Paper Countries/Countries on Paper

By Jan Baetens

Everyone should head south (in Belgium) this summer for the splendid exhibit at the Museum of Photography in Charleroi on a special genre of photobooks, the so-called “country portraits.” These portraits are a type of verbo-visual travel literature which flourished between 1920 and 1970, that is, between the appearance of modern tourism and the explosion of mass tourism.

“Pays de papier” (literally: “Paper countries”) covers a field that is, at the same time, very well-known and which has fallen somewhat into oblivion for historical as well as aesthetic reasons. Today, this kind of photo-literature is no longer en vogue, which certainly plays a role in the difficulties one finds to recompose the larger archive of the genre. But even during the heyday of the country portrait, this type of book and magazine (generally in the form of special issues of general magazines) was not always taken seriously: too commercial, too often hastily written and edited, too different from what “good” writing and “good” photographs were supposed to be in these years.
The many prejudices against the genre prove, however, wrong as brilliantly shown by the many works displayed as well as the attractive catalog (in French) of the exhibit.

Paper countries
The two curators, David Martens and Anne Reverseau, have managed to bring together an exceptionally rich selection of country portraits and to present them in a smart thematic way. Their selection highlights the nearly industrial structure of the genre as part of the publishing business, with a strong emphasis on issues of seriality and intertextuality. Yet it also helps rediscover many masterpieces, such as the French edition of William Klein’s mythical 1956 book Life is Good For You and Good in New York, a work that also illuminates the international circulation of this kind of book, which were not always initially published in their “home country” or “home market” (the case of Robert Frank’s The Americans is still famous in this regard).

The research behind the exhibit is impressive, and the same goes for the work on the catalog, astute and diverse (a good mix of book history, photography theory, social analysis and philosophical considerations) but always perfectly accessible to a lay audience. The exhibit itself is an eye-opener in many senses of the word: it opens a forgotten world, yet not in a nostalgic way; it is a feast for the eye; and it exemplifies what sound curatorship ought to be.

Practical information:
Musée de la photographie
11, avenue Paul Pastur, 6032 Charleroi (Mont-sur-Marchienne)
Duration of the exhibit: 25.05.2019 > 22.09.2019
The Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, between 10.00 and 18.00.