The people in the arresting photographs that make up Eric Nehr's show "rose blessé" at Galerie Anne Barrault in Paris (through June 18) have eyes you dare not meet in dreams, sunlight on a broken column. Here, these albinos from Panama and Cameroon don't quite stare out at you, but you sense them looking into you. For certain cultures, albinos are the hollow men: shunned, worshipped, killed, exiled. They are the tabula rasa for our fear of a soul without color. They are faces caught between the essence and the descent.
Nehr's photographs of these children, these women, these men, show them with sorrowful, pale and half-hidden eyes, blistered by the burning of the day, reluctant to face the cold scrutiny of the camera. Nehr's photographs force us to confront our prejudices about the nature of what we see and how others feel.
Of course, this exhibition treats the discrimination of albinos. How could it not? Even more in our hyperventilating imagistic era, the bleached "Others" have a gravity that we cannot airbrush away. And Nehr has photographed these people as if they were horrific figures taken from the recesses of a Spanish Renaissance painting and made to surrender to the hostile glare of the modern camera and the horrified gaze of a viewer. Nehr forces you to look at what you'd rather look away from.
Yet the cool light in these photographs captures the strange and beautiful pallor of skin tinted with a subcutaneous arterial rose – the flush of life under an alabaster carapace. The photos are overexposed, so that their whiteness, their brightness, their lack of shadow cast a glare back at us. The faces almost disappear into the background, but they are there, imprinted on our retinas. Here is humanity washed of spectrum, a derangement of absence that terrifies us.
This exhibition has a series of such unsparing photographs of these people, with Nehr emphasizing the flaws in their skin, their coloring. Other photographs alongside are black-and-blue monochromes of some of the same subjects, sort-of negatives that add both depth and eerieness to them: the sombrous ghost of a ghost.
We confront our own conceptions of what it is to be human here – and we confront too our own shame at the recoil from someone who seems different, devoid of what we believe is how we should present ourselves to the world, a result of something over which we have no control. We don't have to look, and it's hard to look, at these remarkable and immediate photographs. But we must. Who we are is everyone else we think we should avoid.
~Robert J. Hughes, a writer living in Paris
(Images: Eric Nehr, Rose Blesse, C-print; Abdel Nasser; Abdel Nasser et Oscarine #2; Carmelle; Courtesy of Galerie Anne Barrault, Paris)