazis. In 1950 he founded the group Fotoform with Peter Kleetman, subsequently joined by Otto Steinert who would go on to formulate theoretical considerations in Subjektiv Fotografie.

The German photographers were not about to engage in re-enchanting the world as French photographers such as Robert Doisneau, Izis and Sabine Weiss would, in the same vein as humanist photography. All across Europe another path was becoming clear for photography, and the eventual exhibitions of Subjektive fotografie I (in 1952), II (in 1955) and III (in 1959) opened the way for another vision of photography.

As the historian Shelly Rice notes (in her text Au-delà du réel, la vision subjective)2, ‘For many photographers, the image unveils, it evokes, it is a space for irrational construction, it interiorises the vision that conceals itself from the strict documentary snapshot… This orientation of photography towards imaginative and subjective data tends to confer an artistic stature on it that is far from the realist contingencies and stated objectives of the preceding decades.’

It was this new path in the 1950s that the young Roger Chaterineau followed to explore and orientate his photographic enquiries. His career was marked by his participation in numerous exhibitions, including Subjektive fotografie II and III, before being brutally truncated by illness in 1962.


At the age of twenty, at the end of the war, Catherineau finished his technical teaching studies at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris after studying applied arts. Even though he hoped to stay near Paris, he was appointed to a post in Lilles where he was awarded a chaired position in the School of Fine Arts.

Above all a draughtsman and sculptor who was interested in dance and mime, he came to photography later, with it becoming an escape in his new life of exile, far from his Paris circle of friends and artists whom he had met during his studies. In his portrait of Catherineau3, the journalist Michel Zyka stresses that through his training, curiosity and company, he moved in a circle of painter, sculptor and dancer friends, and that as a result, ‘One by one, Catherineau tried his hand at sculpture and then dance, and then understood the extent to which the plastic arts completed each other, rather than cutting themselves off, in a wonderful harmony’.

In the apartment in Lilles that he’d turned into a studio, he bought a Leica that soon replaced his sketchbook. When he became dissatisfied with the prints produced by the lab, he procured the necessary equipment to develop film himself. He became enamored of the alchemy that brought him back into contact with the materiality of creation, precisely at the point where the photographic view by itself takes its distance from it. He discovered the miracles of the photogram and even forgot a pair of scissors on the paper, ‘the enthusiastic starting point for all his subsequent artistic explorations…’4. For some fifteen years, as an enlightened, demanding creator, he worked the silver halide material like a painter working his canvas. ‘For him, the lens was an instrument for expression, exactly as the draughtsman’s pencil or the painter’s brush’5. He considered ‘photography an art in its own right, with no obligation to reproducibility or to interpreting reality’.6 In Catherineau’s work, it is easier to speak of photographic creations than of photographs. On a plaque presenting his work, he defended the idea that photography takes its ‘place among the other means of expression: drawing, engraving, sculpture, painting… for creating images7’. He summed his vision up by saying that photography creates images, it does not capture them.

‘The picturesque and the anecdotal are banished8’ from his work. Considering that photography has become an industry, he categorised its producers as the ‘merchants’ who get rich from it, the ‘pure’ who consume everything they have in the pursuit of their passion, and the ‘others’ who kill time trying to nail it down (a reference to the many amateur photographers who join clubs). It’s clear that Roger Catherineau belongs to the second group. At the end of the 50s, he deplored the flood of images; he rejected the phrase ‘art photography’: ‘the sign of mediocre merchants of photo-souvenirs or identity’. He lamented the general ignorance of such masters as Atget, Stieglitz and Weston, and the lack of consideration for photography in French institutions, which should instead document the ‘grand adventure9’ of photography. It is an artistic venture that should be taught like others.

Awarded his first prize at Saarbrücken in the exhibition for Subjektive Fotografie II, he exhibited regularly in different galleries but with varying fortunes: the selection committees only appreciated one or two of his photographs, thrown off as they were by the modernity they saw, which was very far from the ‘sunsets, waterlilies and groups of beggars10’ that still filled the selections. ‘According to its strict definition, photography is writing with light. Though everyone can write, are there many true writers? Let pure photographic creation be a Poetry that can do without Words!11

For him, the real work took place in the dark room: it is an ‘obligation to carry out all of the laboratory tasks oneself’ because that ‘helps penetrate even further the fantastic of what makes the Grand Meaulnes real’. For Catherineau, borders fade: his subjects are animals, plants — the heart of his work — organic matter, industrial objects such that ‘man fuses with glass, skin becomes fibre’. Most often, starting from nature, he ends up at pure abstraction.

Clear-sighted about the specificity of his work and probably conscious of his end drawing near, Catherineau took the trouble of organising the evolution of his explorations in ten plates. It is a precious document for today’s researcher, a succession of 150 panels that provides a view, a choice of works that are emblematic of his production and an edifying journey through his artistic explorations. With respect to what Guy Moinet says in one of the first articles devoted to Catherineau, that ‘the future will tell us whether Catherineau’s current camera explorations will hold the same interest and the same artistic success. Bet on it!’ , we can state today that in the ten years he still had left to create, his explorations became true works and kept a great deal more than just their promises.

1 This is the term used by L. Peyrègne to designate the breadth of Roger Catherineau’s explorations, in his preface to Catherineau’s brochure, Un moyen d’expression plastique: la photographie. (No date, circa 1958-1960).
fn2. Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie ed. Michel Frizot (Paris: Bordas, 1994), 661.
fn3. Interview with Roger Catherineau in Ciné photo magazine, no. 58 (April 1956): 2
fn4. Ibid., p. 4.
fn5. Article by Guy Moinet (no date, circa 1952).
fn6. Christian Bouqueret and Alain Fleig, Roger Catherineau: L’image improbable 1948-1962 (Rennes: Ed. Musées de la ville de Rennes, 1993), 17.
fn7. Catherineau, Un moyen d’expression plastique.
fn8. Moinet, op. cit.
fn9. Catherineau, Un moyen d’expression plastique.
fn10. Article by Michel Zyka on Roger Catherineau in Ciné photo magazine, no. 58 (April 1956): 4.
fn11. Catherineau, Un moyen d’expression plastique.

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  • Roger Catherineau