Monday, May 26, 2008

La Semaine Heroique: 19-25 Août 1944

A friend of mine turned me on to an interesting little book on the French resistance during World War II called La Semaine Heroique (The Heroic Week) that presents 31 photos documenting the week of August 19th through the 25th of 1944 as Paris is liberated from the Germans.

The first thing one notices is the remarkable cover design with blue, white and red French flag motif along with the tip in reproduction of three resistance fighters shooting and lobbing grenades out of the window of a building.

The photographers are not individually credited by each photo but a list on the colophon page cites MM. Arthaud, Dosineau, Jahan, Roubier, Roughol, Serge, Zuber, and Suzanne Laroche as the authors.

The book starts with a short preface by George Duhamel, a doctor turned writer who had written about the horrors of the first World War which he experienced first-hand and later wrote critically about the rise of Hitler in a book called Defense des Lettres in 1937. The preface to La Semaine Heroique is obviously in French and its content escapes me but from what little I do understand he seems to spend more of the preface writing about photography being a delicate and profound medium of art than about the events of those days.

The first photo pokes fun of the German army with a photo made from a high vantage point looking down on soldiers walking alongside a convoy of horse drawn carts. The caption reads something to the extent of “The German Motorized army! Ten carts and a horse!” The streets look deserted in the first couple photos until the third that describes two of the FFI tentatively looking around the corner of a building. One has a pistol and the other a grenade. The photographer shoots from a low angle which seems less a choice to make the subjects heroic but out of concern for cover.

The design of the book places the photos on the right with captions appearing on the left facing page. All of the pictures are cropped into verticals but what I like is that there is a clean and airy feel to the book that is uncommon due to the usual design approach in war books of cramming loads of photos onto the page. Here it is one at a time and the captions imply the specific day of the week that the pictures were made. This may or may not be factually accurate as many of the photos just describe people stationed behind hastily constructed sandbag barricades. Few of the photos show any actual fighting - all is implied through distant smoke and some burning vehicles.

Much of this work is reminiscent of Agusti Centelles or Hans Namuth’s work done during the Spanish Civil War of the civilians forming makeshift pockets of resistance. Several of the better images are simple arrangements of figures in anticipation of the appearance of an enemy. My favorite image (which is worth the price of the book alone) is of a young German soldier who has fallen into the hands of the resistance and is in the process of being searched. It is a photo of a man whose head is swimming with fear and probably doesn’t even register the various disembodied hands that reach in from the edges of the frame to rifle through his pockets. This is one of the reproductions that has such heavy retouching that it almost looks like a line drawing were it not for the textures of the clothing.

One interesting added note is the production of this book was done in Paris just three months after the liberation. It was released on November 15th of 1944. This is a fast turn around for any book let alone one emerging just after a world war.