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Gilles Caron - Life In A Scrapbook

"This year, the Gilles Caron Foundation is publishing two exceptional books for photography enthusiasts, upholding the Foundation’s mission established by the photographer’s family: to keep his work alive, and maintain his notoriety.

Gilles Edouard Denis Caron was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine July 11, 1939 and disappeared April 5, 1970 while traveling on Route 1 connecting Phnom Penh (Cambodia) to Saigon (Vietnam) after crossing the Mekong River with Guy Hannoteaux and Michel Visot. Before leaving, he had told Robert Pledge: “This will be my last trip to Cambodia. I’ll be staying in Phnom Penh, I won’t take any risks.” 

A disappearance is worse than a violent death. Uncertainty remains. It lasts for months. For years we believed he was taken prisoner. It wasn’t until September 22, 1978 that a Parisian court would finally confirm Gilles Caron’s death.

For a generation of baby-boomers, and now for their children and grandchildren, Gilles Caron is an icon. He is to photojournalism what James Dean was to cinema, Buddy Holly to rock and roll: a hero killed in his youth.

On the final contact sheet (n°19 601) sent from Cambodia to Gamma photo agency, the film began with family pictures taken before leaving. Pictures of Marjolaine and Clementine, daughters born from the love of his life, Marie Anne Léone François Garceau otherwise known as Marianne whom he married on October 3, 1962 after returning from the war in Algeria. They met when they were 13 years old. “He used to tell me, we will get married and have triplets.”

The Gilles Caron ScrapBook will be presented in book store in the Art Book section, which is well deserved. It is a family photo album, Gilles Caron with his mother, his father, his wife, his cousins… But it is also about the published work of a photographer from the 50’s and 60’s.

The book reveals, with pictures and letters, his childhood, his youth, and his early days as a young man referred to as “Gillou” by his mother and colleagues. From the Notre-Dame des Neiges d’Argentières (Haute-Savoie) private school where he was sent after his parents’ divorce, he wrote surprisingly mature letters to his mother. She also wrote him astonishing letters. “She always treated him like a responsible person” confided Marianne Caron-Montely last Thursday at the Thierry Marlat Gallery, before adding “they had a relationship of equality. It was character building for Gilles. During his military service in Algeria, Gilles became political. He wrote to his mother about what he saw, and she participated in demonstrations against the war in Algeria!”

His passion for such sports as skiing and horseback riding led him to be sent to the frontlines as a parachutist in this nameless war. “They told us that parachutists attacked, that they were attacked and killed, but that they let others declare victory. Nice program” he wrote to his “Dear Mother” in December 1959. Released from the army in April 1962, he married, and his first daughter Marjolaine was born. He developed a friendship with André Derain who would lead him to photography.

From Agency to Agency, he would become a star at Gamma

On March 17, 1965 the Parisian Agency for Social Information (APIS) arhived his first story: Lino Ventura and Charles Aznavour. He continued working in show business and politics, covering such celebrities as Claude François, Marguerite Duras and Jean Genet… The following year, he would leave APIS for VIZO, then for the Photo Department at Giancarlo Botti… a traditional career path taken by many young photographers looking for the right photo agency. 

The Gamma Agency was founded in December 1966, and was looking for new talents. Raymond Depardon had just entered the agency, Gilles Caron was quoted in Hubert Henrotte’s book “Le Monde dans les yeux”, “I had never seen a photographer read Le Monde in the Elysée courtyard while waiting for the Minister’s Council to end”. As a stringer, he began by covering local Parisian news. But in the spring of 1967, Monique Kouznetzoff who was already running the celebrity department at Gamma, sent him to Israel to cover singer Sylvie Vartan’s first fashion line. He arrived just as the Six Day War began! He was incredible, he crossed the Sinaï with Israeli soldiers, all the way to the Egyptian border. The result: 18 pages in Paris Match!

The following year he would leave for Vietnam. « In Dak To » for example, you really didn’t know what to do. You covered what was going on, everything that you saw” he commented to Jean-Claude Gautrand in 1969 for the magazine Zoom. His pictures were extraordinary, “already as talented as Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Eugene Smith, Eddy Adams or Don McCullin” commented the Director of Gamma and Sygma. Talking about Hubert Henrotte, it is essential to quote from the December 2, 1967 fax published in his book: 
“Dear Gillou, This morning I received your letter from the 26th, you said you hadn’t received my telegram telling you of the arrival of your films and how exceptional is your story on the hills, I hope you will receive this fax because we are so proud of you, that we sent it at 3am …” Monteux (Gamma salesman-associate) whose bad moods and critical eye you know well also made this comment when looking at your contact sheets: “After ten years in this business, I have never had such an intense satisfaction, they are the best war pictures I have ever seen!”

The following year, with great journalistic flair, Floris de Bonneville, senior editor, sent Gilles Caron to “cover” the Biafra secessionist movement, where he would also have some amazing pictures despite very bad working conditions in the field.

Then suddenly, Paris started burning: May 1968. On the first day, when students from Nanterre occupied the Sorbonne, he took the legendary picture of Daniel Cohn Bendit taunting a police officer. The picture would travel around the world and became the symbol of the spirit of the student movement.

“Not far, not expensive” is how reporters would refer to the war in Ireland. Of course he would go. He was commissioned by the world’s greatest magazines.

At the end of the 1960’s, the profession had lost some of its charm. There were few exhibitions, no festivals, no prizes, and no interest in war reporters. Fashion photographers were just beginning to be recognized thanks to the movie “Blow Up”. Aside from Capa and Cartier-Bresson, the French ignored photo reporters. For the professionals, Gilles Caron was already a star, and young photography enthusiasts would discover his work in Vietnam, Biafra and May 1968 in Photo magazine, just before he disappeared! 

Hubert Henrotte wrote “Gilles Caron was one of the first to show his dissatisfaction at being simply referred to as a photographer. He was already what the great names of this business would be called, a photojournalist.” Which is why the album Gilles Caron Scrap Book and his correspondence “J’ai voulu voir”, sadly only printed in French, are two important books.

Behind the pictures and the myth, we discover the man. A sentimental and thoughtful man, curious about the people around him. A true journalist whose short life was rich with life’s lessons. The Gilles Caron Foundation did an amazing amount of work to publish these two books, devoting its meager subsidies, but still lacking the funds to digitize the photographer’s production. 
By purchasing the Gilles Caron Scrap Book, you add your contribution and help to an essential element of the photojournalistic history.”

Michel Puech (January 24, 2012)

- La Lettre de la Photographie

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