What is it, exactly, about Aubry Alan’s photography that makes it so compulsively fascinating? Not his subject matter – or not initially. Building sites, shot in series, show nondescript housing developments undergoing small changes (gravel laid down, windows put in). Road signs indicate the entrance points to Rouen – all the entrance points to Rouen. Petrol pumps – lots of those. A shed in an air base. A grey shed in an air base. Each picture seems to dare you to look elsewhere, to push the limits of what you’ll tolerate. Boring enough for you?
Yet they’re not boring. In fact, Alan’s photographs, like those of his photographic heroes Atget, Adams and Shore, remake the visible world in a way that is both faithful – the product of a restless, restlessly independent creative eye – and discreetly subversive. His 2005 works entitled Citadelle (the title, redolent of medieval walled towns, is a clue to Aubry’s mischievous cynicism) show the roofs of modern housing, side-on/gable-on, poking above walls of ferociously trimmed hedges. Each roof, shot dead centre, is made to sit upon the thick strip of hedge; sky and areas of grass or soil lock those elements together, as though that was always the plan. Flattened, their geometric strata recall the banded abstractions of a Rothko or Newman, but that’s incidental. Alan’s real subject here is a photograph’s ability to estrange and destabilise ordinary sight. See how the side-on roof in Citadelle 1 has a perceptually shifting relationship to the strip of hedge (you’re never quite sure of your spatial bearings) or how that grey shed in the air base seems strangely bound in place by the faded road markings. In Alan’s images, the world seems to reshuffle itself in accordance with the camera. The world seems to know it’s a picture.
Humans leave their traces (building, travelling, working) in Alan’s photographs, but never actually appear, and the insistent, subtle ordering of his compositions implies a world emptied of the need for human presence. There’s something Marie Celeste-like in his images of the slick/sad offices of the French Department of Culture, and something correspondingly moving about its abandoned objects: those ergonomic chairs, that stack of coloured folders. Human business is suspended, and the office reforms itself into a sympathetic geometry of parallels with the cathedral spire in the misty distance. You’re reminded of Larkin’s poem Home is So Sad: ‘It stays as it was left,/Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/As if to win them back.’