Arles Archives: Guillaume Simoneau looks back on his 2019 show for the Emergences section

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Following a chance encounter with then-director Sam Stourdzé, the Canadian photographer’s series Murder secured a spot at Croisière

In Canadian photographer Guillaume Simoneau’s series Murder, allure and horror stand in constant dialogue. Volcanic steam bubbles up from the surface of the earth. A red neon sign spelling out ‘Ravens’ glows in the darkness, as forbidding as it is enticing. 

Shot in Japan, mostly on the subtropical southern island Kyushu, Murder captures both the beauty and violence in the lives of crows and their winged brethren. One astounding composition shows the dun ground of a bird sanctuary at dawn, bespattered with the brightly-coloured remains of the lesser fowl used as food. Another shows a Harris hawk, trained by young falconer Misato Ishibashi, pin down its corvid prey. A portrait taken afterwards sees the proud hawk soaked,  as if anointed,  in the blood of its victim.

From the series Murder © Guillaume Simoneau

Murder, which was exhibited at Les Rencontres d’Arles and published by Mack in 2019, sprouted from an incident in Simoneau’s childhood. On one winter’s morning, when he was four or five years old, his father felled a tree. Unbeknownst to them, it had supported a nest of baby crows. “I remember the crying,” Simoneau recounts, “the noise, the screaming. They were shaken, but uninjured. We waited for the parents to turn up, but they never did. And so we inherited this family of crows.” 

Simoneau’s family adopted the birds until they were old enough to return to the wild. His mother, a committed amateur photographer, captured it all on her Mamiya camera. Decades later, when Simoneau was studying photography in Montreal, he rediscovered his mother’s albums. “I realised,” he explains, “that she had a natural instinct and an eye for photography, though she never took any classes.” Murder interpolates Simoneau’s sharp work with his mother’s tender black and white pictures of this childhood exploit.

Murder began to coalesce after a fortuitous encounter. In 2013, while exhibiting his acclaimed project Love and War (2011) at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, curator Lisa Sutcliffe directed Simoneau to the Shomei Tomatsu retrospective at the city’s Art Institute. “I was completely blown away,” he recalls. “It was a world of photography I had no idea existed: the beauty, the complexity, the uniqueness.” Soon after, Simoneau discovered Masahisa Fukase’s series Ravens (1975-82). A spectral lament for personal and national losses, Fukase’s series — republished by Mack in 2017 — provided both an intimate precedent and a way forward. “At that point,” he says, “the equation came together.”

From the series Murder © Guillaume Simoneau
From the series Murder © Guillaume Simoneau

Simoneau took five trips to Japan between 2016 and 2017. “I didn’t go there knowing exactly the road I would take,” he recounts, “and after two and a half months I had not produced one image in the vein of what I wanted to produce.” Discouraged, he sought a producer who could help him focus his purview. Then he spied a Facebook post advertising a workshop with Magnum member Jacob Aue Sobol, organised by the Tokyo-based French photographer Chloé Jafé. Simoneau emailed Jafé to ask if she could connect him with a producer. “She replied in 24 hours: ‘We’ve got this.’” Before long Simoneau was in Kyushu, shooting Ishibashi and Murder found its core.

Installation image, Arles 2019 © Guillaume Simoneau
Installation image, Arles 2019 © Guillaume Simoneau

Serendipity also brought Murder to Arles. While meeting Simoneau to view his project Experimental Lake – which depicts a natural laboratory spread over 56 lakes in northwestern Ontario – the head of photography at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts mentioned that Sam Stourdzé, the festival’s then director, was in town. “I went for the full pitch,” says Simoneau. “And he found a way for Momenta, the photography festival here in Montreal, to finance and bring the work to Les Rencontres.”

The experience of exhibiting in Arles has remained with Simoneau. “Everything is just so romantic and beautiful,” he says, “and it’s an ideal place to present works and connect with people. Things that you would be struggling to make happen for an entire year happen nonchalantly over a pastis, because someone happens to be walking down the street.” Curated by Audrey Genois, the series was displayed in Croisière as part of the Emergences section highlighting new talent. 

From the series Experimental Lake © Guillaume Simoneau.
From the series Experimental Lake © Guillaume Simoneau.

Since Arles, Murder has been exhibited in Tokyo, Antwerp and Toronto; it will be shown at VU Québec later this year. “In Japan,” Simoneau recounts,  “Tomo Kosuga from the Fukase archive gave me his blessing for the exhibition, which I really appreciated.” Next up is a residency at the Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary. While there, he plans to work on a project exploring our perception of time, a topic which chimes particularly with the age of Covid-19. “I don’t know exactly where I’m going,” says Simoneau, “but I’m having fun doing it.” On the evidence of Murder, it is likely to be arresting wherever it ends up.

For more information about Le Rencontres de la Photographie, head to the festival website

You can explore Guillaume Simoneau’s other projects here.

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.