The village of Prabért is a small community east of Grenoble in the French Alps. It is also a place that comes alive in the imagination of Thomas Rousset, who grew up there and became a photographer. Rousset studied his art at college in Lausanne, Switzerland, and came back to Prabért every weekend to do his “homework”. That practice developed over a decade to become a surreal evocation of rural French life in which everyday details and the inhabitants of Prabért become elements in almost hallucinatory scenes. This one, included in Rousset’s new book Praberians, is typical. The villagers at the table in their kitchen studying the hen are both old family friends of Rousset’s and actors in his tableau of Prabért life.
The tone of Rousset’s work is constantly shifting. Sometimes, the pictures look like exercises in nostalgia for an ancient community under threat from gentrification and the influx of ski-chalet owners; sometimes, they seem like comic constructions, private takes on fairytale ideas of country life; sometimes, they gesture towards blunter documentaries. Ideally, Rousset suggests, all these elements – which reflect his own attitude to the place he fell to earth – are in play at once. He talks of “ambiguous overlapping of realities” and places where “routine and strangeness dovetail”. Praberianshe says, is both “a resolutely utopian world” and “the result of a sudden awareness of how shallow the notion of community” has become.
Of course, none of this would make much sense if the residents of Prabért, Rousset’s friends and neighbors, were not in on his jokes. “I could never have made these images without their complicity,” he notes. To begin with, he recalls, they were a little wary of his project, but they got caught up in it and began suggesting truly Prabérian scenes and situations themselves.