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REVIEW: Francoise Huguier Retrospective, Paris

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If Francoise Huguier didn’t exist I’m not sure you’d get away with making her up. The retrospective that’s just ended at Paris’ Maison Européene de la photographie (Pince Moi, Je Reve) was visually awesome (one of my  favourite sections was a set of five portraits of Russian women in black dresses – utterly simple and yet perfectly touching.) It was also intellectually infuriating (oui, totally French). It showed many wonderful – and representative – prints from her work over the last 30 years, but shrouded her actual history with self-indulgent blither by some French writer whose name I instantly forgot. And reading the latest interview with Mme Huguier in Camera magazine, for instance, one can’t help but wonder what French interviewers actually ASK their subjects.

Anyway, a few facts. At least they are presented as facts. Who knows.

Francoise Huguier was born in 1942, in France. Her family moved to Indochina where her father worked as a plantation manager. Part of the privileged expat community, they had, presumably, a good life, until the night in 1950 when Viet Minh rebels attacked, and Francoise and her 12-year-old brother were abducted. They were held captive in the jungle for months before safely being reunited with their family.

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True story? Fiction? Well, it was presented straight by the gallery, with old copies of France Soir and family photos to back it up. But it’s hard to find any mentions of the story on the internet, or in Mme Huguier’s interviews, apart from what was generated for this show. There’s zero discussion of the abduction, the months of captivity, or what kind of effect this must have had on her. Her images from a return trip to Indonesia, decades later, are beautiful and elliptic. Portraits of wizened Indonesian men and women (friends? family servants? crims?) are presented in pairs: one where they look you in the eye, one where their eyes are averted. Are we to deduce from this that these people know the truth and are hiding it? And if so, the truth aboutwhat?

Upstairs, the exhibition covered Francois Huguier’s “greatest hits.” Africa from Burkina Faso to Durban: Japan, Cambodia, Kuala Lumpur: St Petersburg to live with the Kommunalkiand Siberia. Back in Paris she photographed Yves St Laurent for Libération, and fashion for Christian Lacroix. She went to South America to photograph nuns, and Korean to shoot K-Pop.

Every picture, basically, is great.

Francoise Huguier, clearly, is a fearless woman – and fearless women are her stock in trade, be they Inuits brandishing bloody reindeer hooves, Russians posing topless in their communal sitting rooms, or Malians sharing their “secrets”, as one of her books is titled.

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In the end, this exhibition was a great advertisement for books. Over her long and adventurous life Francoise Huguier has published many, and one hopes that reading a few of them will provide more of an insight into what makes this strange and brilliant photographer tick. More – sort of – information at Agence Vu here.

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 © Fiona Hayes 2014