Photographer, physicist and visually impaired: Cédric Poulain exhibits at the Festival Voies Off in Arles

Le fils des nuages (Noctographie), détail. Cédric Poulain, Author provided (No reuse)

Cédric Poulain is a photographer and a physicist, two passions that must have been intimately intertwined in him for a very long time. He was already an adult when a bilateral retinitis caused him to lose an eye completely. The other one still allows him to say if I am there or not, when I am against the light in front of him. Finally, more precisely, to say if someone is in front of him under these conditions. In his words:

“The left eye still perceives shadows and contrasts with an extremely limited field of vision. “

I don’t know his work as a photographer before he went blind. The shock of his current work, the Noctographies, has been occupying all my attention since we met in Grenoble.

I saw Cédric Poulain’s Noctographies in Arles.

Autoportrait (2017), Cédric Poulain.

I loved that exhibit. As do all visitors, it seems. I had discovered his work as an artist at his recent exhibition in Grenoble. The first emotion I felt during these visits is not primarily related to his person, to the physicist, to his handicap. What I saw touched me and created in me this singular emotion, which one looks for in art, that one meets sometimes in science too. This emotion is difficult to describe, and even to share. It translates into personal commitments. Why are collectors ultimately so ? What guides their choices, if they go beyond the already widely recognized and naturally priceless production? With the play Art, Yasmina Reza comes to underline the passions that these emotions can unleash.

Photography without seeing it

Fantaisie pour guitare, Cédric Poulain.

When you meet Cédric Poulain and his work, it’s a shock. But how does he do it ? He uses a giant screen to try to access his own production. It’s laborious and partial. Not enough. His friends, photographers or not, take an active part in his choice of works exhibited. It is therefore not possible for him to photograph “normally”.

To produce an image practically without seeing requires him to reconstruct his own perception as a whole. He does this through tactile exploration of reality with the help of digital recording tools. It is this technique that he calls Noctographies or Blind Painting.

When we can no longer see, we touch, we feel. The sense of touch is projected at the end of the blind man’s cane. Cédric Poulain attaches a small LED at the tip of his finger. He touches it and it lights up to emit a small light in absolute darkness. During these contacts, a digital camera records these pixels of light that patiently compose the whole image. There is no digital processing of the image afterwards. One can try to imagine all the liberties offered by this device or guess them by looking at the works. Of course, it can change the position of the light, but also at any moment, its characteristics such as its intensity, its colour… and to a certain extent, the speed of recording.

It is, in any case, extremely slow when compared to the usual exposure times. Photography has long been able to capture the expression of a face in a fraction of a second. It thus appears to us in phase with our gaze, which also seems to be instantaneous. This speed of image acquisition is certainly a determining factor if it is a question of claiming realism, a photograph capable of freezing exactly on an image, an instant of a moving reality.

What is this matter around the guitar?

Sound of silence Cédric Poulain.

As a physicist, Cédric Poulain takes us here on the wrong track: the very long pose freezes in an image, a moving reality, the scene he builds as an artist. His photos do capture reality, but it is a reality perceived through an unprecedented fusion of the senses and gestures, his touch and our sight, combined by digital technology that captures his manipulations. This reality is inaccessible to our perception without technical support. In this, it is inhuman. For it takes far too long for the performance of our sight and our memory. With his Noctographies, Cédric Poulain comes to make it appear in the space and time of our lives.

He loses his sight and rebuilds our vision.

He’s still amazing, that boy! He can hardly see anymore. It comes to mind, perhaps a little too simply, the idea that his knowledge of fundamental physics allows him to explore the world through rational, critical and formalized reflection, and therefore without recourse to perception. In a scientific community that carries experimental exploration, physics allows this practically by construction. He could therefore take refuge in this universe. He has everything to do so.

Currently, he is following this path at the Néel Institute in Grenoble but without taking refuge there. It’s obvious when I discuss physics with him. But, at the same time, to our great delight, as an artist and a physicist, he creates another world in his artist’s studio. And by creating his Noctographs, he manipulates our vision. He stretches it in time by successive small luminous touches, here and there, thanks to technology, and he comes to question the evidence of our gaze when we all think like Thomas.

Literally, a Noctography is the image of something that really existed and that he took a picture of. I can still hear him explain it to me, like in the video presented in the exhibition. It took me a moment to get close to the meaning of what he was saying. If my eye was the camera that was always open in the dark, slowly accumulating the light that comes in to build up almost photon by photon the image, then what’s on the image would be what I see. That would be my reality, the one in which I find myself. It is all the same confusing this slow vision.

Images, measurement, scientists and artists

In fact, this is routine for physicists today who produce images from data acquired over orders of magnitude of time, both very slowly and very quickly. Routine for measurement with sensors and detectors but not for representation. Here we are much less equipped than artists and designers. In December 2010 in Toulouse, the symposium with the evocative title “Images & mirages @ nanosciences. Regards croisés”, under the direction of the sociologist Anne Sauvageot, and the physicists Xavier Bouju and Xavier Marie, tackled this question head-on: “… it is a question of dealing with the relationships between “scales of the visible, the invisible and the unseen”; of studying “transpositions, mediations and interpretations”; and of determining “visions, aims and aesthetics”.

Cédric Poulain, without saying so but with a certain malice, contributes to these reflections. In principle, physics needs neither representations nor images. Its results do not depend on the forms of their representation. For physics, this is clear, but for physicists and others, is it so?

CO-man ou l’homme en monoxyde de carbone. Molécules d’oxyde de carbone sur une surface de platine. Réalisé au laboratoire de recherche d’IBM Almaden, Californie. 1992 IBM, Zeppenfeld & Eigler (IBM Almaden Visualization Lab).Scanning-probe-based science and technology Roland Wiesendanger PNAS November 25, 1997 94 (24) 12749-12750

What does this CO-man, made up of a few carbon monoxide molecules, made and recorded in the heart of a scanning tunneling microscope, by the tip of a metal rod swept very slowly over the entire surface, say here?

Don’t think about cubism!

What can be added to the sequel of Guillaume Apollinaire in the Cubist Painters (1913)? “Cubism is the art of painting new ensembles with elements borrowed not from the reality of vision, but from the reality of conception. »

Pablo Picasso Violon et raisins (1912).

During the acquisition of the light, Cédric Poulain moves everything, the light source as well as the scene explored by this luminous touch. We can see it on the image of the guitar below, which appears to us from several angles simultaneously. If my vision had the characteristics of the device used, this is how I would see this moving world… for real.

Etude de Sor N°5, Cedric Poulain.

Who is Cédric Poulain?

There are too many passions in this life to spend time looking for notoriety. He is a rare and demanding artist and scientist. But being an artist and a scientist, in both cases, means submitting one’s work. At least once in a while. So he does.

Also, the disconcerting elegance of Cédric Poulain can make you forget how difficult and heavy it is to live with such a handicap. It probably requires choosing with particular attention where one invests one’s energy and time. And therefore not in notoriety.

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

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