I have always loved the little aside that W.H. Auden wrote about children in that incredible poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Here’s the world, the poem says. In the world, people suffer—hoping that their suffering will not be in vain. They’re hoping for deliverance, to be ferried to a better world. But, says Auden, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
Where is this pond at the edge of the wood? Where are these children who’ve forgone the paradise of their devout mothers? They’re in rural Bordeaux, away from the dreadful martyrdoms, “an isolated place, rather wild,” explains Alain Laboile,
where children evolve in osmosis with the nature around them. Our garden is an immense playground, covered with elements conducive to fits of inspiration . . . . My children think up little plays, put on costumes, accessorize with what they have on hand and let their imaginations run wild.
Think of Sally Mann’s “immediate family,” those fierce and beautiful children of the dark river and the choking kudzu of Virginia. But make it France instead of the Christ-haunted South. Soften the mythology. Give its creatures planetary eyes, like a doe. Let its children put their foreheads to the earth and count to ten while the businessmen run and hide. Make it look like the cover of Laboile’s new book, Summer of the Fawn.
A fitting title. The photographs capture a season. Not an actual June or July, but a momentary age of warm, radiant make-believe. In this latest addition to Laboile’s career-long family album, you get the impression there’s no adult standing in the doorway calling the kids home for dinner. Where are they? Will they be back before dark? Have they finished their homework? Are they getting their clothes dirty? Are they safe?
If they’re not spelunking into empty swimming pools, if they’re not collecting bones from the meadow’s necropolis, if they’re not dangling from branches like lemurs, tempting fate, then they’re on the run—one sister pulling another on skates—moving faster and farther away. Not to worry about the homework. There’s a chalkboard outdoors. Geography: Bordeaux to the southwest. Anatomy: la bouche, le bras. Biology: beetles, cats. And the clothes are probably clean . . . somewhere. Don’t expect the kids home anytime soon though.
Home, for Laboile and his family, is not just a cabin in the boondocks. It’s a sculpture garden. In fact, Laboile began his creative journey as a sculptor. And even though the camera won out in the bid for success, the things he makes from metal and mud enchant the landscape every bit as much as the photographs themselves. A girl, in one image, stands sentinel on the head of a scrap-iron dragon. Elsewhere, the pincers of strange, handmade insects peer out from entangled weeds. Part Wonderland, part Land of the Lost.
The arcadian playfulness on show (the freedom of it) is surreal but always believable. Not an easy accomplishment. The difficulty sometimes strikes me when I look at children’s picturebooks. The message, the plan, the knowledge—the adult—gets in the way of wonder. Getting out of the way is a skill, if not a feat. Laboile is a photographer who knows how to get out of the way, so that the fawn can be the fawn, and the summer her summer.