One thing I admire about the French is their general knowledge of important figures and events from France’s history. The average French person seems to know significantly more about their country’s past than we Americans know about ours. And they do a better job of keeping that history alive. Whether you are walking in a park or peering through a shop window, you are apt to see some reminder of France’s literary, artistic, or historic past, even if it’s scribbled in chalk at the bottom of the day’s lunch specials. Several years ago, I came across an outstanding photographer named Janol Apin whose works tend to celebrate aspects of French culture that are uniquely French. This post gives you a sampling of his photography.
Janol Apin’s Metropolisson
The Metro, Paris’ famous subway, provides an excellent example of the ubiquitous presence of France’s bygone days. The names of the stations have historical significance and knowing what they represent is an indicator of cultural fluency. For example, the station Poissonniers lies underneath a route (connecting Paris with the North Sea) that fish merchants traveled as early as 1307. In his collection called Metropolisson, Janol Apin photographed many of the stations. For each photo, he staged human models to reproduce a humorous scene relating to the station’s name.
In some cases, the enacted scenes directly relate to the subject being referenced by the metro stop’s name. In others, the scene portrays a jeu de mots, or play on words. This adds a level of complexity for the non-native speaker. Still, it’s fun to look at the images and try to determine both the original significance of the station’s name and the implied double-meaning.
In fact, the name “Janol Apin” is a pseudonym and not the real name of the imaginative photographer. Here again, French people probably quickly recognize the jeu de mots at play. Janol Apin, is pronounced exactly the same way as Jeannot Lapin, Beatrix Potter’s mischievous bunny, Peter Rabbit.
Les p’tits vélos
When it comes to sports, the French are exceedingly proud of their Tour de France, held annually since 1903. Les p’tits vélos, another of Janol Apin’s collections, pays homage to this world-renown endurance test. Again, the staging of each photo carries a huge part of the appeal.
This time Apin poses mini-figure cyclists in a number of settings representing the variety of terrains that racing athletes must face. As with Le Tour de France, the photos show-off the geographic richness of the relatively small country. Non-natives may not recognize the miniature toys but they are very popular among French children and were among the photographer’s favorite playthings as a child.
Janol Apin grew up in Brittany, a region of France with a deeply rooted religious past. According to the photographer, there are 3,600 chapels in Brittany but I found other sources that put the number closer to 5,000. While most French people are non-religious, they still respect and seek to preserve this part of their heritage. In his own way, Apin is doing his part to uphold this legacy.
In his Chapel Noz collection, Apin photographed dozens of the ancient chapels at night. (The Breton word for “night” is noz.) His results are breathtaking. These photos are not doctored in any way. Apin uses his own lighting to illuminate certain portions of the photographs, but other than a 30-second shutter speed, the colors and other effects are completely natural. It’s a beautiful tribute to these archaic structures that brought people together for hundreds of years.
All throughout France, you can find small reminders of important historical figures and events: from the fierce leader of the Gauls, Vercingétorix, to the beloved cabaret singer, Edith Piaf; from Baron Haussman’s redesigning of Paris, to Degaulle’s Declaration of the Fifth Republic. On display is an intellectual form of patriotism that America could stand to emulate. Citizens of all stripes—artists, authors, politicians, advertisers—unconsciously further France’s narrative as a great country. (They also dish out generous servings of national criticism at every turn.) Janol Apin is only one among many, but his humor, artistry, and cleverness quietly serve to further France’s celebrated patrimony.