Jan Baetens has added more furniture to his wonderfully enchanting Imaginarium—an edifice built of on profound knowledge of the visual and verbal narrative arts as well as in the making of such narrative arts. His recent delectable addition: a history and compelling analysis of the fotoromanzo, roman-photo, récit en photos or photo-roman, soap opera photo comic, photo-story, picture story or fotonovela—all of the myriad of honorifics that identify this extraordinary cultural product that first appeared in the aftermath of WWII in Italy and whose roots quickly spread across the European continent and the great pond into the Americas (most notably Mexico and Brazil) where copies sold by the millions every week into the 1980s.
Jan is a master builder and explorer of all media that combine or mix the image with the written word, the visual element with the verbal one, and in each of his excursions he brings with him many troves of knowledge and understanding. His latest edifice and probe, in collaboration with the OuLiPo writer and artist Clémentine Mélois, is the 94-page long graphic study in French, Le Roman-Photo (November 2018).
While Jan Baetens follows the incredibly swift and overpowering development of the roman-photo from Italy to the rest of the world, he also traces the aesthetic characteristics and novelties of this new and highly original pop cultural phenomenon from its inception to its sudden demise and rather recent slow rebirth. Baetens explains how the emergent thunderstorm of the picture or photo story drowned the comic book and replaced it entirely by becoming the perfect synthesis of the ciné-roman (or filmic novel, based on existing films) and the graphic story or comic book (roman dessiné based on scripts imitating the cinematographic universe). The picture or photo story furnishes original stories (contrary to the ciné-roman) while using photographs (contrary to the roman dessiné). It offers the best of both worlds, thus it’s quick and sure-footed dominance as a genre in the supply and demand of affective-narrative craving and nourishment. Only the advent of television overthrew its dominance as king of the transmedial hill, quickly replacing the photo-story in this sentimental universe.
As in many artistic manifestations, the repetitious and the clichés abound in the photo story, as already in the beginning of the 1950’s Federico Fellini had shown in his film The White Sheik. But Fellini, in this his first film, also showed how perceptive and careful he was as a judge of this powerfully developing new genre. Fellini picked it up delicately and parodied it with great intelligence and love, for it was in its inception and still had a long way to go in its offering of aesthetic pleasures and emotional satisfactions within popular culture. It was the lazy reproduction of stereotypes and monotonous mise-en-page (such as the uniform use of 6 identical square photos per page, in contrast with the great variety and invention of shapes found in comic books) that ended its creativity. This along with the accelerant spreading TV’s blaze, rang the photo-story’s death knell.
Baetens and co-creator Mélois offer a deliciously and accurately executed account of yesteryear’s journey of the photo-story. They serve up a delicate analysis of the photo-story as an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon, evincing its subtle codes and rich contents. More than rescuing it from oblivion and despise, in form and content Baetens and Mélois radically revitalize the form. I can only hope that Le Roman-Photo will inspire other scholar-creators to do the same with sights set on the foto-novela of the Américas.
With the publication of Le Roman-Photo Baetens dexterously adds yet another splenderous stone to the building of an irradiant Imaginarium.