A major highlight of the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris was a replica of the famed Angkor Wat Temple complex in Cambodia. While its far-flung colonies were not as global as those of the English empire, France still held considerable sway in the Far East and this exposition was its testimonial.
Eleven-year old Raymond Cauchetier spent hours at his apartment’s kitchen window surveying the Angkor Wat installation across the Bois de Vincennes, especially at night when artfully placed lights illuminated the sculptures of gods and goddesses. Every free moment he had, Raymond walked across the park and lost himself among the sculptures, vowing that one day he would visit the actual temple site deep in the jungle, perhaps even seeing there actual elephants and tigers. The temple’s twelfth century sculptures were nearly contemporaneous with those of the earlier French Romanesque churches which Cauchetier came to know well from summer bicycle study trips around Europe, and which more than half a century later would constitute a major body of his work. Angkor Wat’s sculptural treasures represented for the Cambodians a degree of cultural pride that was akin to what these medieval monuments were for the French.
But Raymond came from a poor family (with not even change for bus fare to the exposition); his mother was widowed and little Raymond despaired of ever being able to live an adventurous life; his second dream of becoming an aviator (it was the age of the French postal air service with Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet as its heroes), seemed to him as remote as some day walking among the vine-clogged temples. But this was the dream that sustained him during his military service in the French Indochina War.
Cauchetier recently emailed me a photo-postcard of the 1931 pavilion under night-lights.
Seven years after the exposition, he was enrolled as a state funded student at an engineering school. The French government sent recruiters to many of the tech schools to enlist young men for service in the Air Force. Here was Raymond's golden opportunity to become an aviator. But being largely deaf in his right ear, he was bypassed for aerial training. In June of 1940 as German troops marched on Paris, Cauchetier left by bicycle for Montpellier in the very south of France to join up at the air base there, to serve his homeland in any way he could. By the time he arrived there fifteen days later, Paris had already fallen to the Nazis. He was, however, able to enlist and was given night duty guarding empty airplane hangars, all the while fending off aggressive mosquitoes. Here is a wonderful photo of the uniformed twenty year old Raymond taken in 1940, in Montpellier, a "troufion" --- what we would call a "buck private"; some twenty-five years later he would be awarded the prestigious medal of the "Legion d'Honneur."
It is difficult for us today, at a remove of some seventy years, to comprehend the confusion and conflicting emotions of a sensitive youth caught up in the chaos of history that became the more than four year occupation of France by the German Third Reich. But very soon, Cauchetier joined the French War Resistance. He was wounded in Voges. After the war’s end, he was able to serve in the Air Force but no one quite knew what to do with him given his hearing impairment. Shortly, he became attached to the press service for the Air Force, and in 1951 there was a renewed call for volunteers to go to Indochina where the war against the Viet Minh was heating up. For Raymond Cauchetier, “the route to Angkor Wat was finally opening.”
The Commandant of the French Air Force in the Far East, General Chassin, appointed him to create, among his other assignments, a weekly one-hour radio broadcast for Radio France Asia. Cauchetier made more than 150 transmissions. During one of them in 1953, there was a night attack on the Na San camp in Son La Province as he was broadcasting. When a piece of shrapnel severed his microphone cable, he was not aware that he was off-air until hours afterwards; during the attack he was also taking photos.
General Chassin had also charged him with editing a book of archived photographs documenting the air war; it was to be given to soldiers on the completion of their service. Cauchetier culled through thousands of existing photos but came up with only a few dozen that he felt were of professional caliber. Chassin told him to take some himself: “That can’t be difficult,” was the general’s succinct mandate. Cauchetier got a cheap camera; he says the results were not bad but he was not satisfied and not being one to give up easily, he shepherded his funds and bought the 2 1/4 Rolleiflex that became his daily companion throughout the films of the New Wave. A pal gave him some advice: “Shoot at 1/125 of a second and put the aperture at f11 if it is sunny, f5.6 if it is cloudy, and at f8 if it’s in between.” That was the full extent of his technical training. Chassin encouraged him after he saw the work; he told him he was a “grand photographe.” And it was indeed grand enough for Cauchetier to publish his first book.
Here are several images from Ciel de Guerre en Indochine. It was published in 1955 in Lausanne in an edition of 6,000, later expanded to 8,000. The publishing expenses were raised by subscriptions in the mess halls of the air bases throughout Indochina. The book was never available commercially in bookstores and today it remains a rare document of a traumatic period in French history.
Finally, a very short leave allowed him to make his first visit to Angkor Wat. The solemn mysteries of the vine-entangled statues he saw there would stay with him for a decade, throughout the heady days of the French New Wave, waiting for his return.
While in the Air Force and even afterwords, Cauchetier roamed the streets, back alleys, canals, and rice paddies in and around Saigon making thousands of photos: country peasants, city sophisticates, daily life on the streets, in the fields, even documenting the traumatic events of monsoon floods and fires, conflagrations that would consume whole neighborhoods and render its populace homeless and penurious. His resulting book, Saigon, was published in Paris by Albin Michel in 1955. Novelist Graham Greene, who was living in Saigon at the time, befriended Cauchetier and offered him support for the book’s publication.
Returning to Indochina the following year, Cauchetier continued his work at Angkor Wat, spending most of two months there. It is where he found Bijou, a starving and orphaned tiger cub that had been abused by local thugs. Bijou and Cauchetier became inseparable, and though he lost her some years later, he speaks of Bijou as though it were yesterday.
The decade of his deep involvement in the cinema of the New Wave, the subject of parts one and two of this essay, followed.
In 1967, he was invited back to Cambodia by then King Norodom Sihanouk who enlisted him to create a book documenting the countryside and the capital city Phnom Penh, much as he had done in Vietnam the previous decade. Everything he requested was made available to him: planes, helicopters, and trucks. The exposed film was sent to Paris for printing and when Cauchetier met with Sihanouk in the Royal Palace to review the photographs (Cauchetier had been in the jungle for several months and had not yet seen much of the printed work), the king honored him with an award.
A special storage case was built to protect the original b/w negatives and color diapositives from the tropical humidity, as this work was now deemed a national treasure. Several years later while the king was in France, there was a palace coup and Lon Nol was installed as the new president. He in turn was overthrown in April of 1975 by the Khmers Rouges. They thought the contents of the storage case, the “coffre-fort,” were precious jewels; they blasted it open. Hundred of Cauchtier’s master photos were burned to a crisp. He had, however, made dupes of about four dozen of the best images and they remained in Paris. Here are several of them.
Cauchetier told me about the night he had spent in the jungle at Angor Wat; he intended to capture an aerial shot of the temple complex at dawn. When he awoke at 5 am, the temple spires rose out of the surrounding jungle mist “like an island in a sea of fog.” By the time he and the pilot became airborne, most of the mist had dissipated. This photo, he says, is okay but he dreams of one day returning (he is now 90) to capture the perfect vision that exists somewhere in his memory.
As I have been working on the first two parts of this piece about Raymond Cauchtier’s work (the New Wave decade), he has emailed me dozens of images from the Indochina War years as well as his very human and social portraits of Saigon life. He has also sent images of his late 60s work in Cambodia and at Angor Wat. I have also located several of his rare and out of print books. They are printed in the style of then current photo-journalist volumes—cheap paper, soft cover, limited grey scale—the antithesis of the slick coffee-table photo books on glossy, high-quality, acid-free paper that we have today. Nonetheless, what I see in these jpegs and in the yellowing pages of the books, is work that is powerfully observed not only as important historical documents, but also as deeply felt views into the outer life and the inner spirit of a people. In this sense, it is easy to spot the same observant and sensitive eye (even in this early work) that captured those iconic moments in 60s French cinema. Cauchetier’s Indochina photographs are a record of a society that thrived before and continued after the fall of French colonialism, a way of life that was only put asunder briefly by the subsequent military ventures of our own country. Although Cauchetier’s Indochina photos traveled throughout the US in a Smithsonian exhibition from 1960 to 1967, his non-cinema work is still largely unknown in the West, even, he says, in France, while it is lauded in the Far East.
In 2004, the consul general of France, Nicolas Warnery, and the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City, invited Cauchetier to return to Saigon to update the aerial photos he had made of the city in 1955. He had shot these views from the open door of a Dakota DC-3 as it made an aerial reconnaissance for the prospective site of a new airport. Cauchetier filed these photographs away for years; some of them had been included in the opening pages of his Saigon book. Their exposition in 2005, mounted beside contemporary views shot from the same perspectives by the Vietnam Air Force, opened in Parc Chi Lang on April 28. Cauchetier was present for the opening. He was interviewed on television, and recognized and greeted on the streets, as he and his wife Karou revisited his old haunts. Here is the exhibition catalog and a photo he made of the installation.
Cauchetier’s current project is one for which he has been collecting material since his childhood bicycle trips to the medieval churches and abbeys of Europe. It is even now a work in progress and it constitutes a major photo archive of medieval Romanesque sculpture. While many of the most familiar sites are well documented, it is the smaller and out of the way venues that also attract his attention, sites such as Fromista in Spain, or Vinax and Chauvigny in France. Many of these churches not only record the heraldic litany of familiar saints like the major churches, but they also depict regional, demotic, secular figures. These are works that give us fresh insight into this vernacular sculpture and into the anonymous and idiosyncratic sculptors who carved them—perhaps as much for their own pleasure and humor as for the glory of God.
As I have come to know Raymond Cauchetier through the photos and biographical emails he has sent me, I have longed to meet him. It is one thing to research and write these weekly essays as a window into artists who are already well known or whose contributions, such as Frank Hurley’s, have been limned by scholars and biographers. It is quite another experience to discover the revelatory details behind those photographs you think you already know (those of the New Wave films), new details given to you by the artist who made them. It is still another to discover an entire lifetime of work that is unknown to you. It has been an adventure for me to trace the evolution of Raymond Cauchetier’s work of over half a century, even as he seems to be re-discovering it with me. It is more than a discovery. It is a privilege. Thank you, Raymond. Et bonne chance à Angkor Wat.