The big picture: an eerily perfect scene in small-town Germany

The two French photographers Elsa Parra and Johanna Benaïnous inhabit their pictures as fictional characters, creating cinematic scenes inspired by a keen sense of place. In the past, the pair, who are based in Paris, have staged their work in Calgary, Canada, and on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. Their latest series, The Timeless Story of Moormerland, now on show in Paris, is set in a small German town near the Dutch border. Parra and Benaïnous lived in several villages in and around Moormerland for a month in the spring of last year. They chose houses to stay in that had a kind of vintage charm, or flowery claustrophobia, depending on your point of view. They used these homes as backdrops to bring to life various characters – teenagers, young lovers, fathers, housewives – and narratives from the 1950s onwards.

This picture, of the pair embracing on a jetty, is typical. The embrace is ambiguous, the staging a little too perfect. The symmetry of the couple in their pastels picking up the upside-down reflections of the waterfront demands that the viewer supplies a storyline. The scene is ghostly silent, though its drama is amplified by the picture’s title: The Sound of the Bell Tower. The more you look the more you can hear that bell ring across the water.

Speaking of their work, the pair, who met at art school in New York in 2014, suggest the inspiration of Cindy Sherman, the great role-player of American art, though their starting point is geography as much as style. Johanna says: “We are like sponges that absorb landscapes and, as soon as they are pressed, they spit out a colourful liquid.” That process leaves a lasting trace: “We often talk about these characters like they were old friends of ours,” she says. “We are a sort of receptacle for souls, even if we can’t incarnate all of them.”

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