Random Shocks in a World of Mirrors: Reflections on Chris Marker’s Petite Planète

Traveller, time-traveller, image-scavenger, laser gun-slinger; Chris Marker’s various epithets suggest a man moving fugitively across and between landscapes, formats, eras and identities. His primary stylistic form has been the essay in its most Montaignian sense, an itinerant, meandering, and deeply personal journey. 

In the introduction to his remarkable 1962 photobook Coréennes, Marker observes that there are three primary modes of travelling: “the Barnabooth way, the Ghengis Khan way and the Plume way”. Barnabooth is Valery Larbaud’s gentleman traveler, cosmopolitan, fabulously rich, yet naïve. Khan, the conqueror and Empire-builder, needs little introduction. Plume is the shape-shifting, peripatetic alter-ego of poet Henri Michaux, who, like his namesake feather, obligingly accepts the random upheavals of the journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marker identifies most with Plume, preferring to submit to whatever fate the passage offers along its course: “to accept in their disorder the rhythms, waves, shocks, all the buffers of memory, its meteors and its dragnets”. 

This approach characterizes Marker’s travelogues, from his documentary film essays Dimanche à Pekin (1956) and Lettre de Sibérie (1957) to his later digital experiments in the multizonal CD-ROM work Immemory (1997). But another line in Marker’s Coréennes text calls to mind some of his earliest travelogues, which are less well-known: “The country where you have just set foot delegates you a woman’s face which sums it up already, and names it”.

In 1954 Marker took an editorial job at the Parisian publishing house Éditions du Seuil, and set about the production of a series of travel books titled Petite Planète. He was then 33 years old and chiefly known as a journalist and critic; his primary film credit at that point was for Les statues meurent aussi (1953) on which he collaborated with Alain Resnais. The film presented a searing critique of French colonialism’s impact upon African art, which resulted in a ban on screenings of the film in France for the following ten years. Marker’s work was located in an anti-imperialist and Marxist tradition, and his emerging filmic practice explored a model of political aesthetics that promoted active interventions into political issues both contemporary and historic. This approach wasn’t just tolerated but apparently encouraged by Seuil, who had a number of radical titles already on their list. Marker’s highly personal and idiosyncratic tone would enrich the thirty-one little books in the Petite Planète series that he was involved in producing. 

The New York Herald Tribune would later describe the English translations of Petite Planète – published under the imprint Vista Books – as “brightly written, opinionated, argumentative and copiously illustrated”. These weren’t the Baedekers (an early travel guide) a traveler might clutch on the quest for a celebrated restaurant or dependable pensione. A typical volume of Petite Planète covered history, politics, art and literature; ruins and their associated myths; dances and folk song; despots and genocides. In this sense they can be understood as books not necessarily to travel with but to travel within: portals through which to taste the strange and bewildering rituals of a foreign culture, or the poetics of a crowded street market in an unfamiliar city. Utmost in Marker’s mind was the rejection of patrimonial stereotypes and institutional ideals, which he viewed as propaganda. Instead, Petite Planète was conceived as “not a guidebook, not a history, not a propaganda brochure, not a traveler’s impressions, but instead equivalent to the conversation we would like to have with someone intelligent and well-versed in the country that interests us.”

Alongside insightful, essayistic texts commissioned by Marker, the most idiosyncratic aspect of the Petite Planète series was the use of photographs, illustrations and graphics, drawn from a broad range of sources including photo agencies, comics, advertising, illustrated magazines, Marker’s own archive, and the work of his esteemed circle of friends, including Agnes Varda, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, William Klein and Elliot Erwitt. Rejecting the aestheticised poise of typical tourist board stock imagery, the photographs were variously subtle, playful and arresting, not least in the striking monochromatic portraits of women that appeared on each cover. The original cover of Petite Planète 4: Hollande features a press shot of Audrey Hepburn on the set of the 1954 film Sabrina, perhaps a reference to her reported support for the Dutch resistance against the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Inside the books the images did not merely provide a visual counterpoint to references in the text, but constituted an entirely separate rhetorical device that overlapped with the textual narrative, inviting audience participation to create new aggregations of meaning. Indeed, the Petite Planète series can be understood as a testing laboratory for methods of intermediality, as in the transgression of boundaries between different media, and hybridity of form that would go on to become the cornerstones of Marker’s legacy. The visual-verbal discourse in Petite Planète often alludes to the whirring of the cine-reel: images dance about the text or follow each other closely in sequence. Illustrations, often child-like and cartoonish, combined with rich washes of colour, reference both animation and traditional textile printing techniques. Marker, in a rare interview, once described the Petite Planète books as “ersatz cinema”, and considering that the subtitle of his later book Coréennes is “court métrage”—short film—it is evident that Marker saw little distinction between the cinematographic capacities of both still and moving image. In Photography and Cinema: 50 Years of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Margarida Medeiros, Teresa Mendes Flores and Joana Cunha Leal suggest that Marker “shows us how books […] can have cinematographic qualities in the unfolding of pages, in the layout of images and words throughout the pages, in their indexicality and referentiality; he makes us wonder about the poetic quality of films and the narrative possibilities of photography”.

I am writing this in Greece, on the Saronic island of Aegina, a short ferry journey from the port of Piraeus. Aegina (“Egine”) is featured in an “appendix of islands” in Petite Planète 6: Grèce, which devotes eight pages to a catalogue of whitewashed churches perched on pier heads. Grèce is one of the most photographically accomplished editions in the series, featuring work by Marker, Klein and Cartier-Bresson along with a number of contributions by Ernst Haas. It includes a collection of extraordinary double page spreads in which images are positioned almost as rhyming couplets, mirroring each other formally whilst retaining a thematic dissonance. The human form proliferates, as it might do when the subject is a culture responsible for some of civilization’s finest statuary. The athletic leaps and expressive bows of ancient marbles are echoed in photographs of frenzied dancers in the working-class rebetiko clubs of the early 20th century. Much of the layout work in this edition is credited to Juliette Caputo, an assistant and consultant to Marker about whom very little is known. There have even been suggestions that she was an alter-ego of Marker’s, although a 1974 book of photographs of vegetables arranged into surprising objets, attributed to Caputo, suggests otherwise. 

Turning the pages of Grèce I wonder which kind of traveller I am according to Marker’s classification in Coréennes: some of the privileges of Barnabooth no doubt, but more than a little Plume. To travel in 2020 is to navigate three intersecting challenges. Most topical is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with journeys prone to last-minute disruption or cancellation, destinations deemed suddenly unsafe; we travel with a new sense of alertness and self-consciousness, wary of the risk in the simplest of exchanges, nervous of future lockdowns. At the same time, for UK citizens, our capacities for travel to and within EU countries will soon be curtailed, as freedom of movement is abdicated in exchange for a wretched myth of self-sufficiency. Anxieties around fuel emissions and the climate crisis have caused many to reconsider air travel. No longer Generation Easyjet, our planet seems smaller than ever, and yet increasingly off-limits. In his announcement of the Petite Planète series, which appeared in Seuil’s house magazine in 1954, Marker seems to articulate the present malaise: “We see the world escape us at the same time as we become more aware of our links with it”.

Despite our newly acute awareness of our interconnectivity as global citizens—one person’s skiing holiday can trigger an entire national pandemic—it’s clear that whilst the tangible world of the post-war European was shrinking it was also opening up and accelerating. The emergence of industrial tourism in the 1950’s was precipitated by a range of factors including increased prosperity, trade union-forced flexible working hours and paid holiday, technological improvements in aircraft production (plus a surplus of planes and experienced pilots after the war), and finally television, which beamed kaleidoscopic images of the planet’s new frontiers into almost every household. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilian employees would have experienced their first taste of international travel during the war, boosting public acceptance of aviation and knowledge of foreign weather and terrain. Contemporaneous developments in colour printing technology encouraged the circulation of illustrated magazines, which in turn engendered mass visual literacy and a turn towards photographic thinking. There was also, arguably, a greater sense of egalitarianism and cooperation fostered by the war effort. Marker concluded: “We inhabit a planet that seems smaller and smaller to us. Everything invites us to get to know her better.”

For today’s constrained traveller, having books to travel within (books as, in the words of Lucy Kumara Moore, “both aeroplane and time machine”) feels essential, even profound. Perhaps more vital still are works of visual culture with an unambiguous political energy and democratic spirit amid the rightward drift of contemporary discourse and its institutional gatekeepers. Sadly, the availability of these works to a mass audience is frequently limited to historical examples. In his essay on John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Peter Brawne suggests the book’s success lies in its ability to “quietly but unmistakably articulate a polemic by means of very exact juxtapositions of words and pictures. This creates a ‘third effect’…”. In conceiving of the now-iconic layout of the book version of the 1972 television series, designer Richard Hollis took inspiration from Commentaires, a volume Marker published in 1961 which brought together the commentaries or scripts of his first six films. An updated volume would follow in 1967, including a further three scripts—the British Library has a copy, but originals change hands for upwards of £500.00. The intermedial and polyvocal approach to layout in Commentaires, which Hollis would reference significantly in Ways of Seeing, is no doubt a development of Marker’s work on Petite Planète: the textual content of the commentary engages playfully with black and white reproductions of stills from the films, as well as snatches of editorial observation and song lyrics. The stills operate in complex ways that preempt the cavalier attitude to movement and fixity with which Marker would go on to redefine the concept of cinematic time in films such as La Jetée (1962). In some spreads, sequences of repetitive images arranged in a strip reference the progression of celluloid frames through a projector, implying movement, and reminiscent of layouts in Petite Planète. Elsewhere, oval vignette crops applied to stills of particular characters underscore the memorializing and mythologizing qualities specific to the still image as a photographic object. There are full-bleed double page spreads too, including one, from Lettre de Sibérie, showing a rare depiction of Marker himself, camera in hand, smiling coquettishly at a gaggle of adoring women.

Chris Marker wasn’t the first to articulate a polemic via the interplay of words and pictures (indeed he owes much to László Moholy-Nagy and perhaps even Walker Evans), but his influence is keenly felt throughout John Berger’s work, and many other humanist photography publications of the following decades. Tom Overton, who writes extensively on Berger’s work, suggests that his publications, including the dialectical photo-text collaborations with Jean Mohr, prove that “photographic reproductions can be a revolutionary language in their own right”. Petite Planète and Ways of Seeing were inexpensive photographic publications, cheap paperbacks that fit in a pocket. Their blend of high cultural and mass-market content with politically conscious yet accessible texts sought to capture that revolutionary use-value of photographic publishing that Walter Benjamin had demanded in The Author as Producer (1934). We can also thank Marker’s conviction in this respect for one of the century’s most important photobooks, William Klein’s Life is Good & Good for You in New York, which was published by Seuil in 1956. Klein memorably described Marker’s enthusiasm for the project in an interview with Brian Dillon in the January 2013 edition of Sight and Sound

“Well, I didn’t know how to do a book. I was just discovering photography and once I had all these pictures, I showed them to editors in New York and nobody thought it was worthwhile to do a book with these photographs. They said, ‘What is this shit?’ I came back to Paris and discovered there was a series of travel books called Petite Planète. I called them up and got an appointment and I went to this office which looked like NASA. Chris Marker was there with a laser gun in his belt, and he saw the photographs and said, ‘We’ll do a book!’ In fact he said, ‘We’ll do a book or I quit!’ He was like the wunderkind of this publishing house, Éditions du Seuil, and he threatened to quit every month, so they gave him what he wanted.”

All Rights Reserved: Text © Lillian Wilkie; Images © Lillian Wilkie unless otherwise noted