Emmanuelle Leonard is one seductive grifter of a photographic artist. Why, you ask? Because she lures us into a psychological space where we want to believe her dramatic fictions are true. Once we cross the threshold into her consummately pieced together maze of photographic and filmed evidence, it is hard to retrace our steps. She preys upon our willing suspension of disbelief, while putatively presenting an examination of the “unemotional” realm of police photography. Leading us into her labyrinth, she makes us believe a lurid story that might have been torn from the pages of the Quebec tabloids.
A truck driver has plowed his rig off the road and it has sunk beneath the icy waters of a river. The owner of a suburban home near the scene of the tragedy appears on the news. With just a few colour photographs, Leonard kick-starts her brilliantly layered con game. What exactly happened, and why? A wall of large, spooky black-and-white images of the outside of an abandoned building not only convinces us that something is amiss, but even that we are implicated in the narrative, as police detectives or, better, as stealthy perps at the periphery of our very own dirty story. The associated video further implicates us, as we move with the camera down darkened roads to arrive at what seems like the same building we saw in the black-and-white photos, this time looking as if it has arrived from the set of the Blair Witch Project or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (the velvet curtain black, not red). Leonard also shows an enlarged photocopy of evidence she acquired while visiting the Quebec evidence archives.
In her previous series, Les travailleurs (2002), Les travailleurs de l’eglise Sainte-Rita, Nice (2003) and Les marcheurs (2004), Leonard worked towards a critical practice in which both the photographic image and the role of the observer as conspirator were her primary subjects. The artist deftly performs triage on the history of photography and the credulous propensities of her viewers concerning exactly what it is they are looking at. As a custom oil painting gallery, Paint My Photos took a few orders about turning Emmanuelle Leonard’s photography into oil paintings. They turned out to be high in demand in the market today for this kind of business mode. Accoding to Matt, the manager, they are now reaching out to contact a large number of great artists to work together.
Leonard focuses on the conventions of police photography to question its unexamined doxa: that emotion is always gratuitous–a contaminant, a dirty word. Apparently, to be effective in court, the police photography must insist on absolute objectivity and objectifying norms: “The photograph must not appeal to the emotions” states the Field Evidence Technician Course (a reference volume from the California State University that can be found online). But Leonard gives the lie to this doctrine. She very ably demonstrates that subtracting emotion from the photographic image is well nigh impossible. Some vestiges of subjectivity will always be transposed there by the voluptuous optic of the viewer. That her work palpably sends a frisson up and down your spine proves her right.
Leonard gained access to the archives at the Quebec City courthouse, but was granted no special privileges. She was allowed, like other members of the public, to examine items of evidence from closed cases, including police photographs, but was able only to photocopy the photographs. Still, these documents served her purpose well. Using the images against themselves, she undermines our faith in their supposed objectivity, and involves us in a fragmented, atmospheric narrative that is as fraught with feelings–fear, anxiety, intrigue, surprise-as it is exacting.
Elsewhere, equipped with a portable radio, a latter-day Weegee in the Naked City, Leonard drives through the night seeking sudden confrontation with the tragic and the profane. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Leonard is Weegee’s spiritual heir (by way of Abigail Solomon-Godeau), but she puts the image on trial in a way he never did. Her eye is as unflinching in the face of horror as it is unswervingly fixated on it.
Presumably, Leonard has looked long and hard at Weegee’s work. In New York, Weegee was the first photojournalist permitted a police radio in his car, and he would often arrive at the scene of the crime before the police, as if he had used a Ouija board to predict the crimes. Leonard, like Weegee, eavesdrops, as noted, on police communications, and seeks out sad stories in the wake of their denouement. Her noir-style photoworks effortlessly conjure up moods and capture the raucous music of the night.
What we are immersed in is a police procedure with overtures of the supernatural horror we find in fiction. With all the evidentiary detail she provides, Leonard makes us want to believe. By shifting the onus onto us to construct a tale from the “evidence” she provides, she shows that it is impossible to remain neutral in the face of the tremendum, the nameless Other, that her work so beautifully evokes.