Agnès Varda’s practice of snapping photos has spanned nearly her entire lifetime. It served as her day job up until the success of Cléo de 5 à 7,[i] and part of her stylistic imprint as a filmmaker derives from her brilliant way of turning photographic encounters into avant-garde cinema. The three short documentaries that Varda compiled into Cinévardaphoto (2004)—Salut les Cubains (1971), Ulysse (1983), and Ydessa, les ours et etc. (2004)—expand upon the fascination with still images (from singular freeze-frames to found works of visual art) that loom large in her features. While each of these shorts is rich enough to merit a full essay of its own [editor’s note: indeed, see our essay on Salut les Cubains], it is her experimental TV series Une minute pour une image (1983) that contains the most sustained engagement with photography within her filmography.
Varda conceived of this remarkably forward-thinking project on the heels of making Ulysse, which yielded the epiphany that a single photograph can elicit wildly different responses, even from people that were present while it was taken. The eponymous protagonist of Ulysse lives with his parents on the same street as Varda, rue Daguerre (named for the photographic pioneer), whose denizens Varda had previously regaled in the documentary Daguérrotypes (1976). Having staged an image with Ulysse when he was just a boy with a male friend of hers, Varda interviews both subjects decades later to gauge their memories of that point in time. It proves to have been as fleeting for them as it has become eternally fixed to her. Musing on their reactions in the documentary, she eloquently summarizes the take-away: “Une image c’est ça et le reste,” (“A photo is that and everything else.”) Although Ulysse tells the simple story of a single photographic image, it reveals how convoluted any explication becomes once one approaches an image from a temporal remove.
Recycling the motif of Ulysse, in which an ambiguous image is presented for 10 to 15 seconds in silence, each iteration of Une minute gave viewers 60 seconds to comment on a photo. At the end, the names of both the selected photographer (ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson to complete unknowns) and the speaker appear onscreen. Commissioned by the Centre national de la photographie, all 170 of the series’ minute-and-a-half episodes aired on France 3 (a major public television channel) once per night, around 11 p.m., over the course of early-to-mid-1983. Handpicked by various artist friends of Varda, the photographs were grouped into 14 collections (two curated by Varda, the rest by 12 others, including Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau) and then distributed to various guests on the show.[ii]
Though unmistakably artful, the project also follows a pedagogical mission akin to the efforts of cultural theorists André Malraux and Aby Warburg to create their own doggedly idiosyncratic visual encyclopaedias. Indeed, Varda’s naming the 14 collections of photographs used in the TV series as albums imaginaires directly recalls Malraux’s 1947 essay Le Musée imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum), which discusses the transformative power of photography to disseminate masterpieces of art more widely. In turn, the work of Warburg was a major influence on Malraux’s ideas about how the careful organization of images could serve not only as an essential and accessible primer in art history but also as a rhetorical tool with the same acuity as a critical essay or any autonomous work of art. A German art historian, Warburg passed away in 1929 before completing his “Mnemosyne,” a self-described “atlas of images” that grouped black-and-white photographs of various objects from antiquity through the Renaissance according to themes such as memory, astrology and emotion. (As in Une minute, the Mnemosyne did not caption the images with any kind of identifying information.)
For Malraux’s part, both in his writings and in his work as the French Minister of Cultural Affairs from 1958 to 1969, he was passionate about the idea of increasing people’s exposure to masterpieces of Western culture, and he saw his work as akin to that of a guide and cartographer. Though his shadow is perhaps more heavily cast over Godard’s televisual deconstruction of images of modernity (i.e., the 1989-1999 series Histoire(s) du cinéma) than Varda’s, Malraux’s interest in opening up a boundless and “imaginary” photographic archive to the masses—but, importantly, with artists to guide them—is very much shared and put into practice by Varda in Une minute.
There is, however, a key difference between these scholars’ compendia of images and Varda’s: hers is both educational and supremely fun. Like her New Wave contemporaries, she often uses freeze-frames to comic effect. A short like Salut les cubains, comprised almost entirely of photographs (like Chris Marker’s 1962 La jetée not long before it), imbues the slideshow format with rhythmic play. Taken in its entirety, Une minute also employs a highly curated selection of photographs, but because each of its episodes stands alone, it can feel as if it has stumbled upon each image at random. For the ever-playful Varda, this audiovisual form of roulette lends itself to more aleatory gestures. Who would the commentator on each photograph be? Their identities were withheld from the audience, until the very end of each episode, making the viewing experience one of both investigative pleasure and the co-construction of meaning. The episodes’ linear structure of first presenting a photograph for brief scrutiny and ending by revealing a sort of solution to a mystery mimics that of a TV procedural. Varda foregrounds this tongue-in-cheek allusion by accompanying each ending title, which reveals the name of the commentator and photographer as well as the date and title of the photograph, with a neo-noir synth cue accentuated by the slight rattle of a maraca.
Une minute pour une image embodies many of Varda’s greatest artistic qualities: an audacity to cross boundaries between media, an indefatigable playfulness, and a fine-tuned ear for the most intimate thoughts of others.
Within the 14 episodes featuring Varda, one cannot predict exactly what form her reaction will take. Sometimes, she recognizes the photograph and offers some insight into the time and place of its capture. But even then Varda is liable to cavort off into 30-second tangents, once humming a few lines from a Kurt Weill song about ships. Similarly, her camera-eye is unpredictable. Just as one is settling into the fixed frame, she’ll cross-fade to an insert of one detail within the photograph, or zoom in and out of the image at a variable speed. These subtle perambulations from the stasis of show-and-tell elegantly adhere to the photograph and its commentary. Musing on an image of an outstretched hand before a jacketed specter with a fish jutting out of its sleeve, Varda magnifies and minimizes the centre of the frame as she says it reminds her of surrealism, “a space and a time for dreaming, beyond the extraordinary precision of images from reality – a space around such images.”
This last thought works as a summation of Varda’s own framing of these photographs, bathing them in a voiceover that brings forward as many new sensory impressions as darkroom chemicals on a negative. It’s worth noting, too, the surrealist dimension of the title sequence within each episode of Une minute. In rapid-fire succession, we are confronted with an open eye, a closed eye, and then a camera iris that expands in fast motion. “Pho-to-gra-phie,” Varda whispers, and then again, “photographie,” in one rushed fell swoop, punctuated by the click of a camera. Establishing linkages between various machines of vision was, of course, a hallmark of the surrealists, from Magritte to Buñuel and Dalí (to say nothing of their contemporary, Dziga Vertov).
Surrealist wit consorts with a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in much of Varda’s filmography. Whereas films like One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), The Gleaners and I (2000) and Faces Places (2017) take us on literal journeys, Une minute pour une image limits its travel to the dimension of time. Coursing through privileged scenes plucked from the whole history of photography, it opens up new possibilities for engaging with our cultural heritage. If Malraux’s ideal museum was one stripped of walls, then Varda’s ideal photo albums are divested of any materiality whatsoever. Transfigured into electrical impulses perceivable only tele-visually (which is to say, from far away), they belong to the public.