The Eyes of a Stranger

The often startling photography of Jacques Gautreau

Jacques Gautreau never knows what he's looking for until he finds it. When he first came to downtown Knoxville, he didn't find anything open, any events going on. He didn't find anybody at all. Somehow, though, there it was. He took photographs of it, and they have been exhibited in several art shows in Knoxville; several recently appeared in a large spread in the French magazine Photofan. What he found was a fresh way of looking at the city that brings out the neglected scenes, the surprising contrasts, and sometimes the accidental beauty, of an urban landscape.

It was about three years ago that he moved to Knoxville, almost on a lark. Originally from Angers, a river city in northwestern France; it's much older, but a little smaller than Knoxville. Gautreau is a tall, slender man of 43 with receding dark hair and the patient eyes of a physician. He's actually an engineer, working in medical technology for Siemens. It's a European company, but has an interest in Knoxville partly because of the positron-emission tomography (PET) scanning technology developed here. Gautreau had been living in Paris, where he had taken hundreds of photographs of street scenes, but he wanted to see what America was like. He'd heard of Nashville, Memphis, but not Knoxville. He thought he'd give it a try.

"My first weeks in Knoxville, I spent most of the time on the west side," Pelissippi, Kingston Pike, Farragut, where he lived and worked. "My first feeling was that Knoxville wouldn't be a great place for my type of photography."

In Europe he was drawn to complex urban settings; suburban Knoxville, the black-and-white photographer thought, was "too green!" He adds there were "few people walking outside, the architecture was not great—subdivisions, shopping centers—and it was pretty 'clean.' I don't say it's bad; I'm living in Farragut and I like it. It's just not right for my pictures."

His work and home were both on the west side, and since he was busy during his first weeks here, he gave his Nikon a rest. But one morning he had a notion to come downtown, and he brought his camera. He went on Sunday, because he was free, and he arrived early in the morning because the light was ideal. But the city seemed completely empty. "It was very strange," he says. "There was nobody. I was a little bit surprised to see what downtown was, compared to a European city, it was literally deserted. But at the same time I definitely found interesting matter for my photography."

Gautreau had been known in France for urban-landscape shots that often included people: "people in the streets, in their environment," he says. In Knoxville he became, of necessity, a specialist in desolate urban streetscapes with no one in sight.

"My first walks downtown were more to discover the city, but quickly it turned into a real subject. For a period of time, let's say my first year here, I was feeling like a stranger, or a tourist, interested in all kinds of exotic subjects" like decrepit antique cars, odd signage, decaying infrastructure. "On the other hand, I was also a citizen of Knoxville, so I could really visit the same places several times at different hours, different seasons, etc., so it was a deeper approach than a simple tourist would have. That's more or less the idea: Present my pictures of Knoxville to the people of Knoxville, with the eyes of a stranger."

His photographs of Knoxville look desolate, but never dead. Buildings look restless, appalled, secretive. Railroad tracks writhe and throb. In a couple of photos, a graffiti figure in the foreground looks like a ghostly commentator on the scene. One obscure building appears to exist only as a fragmentary image in a puddle in the broken pavement. His contrasts are often startling: they evoke melancholy, awe, slapstick humor, sometimes all at once.

He doesn't have a philosophy behind it, and doesn't talk much about technique. "Typically, I'm walking with an open mind, and then I stop," he says. "It's based more on the instinct, and I'm not thinking too much if this will be an interesting picture in the end. Something triggered me, and I follow my heart in real time.

"If a subject or a nice light made me stop, and I'm able later to feel the initial emotion or to find the original idea, I'm considering, for myself, that's a good photograph. But it's personal, and another person might find it very common."

Several of his best-known photos are of the Old City and other areas on the obscure fringes of downtown, under the highways and in railyards. "I discovered downtown and even later East Knoxville, around Magnolia. At this time, I realized that Knoxville had two sides" He adds, "And I realized later we have to count also North and South."

He's been around and seen parts of town that even old-time Knoxvillians might not recognize. Lately he's been looking around Old Gray Cemetery, which he says reminds him a little of Pere Lechaise, the famous cemetery in Paris, where Chopin, Balzac, and many other immortals are buried. The similarity is probably not coincidental; that famously innovative garden-style cemetery had a major influence on American cemeteries of the mid-19th century, including Old Gray.

Gautreau's Knoxville is desolate, but also exotic. The Candoro Marble Co. building, veiled by an allee of trees, looks like it might be a royal mistress's chateau, tucked into a discreet corner of Versailles. In his shutter, even the city's neglected corners seem beautiful.

It wasn't a deliberate choice to avoid Knoxvillians. "It just happened to be like that at the times I shot in Knoxville, there were not many people that caught my attention," he says. So far, the Knoxvillians who appear in his photos tend to be bicyclists. One is in Lycra, with a helmet, perhaps training for the Tour de France. A very different bicyclist is a ragged-looking man conveying what appears to be a wooden cabinet on the handlebars of a child's bike.

It wasn't until later that friends brought him downtown during livelier parts and times than he had known. Today, he's a regular on Market Square. On a Saturday mid-afternoon, as the farmers' market is just breaking down, one restaurant promises a 20-minute wait, and we opt for another, which is merely busy.

"I don't know if it is because Knoxville has changed in the last three years, or because I changed during that time, but I really feel now that there's an interesting life downtown.

"I like to come here," he says of Market Square. "But not for photography."

He and his camera have already witnessed a lot of change. Some of his early photos show ruins of the old News Sentinel building during its slow demolition. He thought the McClung warehouses on Jackson Avenue were interesting enough for some shots, before February, when most of the buildings burned to the ground. He's captured parts of South Knoxville's once-remote and eccentric Scottish Pike, which, with new development, seems fated to change. Some photos show the Knoxville Botanical Garden, slowly evolving from a run-down nursery into a show place. He took photos of the Fifth Avenue Motel before it was the Minvilla Flats project.

Last October, when he had a popular show at the Emporium called "Knoxville through Fresh French Eyes," his work drew a crowd, and he sold several prints. He told a local reporter last October that he'd stay in Knoxville just one more year, then return to France. Now he says he's going to stay at least another year; he's working, vaguely, on a book of his Knoxville work.

He hasn't decided what to do beyond that. He's intrigued with the level of detail possible with old-fashioned large-format box cameras, the ones with the hood for the photographer. "Nothing can beat that," he says, for a crisp image. They still make them in China, and he bought one. He says he's going to experiment with it some when the weather cools off a little, and it's easier to lug the thing around. Judging by Gautreau's work so far, he'll find still more ways of looking at the same old place.