By looking into photographic oeuvre of Laurent Elie Badessi and its development throughout the years, one discovers not only the artist’s infatuated relationship with this medium, but also his inexhaustible curiosity about the world in which we live in, in all of its beauty and misfortunes. Coming out from many generations of photographers in his family, Badessi constantly investigates all the potentials of photography and its psychological impact in order to speak about humankind and its intricacies, both through the history and present time. For this artist, the approach to the medium and to the topics that fascinate him is far from spontaneous; each one of his series of works is a product of an extensive research, contemplation and exhaustive preparatory sketching. The works are informed by the artist’s studies of language and communication sciences, in particular journalism and advertising, as much as his interest in psychology and current political, social and ecological issues. His broad knowledge of art history, and mythology and symbolism imbedded in cultures around the world are often the anchor for talking about contemporary subjects and phenomena. Badessi is particularly intrigued by religious and cultural taboos revolving around nudity and sexuality, but also ponders on ramifications of war and military propaganda, man’s exploitation of nature, identity construction, and fragility and preciousness of life in its various forms.
In the artist’s body of work, portrait photography is probably the most immediately striking part of it. This comes from Badessi’s interest, developed in the early stages in his career, in the psychological relationship between a photographer and his/ her sitters. For his early project Ethnik (1987-1988), he traveled to Niger to develop a series of portraits of the local tribes’ members, by using the method of “negotiated photography”. This particular method gives a choice to the sitter to choose the framework of a photo session, by freely electing posture, surroundings, props and his/ her physical appearance. For these portraits, Western clothing and photographic equipment brought by Badessi, while most probably seen by these tribes for the very first time, were used as a vehicle for interaction and abundant playfulness; the tribe members creatively incorporated these garments into their own styles, revealing in a fascinating way their individual characters and creativity. The photographs, while vibrating with colors, capture the relationships and strong individual expressions of the sitters in their everyday surroundings. Unlike many of historical and contemporary projects capturing indigenous cultures from a position of superiority, Ethnik testifies to the possibility of a fluid, cross- cultural human experience created through the two-way communication, learning and creativity.
The following project, titled simply Skin (2000), is a result of close observation of human and natural features, and drawing visual juxtapositions of a nude human body and plants, animals and textures from nature such as rocks, sand or water. It discloses Badessi’s essentially sculptural approach to the design of his compositions; details of captured human skin, delivered through black and white scenes made solely by a camera and without any digital postproduction methods, seem like constructed three-dimensional shapes, often approaching abstraction. According to Badessi, “the body becomes curve, line, texture,” and the images deliver “harmony through contrast of fragile and sharp, tender and tough, black and white, masculine and feminine,” pointing towards the idea of a man as only one of nature’s striking creations.
The preoccupation with human beings’ spiritual and physical closeness to nature is again present in Badessi’s works made in 2004 for an advertising campaign of the French luxury shoe company Charles Jourdan, for which the artist was given complete freedom regarding the concept as well as the execution. This black and white series features female nudes interacting one-on-one with animals, against a dramatic landscape of dry cracked soil. The intricacy of these scenes is delivered through an intense relationship between female figures and animals; the contingent juxtapositions and their implied eroticism recall classical mythical motifs, but also methodology of Surrealist photography and cinema.
The perplexed connections between the artist and his sitters are revisited in Badessi’s Dreaming Marilyns series (2012-13), based upon Marilyn Monroe’s persona invented through the portrayal by photography and cinema of her times. For this series of works, the artist approached women to dress and pose as Marilyn Monroe and channel, though meditation, her most vulnerable appearances. With their eyes closed, the women seem deeply immersed in thoughts about delicacy of existence, or maybe just sleeping and dreaming. Their figures are delivered through slightly blurred images, which contributes to their ghostly and illusory presentation.
However, Badessi doesn’t explore only human features in his photographs. The series titled The unavoidable temporality of existence (2009-ongoing) came out of the artist’s interest in laws of physics and playful experimentation with color, light and reflection- basic properties of the medium of photography. This time, the “models” who pose for the artist are inexpensive ruffled materials, more precisely, wrinkled light aluminum sheets which, when photographed, appear heavy and sturdy. Because of color and light reflections, these extremely animated compositions play with the viewer’s eye, inviting him/ her to explore different planes and depths, creating an illusion of continuous revolving movement. The related series, Project Innocence (2009-12), layers the motif of a butterfly on the aluminum sheet background. For centuries, butterflies and their short life cycle have been powerful symbols for temporarily and fragility of life. Multiplied and appearing as drifting over the vibrant surfaces, these fragile creatures add to the pertinence of Badessi’s compositions. They are indeed also present in the Fragments series of works (2014), which the artist considers the second part of The unavoidable temporality of existence. This body of work is quite different in feeling and appearance, revealing the artist’s rethinking of abstraction, abstract expressionism in particular, but through the same motifs. For making of these photographs, Badessi was utilizing fast motion of a handheld camera, while also keeping the lens at an extremely short distance from the painted cardboard surfaces and butterfly wings, and dragging the camera shutter. This method recalls painterly gestures of historical abstract expressionist painters, but with light as a painting medium. The captured motifs disintegrate into ethereal compositions of floating shapes and extremely rich graduations of color.
Another projects which came out of Badessi’s sensitivity for nature and its destruction, as well as his philosophical preoccupation with frailty of existence is a photograph The tree of Love (2012), made for an auction at Sotheby’s (New York & Paris) for raising awareness of the destruction of Brazilian forests. The photograph presents an old tree in Brooklyn Botanical Garden, with its skin all bruised by decades of scratches and inscriptions made by people. Additionally, there is another motif attached to the tree’s surface—a discarded plastic bag—creating a stark contrast between the elegance and monumentality of the tree and everyday garbage disposal. The contradiction of these two motifs delivers a powerful metaphor for life, its preciousness, and the man’s careless treatment of exhaustible natural resources.
Probably Badessi’s most directly politically engaged project up to date is the work titled American Dream, This is not a dream (2006). Created during the peak of the American war in Iraq, it was inspired by visually powerful military propaganda turned towards recruiting young men for the war campaigns throughout the United States. It consists of ten large-scale portraits. Five colored images of young soldiers, perfectly lined up in their impeccable uniforms, seem as performing some military exercise. They are facing their own, mirrored black and white images in another five photographs. The depicted soldiers are of different ethnicities and belong to various United States military corps. Here, the artist plays with the notion of past and present, by using both color photography (commonly presumed as a record of the present moment) and the black and white one with its references to the times passed. In the color series, soldiers are blindfolded with American flag, while in their black and white versions their eyes are covered with blindfolds commonly used for restraining the captured enemy. In all of the photographs, the individuals seem vulnerable and dignified at the same time, recalling a biblical motif of martyrdom additionally underlined by dramatic light behind each figure that almost creates a halo behind their heads. Furthermore, there are inscriptions delivering the sentence Ceci n’est pas un rêve (This is Not a Dream): in color, the words are inscribed on the soldiers’ badges. In black and white, the words float on each of the eye covers, but in reverse. The title and the concept for this body of work clearly is an interpretation of Rene Magritte’s iconic work of art, the painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is Not a Pipe). Magritte’s preoccupation with the concept of reality and how it can be mediated and manipulated through images, Badessi takes one step further. He provokes the question of what is the truth and how information can be interpreted or even fully censored through mass media, and how war and the ideas of freedom and hope are propagated through the authority of the government.
With his career spanning over three decades, Badessi’s works has indeed been covering a variety of themes and subjects. The artist is not afraid to grapple with most serious existentialist and philosophical questions of the moment, while also staying playful and governing our eye towards most ordinary things from our surroundings. The photographs disclose Badessi’s interest in constant experimentation with the appearance of things; whether it is portraiture, nude or still life, the artist, though his unique vision and his personal experiences, perpetually reinvents these classical genres. His art provokes us to think about the current state of affairs in our complex world, but also divulges the importance of a play, enjoyment, ordinary, beauty and simplicity as parts of our lives.