MARSEILLE.- Originating in Italy in 1947, the photo-novel was an instant success. It would remain a bestselling genre of popular literature worldwide for nearly a quarter of a century. Magazines were passed from hand to hand, and readers were counted in the millions. By the 1960s, one in three French people read photo-novels.
Yet, the photo-novel has only rarely attracted the attention of historians, archivists, museums, or art centres because it is typically perceived as a vulgar subgenre. This exhibition examines its origins, from its debut to the development of its archetypes, and even its deviances. The aim is to move beyond stereotypes of the photo-novel as merely a soap opera genre, and recognise it as a reflection of society.
Through more than 300 objects (magazines, original photographs, models, films
), the exhibition retraces an era, its dreams and its fears, and features novel treasures like a collection from the Italian publisher Mondadori. These holdings, made up of thousands of negatives from photo-novels published between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, have never been shown to the public. The exhibition also focuses on the numerous celebrities who were featured in photo-novels (Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Johnny Hallyday, Mireille Mathieu, Dalida, Dick Rivers, Hugh Grant, etc
) and addresses the unanimous criticism to which the photo-novel was subjected. Communists, intellectuals, and Catholics accused it of being insipid, stupid and even perverse. Fascinated by the genre, Roland Barthes wrote: Nous Deuxthe magazineis more obscene than Sade. The exhibition also outlines the globalisation of the photo-novel, which was exportedthen manufactured in Madrid, Caracas, Beirut and Buenos Aires
Although its golden age is long past, the photo-novel is not dead. Nous Deux still publishes 350,000 copies a week and can now be read online. More importantly, the photo-novel has been continually replicated. Pornographers, structuralists, writers, and satirists have appropriated its narrative style to tell of other things than just love stories that end well. A large section of the exhibition is devoted to Killing, aka Satanik in French, an erotic-sadistic photo-novel from the late 1960s, which has had a lasting impact despite being censored. From Chris Marker to Professor Choron, by way of Duane Michals, the exhibition reveals the extent of this rampant and explosive output.
A brief history of the photo-novel
The photo-novel was born in Italy in 1947. The country had been defeated and bled dry. Publishing newspapers in this context was challenging since even paper was rationed. Yet some, understanding that above all the country needed to dream and to escape, responded by inventing the photo-novel. The success was immediate, surprising even its inventors who were sometimes obliged to hastily reprint issues that sold out.
While these soap operas eventually required large-scale productions, their fabrication remained artisanal for quite some time. The production techniques were very similar to those for the cinema. Besides the actors, crews included a screenwriter, producer, stage director, photographer, and sometimes a makeup artist. Notably, these artisans were rarely mentioned in the credits of photo-novels.
The best optics were used for shooting: Rolleiflex, Mamiya or, later, Hasselblad. The film formats employed were 6 × 6, or 6 × 9 for the covers. The scenes were lighted using flashes in various locations. After developing the film, the selected images were printed, cropped, retouched with gouache, then pasted on cardboard according to the page format of the photo-novel. The speech balloons, manuscripts or typescripts, were superimposed over the images or directly glued onto the photos.
Over time, the photo-novel adapted to changes in photography and printing methods. The 24 × 36 film format and colour appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, all photo-novels are produced digitally.