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"PHOTO | BRUT: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie" at the American Folk Art Museum

Henry Darger, Untitled (after 1953). © 2021 Kiyoko Lerner. Courtesy of AFAM.

The American Folk Art Museum in New York presents an international survey of self-taught photography with the exhibition PHOTO | BRUT: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie from January 16 to June 6, 2021.

Curated by Valérie Rousseau, the exhibition draws primarily from the extensive collection of French filmmaker Bruno Decharme and is complemented by the museum’s own holdings and donations from public and private collections. The largest survey ever to consider photographic art from outside the mainstream art world, it is co-produced by the American Folk Art Museum, abcd, and the Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles.

This exhibition boasts over 400 photographic works by more than 40 artists born between 1891 and 1992, some of whom are entirely unknown. In a series of connected rooms on the main floor of the museum, the various works hang against light grey and red walls. A 320-page catalog of the works is available in English and French at the Museum Shop.

Valérie Rousseau, senior curator of the Folk Art Museum, said of the artists, “They use photography in spite of or beyond its presumptive objectivity, to imbue fantasy with the stamp of realism or, inversely, to sublimate an ordinary subject.” 

With works by Horst Ademeit, Steve Ashby, Morton Bartlett, Marcel Bascoulard, John Brill, Felipe Jesus Consalvos, Jesuys Crystiano, Henry Darger, John Devlin, Pepe Gaitán, Pietro Ghizzardi, Lee Godie, Yohann Goetzmann, Kazuo Handa, Marian Henel, Mark Hogancamp, Paul Humphrey, Zdeněk Košek, Alexander Lobanov, Tomasz Machciński, Albert Moser, Norma Oliver, Luboš Plný, Ilmari Salminen, Valentin Simankov, Ichiwo Sugino, Leopold Strobl, Elke Tangeten, Dominique Théate, Miroslav Tichý, Type 42, Zorro, Elisabeth Van Vyve, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, August Walla, Frédéric, spirit photographers, UFOs and aliens unidentified photographers, and 19th and 20th Century unidentified artists.

Curators: Valérie Rousseau, PhD, Senior Curator, and Bruno Decharme in collaboration with Barbara Safarova, Sam Stourdzé, and Paula Aisemberg.

What is Photo Brut?

Billed as an expansive compendium of “photo brut,” the exhibition asks us to try to define what exactly that term means and to determine what works can be included in this elusive category.

Photo Brut is a subcategory of Art Brut, a term coined by the French painter Jean Dubuffet in the late 1940s. This includes art made by children, prisoners, the insane, and others who made their work outside Western traditions of fine art. Art Brut is often translated as “outsider art” or more literally as “raw art” in English.  

This exhibition features artists who are untrained and unrecognized by the art establishment. They do not intend to make art but work from an almost obsessive impulse or urge to create. For many of these artists, photography is and was simply an outlet to express themselves, to quiet the voices in their heads and to process the world around them. Many of the works were made in private and never displayed publicly until after the artist’s death. The works do not seem guided by larger trends in the art world but rather are personal and inwardly focused.

Brut photography often involves inventive bricolage, as creators put together their own cameras or develop their own printing methods. It comprises pictures, prints, photomontages and photocollages made by creators outside the art world and conventional art circuits. Its creators often live or lived in solitude and marginality. They bring a different kind of knowledge into the frame. 

Steve Ashby (1904, Delaplane, Virginia, United States—1980, Delaplane, Virginia, United States); Untitled; n.d.; Wood, magazine clippings, lace, and metal 10 3/8 x 5 5/8 x 2 5/8 in.; Collection of Robert A. Roth. Photo by John Faier.

Untitled by Lee Godie - image courtesy of American Folk Art Museum and the artist

About Bruno Decharme

Born in 1951 in Paris, France, Bruno Decharme studied philosophy and art history before becoming a film director. In the summer of 1977, he had his first encounter with art brut and discovered works that seemed to come from another planet. A year later, in 1978, he happened upon a small drawing by Adolf Wölfli that was being sold for the price of a common postcard. This was the first acquisition of a collection that now contains five thousand works, including about four hundred photographs.  

After twenty years of collecting, Decharme wanted to create a structure, a sort of think tank for art brut, that would make his collection public and welcome other enthusiasts to use the collection as a research tool. Art brut connaissance & diffusion (abcd) was born in 1999 as an organization focused on research, publishing, producing and organizing exhibitions. 

For Decharme, the most intriguing art brut works draw their essence from some mystical dimension and challenge conventional wisdom: “what is more scandalous for a scholar than the insolent creativity of an unschooled ‘simpleton’ or the fabulous artistic expansion of a ‘crazy’ person?” he asked in a recent interview

Decharme's interest in art brut has driven him to produce cinematic portraits of some of the artists. Several of these are combined in the full-length film Rouge Ciel (2009).  

Today, Decharme lives and works in Paris.