About Cambrai, As Seen By Mikael Levin
How delightful it is to immediately recognize one's city among the four sets of photographs hanging on the wall. There's not a second's hesitation, and yet the eight photos, placed side by side, compose a new cityscape, a sort of condensation of space, that is quite unusual.
The city seems full of contrasts and contradictions.
While the particularly well-conceived pictorial compositions are a constant invitation to enter into the photographs, as in the one of the long street leading to the park, the photographer has shuffled all the cards.
More than buildings and monuments, Mikael Levin has photographed streets. But to what do they summon us? To go towards the center or to leave it? For the center of Cambrai appears completely congested with automobiles. To be sure, during rush hour traffic there is heavy, but that part of the town, which was entirely rebuilt after World War One, contains wide streets which the photographer does not show us, any more than he does the boulevards where the old fortifications used to be. His preference went to jammed streets, sidewalks overrun by cars, that contrast strikingly with the empty, or nearly empty periphery.
The streets in the photographs of those outer neighborhoods beckon to us as well, in the oddity of their layout. Here, a street seems to butt against a wall and then disappears on the left. There, behind the Notre Dame Gate, arrows indicate that one should drive straight ahead whereas the road turns to the right. Its an uncanny image, that depicts a reality that the Cambrai driver no longer even sees. But Mikael Levin makes us see ...
And he has a lot to tell us, not about the city's history, but about how people live there...
Certainly, the monuments that are most characteristic of Cambrai's history are there. There's not one photograph without a steeple, a piece of the fortifications, or an old house. If they show neither the belfry nor the facade of the town hall (one can glimpse just a bit of it in the photo of the Square), that is surely in order to avoid clichés, but also to show how indifferent the inhabitants of Cambrai are to their past. It is doubtful that the two men in the Grande Place are discussing the city's heritage. As for the man leaning against the facade of a house in the sun, does he know that behind the doors of those twin houses there is one of the most beautiful spaces of his city, a small Beguine nuns' courtyard, the only one in France?
Still, are the few Cambrai inhabitants depicted merely there to stress the general dearth of interest the townspeople have for their town? I do not think so.
Through their presence they show that Mikael Levin has not photographed a dead city... The photos offer the image of an active little city, preoccupied with its present and its future, one which has not yet succeeded in asserting a strong identity.
It seems to me, however, that it is a city that, instead of simply juxtaposing buildings of different periods (as seen in some of the photographs), integrates them progressively, dispassionately but not with indifference.
In fact, we live in such a real intimacy with places that we pass by incessantly, and which we perhaps end up no longer seeing.
Thank you to Mikael Levin for reminding us of that.
Carole Parmat teaches History and Geography at Lycee Paul Duex in Cambrai.
(Translation by Susan Cohen)