This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 8, Autumn 2016.
A small old man is frozen in time. He is stood facing a peculiar, grand building made up of five arches, seemingly floating on a body of water. The sky blushes a soft pink and time is foreign. It looks like the morning of a post-apocalyptic future, or could it be the dusk of an evening in the past? Rather surprisingly, the time is now, we are on the fringes of Paris and the man is an inhabitant of one of the many housing estates, or grands ensembles, that are situated on the outskirts of the overcrowded city.
Laurent Kronental has spent four years casting these architectural experiments in a new light. Mostly built between the 1950s and the 1980s, the grands ensembles were a response to the post-war housing crisis, constructed to house a migrant population of rural and foreign refugees. Once considered the height of the avant-garde, these mammoth structures have aged into symbols of a deteriorating optimism, routinely stigmatised by the media as failed social experiments set in a mass of ugly concrete. But Kronental’s Souvenir d’un Futur tells a different story. Looking to find poetry in these sprawling spaces, his project is an ode to the majesty of these buildings and their inhabitants: a portrait of the passage of time, bathed in melancholic pink and green hues.
The French photographer discovered his craft relatively late on, at the age of twenty-two during a six-month trip abroad. With the manmade skylines of China’s soupy metropolises as a backdrop, Kronental’s longstanding interest in the urban landscape and the relationship between people and their habitat came to life, prompting him to take up photography seriously and pursue the subject on his return. After a brief stay in London figuring out his next steps, he returned home where he would soon find inspiration in a quieter pocket of the cityscape: right around the corner from his house in the city of Courbevoie, to the west of Paris.
The starting point of Souvenirs d’un Futur was a desire to start a project about senior citizens, which developed into a fuller form through a chance encounter. “I first came across some elderly people who lived in my town, who I met when out walking,” he says. “It was in the area of Courbevoie which is really like the countryside. There are all of these very old, small houses and just at the end of a dirt track, fifty metres away, are the huge skyscrapers of Paris’ business district, La Défense.” He describes a moment of revelation, “seeing this couple in their garden, living so close to a world that doesn’t belong to their time” that catalysed his idea.
An intimate sense of wonder at discovering and studying one’s own surroundings lies close to the surface of each one of Kronental’s photographs. “I live right next to a grand ensemble called Les Damiers, which you can see in the picture with the man in the green coat. I’ve walked past it for years, every day, to get to the metro. So for me, this area was really part of my daily life.” Starting with the areas nearby, his four-year journey has taken him further afield, to the “flying saucers” of Noisy-le-Grand that he remembers passing on the motorway with his parents, and the oddly camouflaged Tours Aillaud of Nanterre.
A world away from shooting on the fly with the small digital compact camera that Kronental began his photography with, the entire series was made on a large-format analogue camera which he chose for its inimitable soft colours and impeccable clarity. Each frame a concentrated exercise of in-camera composition and exposure, the buildings are rendered with an incredible attention to detail impossible to recreate in post-production.
Some sharply modernist, others decadent and ornamental with neoclassical features, all the images are theatrical, dwarfing the unexpected protagonists of their story – the elderly citizens that Kronental met along the way. “I didn’t want to show elderly people in retirement homes: I want to show them in a place where we don’t expect them to live,” he explains. Returning up to forty times to one place in order to get the right photograph, it took time to build relationships with his subjects before shooting them outdoors against the buildings they have aged alongside.
Much like the worn buildings of the grands ensembles, Kronental’s human subjects as also weathered monuments of time. The oldest was ninety-five years old. The majority of people he photographed lived alone or away from their families. And yet they are still full of life. “They don’t feel like they have aged. That’s what is amazing. Some of them told me, ‘We may be eighty, but our lives have passed very quickly. We feel that our bodies have aged. We can no longer do things we could before, we are tired, we have health issues, but our minds and souls have stayed the same.’ The body ages, but the mind doesn’t,” the photographer adds.
Images courtesy of Laurent Kronental
Words by Sophie Wright