Jean-Marie Périer © Jeff Dunas
In France's small photographic community, being French is not necessarily an advantage, but what's truly inexcusable is to start out by being involved in a popular success. These two words prompt any specialist to uncontrollably wrinkle their nose, and to shrug in the direction of the paradise of elites, who care little for the tastes of the masses. As an involuntary representative of this sub-species, I was somewhat surprised at the end of the last century to receive an invitation from the Rencontres d'Arles. This universally respected institution was proposing, no less, to screen my '60s work in the city's amphitheatre. I agreed somewhat warily, most surprised to be suddenly deemed an aristocrat of the profession after twenty-five years of low regard.
It would be untrue to say that, during this unexpected week, I swam in familiar waters. Rather, I felt the nervy nonchalance of an East End jeweller at a Buckingham Palace garden party; but there I was at last, and no one seemed to resent my presence.
And so it was, one bright afternoon, for the first time in my life, I found myself sitting on a café terrace between Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, two of my masters, to whom I scarcely dared introduce myself. For once, the talk was not of Claude François or the Rolling Stones, but of worldviews and the quality of this or that exhibition. I had nothing to say and so I listened, bookended by what were undeniably VIPs: one taciturn, the other affable. Their hospitality unlocked the door to the world of respectable photography. Though accepted, I had hitherto been banned.
At that moment, a very plump man burst through to the centre of the terrace. With utterly Mediterranean nonchalance, he stared at me, scratching his head as if to remove an itchy question-mark. Then a victorious smile lit up his face. Pointing with solid certainty, he walked up to me and exclaimed, with a voice embellished by a thicker-than-bouillabaisse accent:
“Well, blow me down, aren't you [famous singer] Michel Sardou's brother-in-law?"
Crash-bang-wallop! The august local's intended compliment sent me back to my soup, and to my place in the world. I am happy there, and will never disown it: the place of a photographer who was young, once upon a time, and whose sole source of pride is to have decorated the cramped-bedroom walls of the teens of his era, and helped them fall asleep at night, dreaming of an elsewhere that he is not sure ever existed.