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Vasantha Yogananthan: Mystery Street

Posted on April 18, 2023 - By Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Paris
Vasantha Yogananthan:  Mystery Street
Vasantha Yogananthan:  Mystery Street

May 5 - September 3, 2023

Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Paris

French photographer Vasantha Yogananthan is the 2019 laureate of Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission. Mentored by Agnès Sire, he chose to undertake his residency in the southern US state of Louisiana. Yogananthan spent time with city children over the course of a long, hot summer, capturing their sense of the ephemeral, ever-changing world around them. ''Mystery Street'' is the title of the resulting series, a solo exhibition and a monograph, co-published with Chose Commune.

There comes a moment in life - say between the ages of 8 and 12 - when everything changes very fast. The age of impermanence, fleeting and short-lived - a time which Vasantha Yogananthan has explored before, in an early series of photographs taken on a beach in the Camargue, in southern France. For Immersion - an initiative from the Fondation d'entreprise Hermès that supports the making of new photographic work - Yogananthan returns to this fertile territory, this time in New Orleans. As a city below sea level, where the memory of Hurricane Katrina (2005) is still vivid and people live with the threat of permanent submersion due to climate change, New Orleans has a heightened sense of the transitory. In ''Mystery Street'', the children become a living metaphor for the fabric and condition of the city itself.

Vasantha Yogananthan works with the raw material of reality, a photographer whose intuition is his compass. At the outset of the Immersion residency, he had no preconceived idea of what he might do. He sees the act of photography is an apprenticeship of sorts, a way of learning about the world. His pictures are not illustrations of things he already knows, but opportunities to acquire new knowledge. He does not set out to capture or endorse a pre-existing philosophical, political or poetic concept in a photographic image, but rather to discover his subject by photographing it. These discoveries are seldom the result of a conscious decision. Rather, they are born out of experimentation, play, chance, instability or change. New Orleans, suffused with a unique atmosphere of impermanence, and seen through the eyes of children on the threshold of adolescence, proved the ideal crucible for the myriad, small moments of epiphany captured so magnificently here.

Clément Chéroux and Agnès Sire, curators of the exhibition ''Mystery Street''

Vasantha Yogananthan

Vasantha Yogananthan, Sans titre, de la série ''Mystery Street'', 2022 © Vasantha Yogananthan

''Mystery Street'' begins and ends with the children. Children playing, thriving, dreaming. Children who are growing up fast. For his first series shot in North America, French photographer Vasantha Yogananthan captures the world through the eyes of the children he meets, quite literally 'on their level'. For Yogananthan, the project marks a return to documentary photography, but freed from the genre's established codes and traditions. ''Mystery Street'' is both a conversation with the real world, and an escape that opens up multiple narrative possibilities. The corpus consists chiefly of portraits - Yogananthan's genre of choice - but in no way sets out to be an exhaustive portrait of New Orleans. Under the burning Louisiana sun, the work has a fairytale quality: it tells us something about the real world but unhesitatingly takes other, less-travelled routes at every crossroads. The series is both a commentary on human behaviour, and a transfiguration of everyday existence.

''Mystery Street'' charts a long, lingering summer, in fragmented images that offer the bare minimum of information about their surrounding space, time or immediate setting, conscious of the weight of certain representations. Vasantha Yogananthan avoids the temptation to over-emphasise; instead, his pictures allow the viewer to be caught unawares by their own expectations. The series marks a turning point in the photographer's work, through a gentle exploration of inter-relationships, at the intersection of the body and its environment.

Taous R. Dahmani, independent curator (Extract from her essay in Mystery Street, 2023, Éditions Chose Commune)

Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission
Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission supports contemporary photography in France and the United States through the making, exhibition and publication of new works. Each year, the Fondation d'entreprise Hermès, in partnership with the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and the International Center of Photography, awards a creative bursary to support the making of a new body of work, to be exhibited at these two prestigious institutions and published as a bilingual monograph volume. Immersion residencies are awarded in alternate years to a US-based photographer seeking to work in France, who is mentored by an English-speaking photography professional, and a France-based photographer seeking to create new work in the US, who is mentored by a French-speaking professional.

Immersion laureates to date are (in chronological order): Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques (France) in 2015, Alessandra Sanguinetti (USA) in 2016, Taysir Batniji (France/Palestine) in 2017, Gregory Halpern (USA) in 2018, Vasantha Yogananthan (France) in 2019 and Raymond Meeks (France) in 2021.

Vasantha Yogananthan

Vasantha Yogananthan, Sans titre, de la série ''Mystery Street'', 2022 © Vasantha Yogananthan

Vasantha Yogananthan
Laureate of the 5th edition of Immersion, a French-American Photography Commission Since 2009, French photographer Vasantha Yogananthan has produced a critically acclaimed body of work, in which he develops a unique photographic style conceived as a sensitive response to a subject or place. He is a devotee of silver-print photography, for its aesthetic quality and its slow, quasi-philosophical processes. Piémanson was Vasantha Yogananthan's first series - a book that retains a centrally important place in his work, and which led him to co-found the publishing imprint Chose Commune in 2014. Vasantha Yogananthan has won numerous awards: the Prix Roger Pic (SCAM, 2015), Prix Levallois (2016), and an ICP Infinity Award in the ''Emerging Photographer'' category (2017). In 2018 and 2019 he was awarded the Prix Camera Clara and the Prix du Livre Photo-Texte at the Rencontres d'Arles. He is represented by Jhaveri Contemporary (Mumbai, India), The Photographers' Gallery Print Sales (London, UK) and Assembly (Houston, United States).
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