I found Corbeau, Anne Golaz’s portrait of her dairy farming family in eastern France, thanks to Jörg Colberg, and picked it up during a period where I fantasized about making a book sort of like it, something combining text and image to create something greater than either could be on its own. Colberg praises it as a model of the form, and I just had to see for myself…
Short answer, if I could make a book this deeply felt and moving, I’d… well, I have my doubts that I could, and so can’t imagine what I’d do if I did…
For Corbeau, Golaz combined contemporary and archival photographs with drawings, poems and short text pieces (by Golaz and Antoine Jaccoud), a text message, and snippets from (I think) Franco-Swiss dairy regulations to paint a picture of hereditary farming traditions and the people that adhere to them.
On one reading, it’s Golaz’s memories and thoughts about her father and brother, in particular, and the dairy farming life she seemingly left behind. She seems to have some nostalgia for the farming life she remembers from her childhood; she conveys a sense of loss, both of her own ties to the land and for the loss of her brother to the farm. She visits her childhood home, only to find the door locked and nobody home. When they all lived there together, the door was never locked; now that her brother runs the place, well, she can’t get in, and the world she grew up in, and the brother she grew up with, is gone forever.
On another reading, we see the brother, more or less contentedly taking over the farm and its struggles from their parents. He cuddles and coos to the cows, looks uncomfortable in posed portraits, seems contented taking care of the daily chores and all. Yet his tattoos—bear tracks around a bicep; a yin/yang starburst thing and a constellation of stars on either side of his muscular neck; some text on a forearm—sorta make me think dairy farming wasn’t really what he planned on, or maybe it never really crossed his mind one way or another. Shoot. Maybe he knew all along, and figured the next generation of dairy farmers should have some neck tattoos… I don’t have a clue what he thought he’d be doing at this point in his life, but it seems like he went from raver/club kid to responsible dairy farmer kinda suddenly.
But wait. Looking again, the brother is always on the farm, always going about the business of being a dairy farmer, first as an assistant, but one in training to take over. He starts to get tattoos later on, once he has some free evenings, maybe. He gets the cartilage in his ears pierced: a post running diagonally through the top of his right ear; a group of 3 or 4 rings in the top of his left. He fathers a child at one point, and I wonder if it’s the kid’s the name on his forearm… Come to think of it, farmers here in the states have tattoos, so that doesn’t mean anything, and just because most of the farmers I know of lean more towards various flavors of country music (with some heavy metal headbanging outliers) doesn’t mean that some, especially in other parts of the world, might be more into the rave or festival circuits.
Golaz’s deft weaving of current and archival material, along with her texts and those by Jaccoud, make a convincing case for photography’s ability to drive a narrative, albeit one that depends heavily both on text and on the viewer. Misreadings, as I have done, will still abound. The text can help to limit this, but as one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away: Golaz includes many still life or detail photographs—a rock that sorta looks like a cow’s head; domestic corners; dairy farm vignettes—as well as some (apparently) juvenile drawings that partly intrude on, partly illuminate the story. Gaps are opened that may or may not be closed, like when a couple of drawings of bits of wood show up later in or a wall as some sort of decoration, looking sorta like half-timber, but not really, or when a rock later turns up on a table with a cow’s face sketched on it. I’m not sure all the threads she unraveled ever completely come together, and, really, they don’t need to at all.
In jumping back and forth in time, showing on one page the brother as a late teenager with no tattoos, and on the next page with full piercings and an infant swaddled in his arms (it doesn’t quite happen this way, but still) opens further gaps, troubles the story, and helps Golaz’s singular story morph into a larger narrative about growing up and taking on responsibilities, leaving the objects of childhood behind, feeling the pangs of nostalgia, the sense of loss when you return later to find everything changed.
Corbeau really does present a high bar in the images-with-text genre. The photography works well in all its variety, and forms fun conversations with the drawings, and the text bits give context and add some humanity and personality to the story. Overall, I rate it a solid 4.2 stars.
Corbeau remains available direct from Mack. Readers/collectors in the US can get an English copy; people outside of the US can also select what I suspect is the original French version. If you’re interested in the ways text can work with images, you could do far, far worse (see, for example, this recent review), and I’m quite frankly surprised that it’s still available, here 5 years after publication. Strange, sometimes, what flies off the shelf and what just hangs on and on and on.