Petite Planète: Discover Chris Marker’s Influential 1950s Travel Photobook Series

“In anoth­er time I guess I would have been con­tent with film­ing girls and cats,” said Chris Mark­er. “But you don’t choose your time.” Though the inim­itable film­mak­er, writer, and media artist could­n’t choose his time, he did enjoy a decent­ly sized slice of it, pass­ing away in 2012 on his 91st birth­day. His six-decade career’s best-known achieve­ments include the inno­v­a­tive sci­ence-fic­tion short La Jetée and the semi-fic­tion­al trav­el­ogue essay-film mas­ter­piece Sans Soleil, but Mark­er’s vast body of work, most all of it deeply con­cerned with the com­bi­na­tion of words and images, cov­ers a much wider ter­ri­to­ry — aes­thet­ic ter­ri­to­ry, of course, but giv­en Mark­er’s peri­patet­ic ten­den­cies, also phys­i­cal ter­ri­to­ry, scat­tered all across the globe.

Per­haps that sen­si­bil­i­ty land­ed Mark­er, 33 years old and with his most famous work ahead of him, a job as an edi­tor at Paris’ Edi­tions de Seuil, where he con­ceived and designed a series of trav­el guides called Petite Planète. He con­sid­ered each vol­ume “not a guide­book, not a his­to­ry book, not a pro­pa­gan­da brochure, not a traveller’s impres­sions, but instead equiv­a­lent to the con­ver­sa­tion we would like to have with some­one intel­li­gent and well versed in the coun­try that inter­ests us.” Launched “near­ly a decade after World War II,” writes Isabel Stevens at Aper­ture,” the first time when “for­eign locales seemed tan­ta­liz­ing­ly with­in reach, Édi­tions du Seuil intro­duced the books rather charm­ing­ly as ‘the world for every­one.’ ”

“Apart from the ambi­tion to pro­vide some­thing dif­fer­ent from run-of-the-mill guide­books, his­to­ries, or trav­el­ers’ tales,” writes Cather­ine Lup­ton in Chris Mark­er: Mem­o­ries of the Future, “the most inno­v­a­tive aspect of the Petite Planète guides was their lav­ish use of illus­tra­tions, which were dis­played not mere­ly as sup­port to the text but in dynam­ic lay­outs that estab­lished an unprece­dent­ed visu­al and cog­ni­tive relay between text and images.” Though Mark­er con­tributed some of his own pho­tographs (as did his French New Wave col­league Agnès Var­da), his chief cre­ative con­tri­bu­tion came in blend­ing these and a vari­ety of “engrav­ings, minia­tures, pop­u­lar graph­ic illus­tra­tions, pic­ture post­cards, maps, car­toons, postage stamps, posters, and adver­tise­ments” into “a heady and het­eroge­nous mix of high cul­tur­al and mass-mar­ket scenes,” all arranged with the words in “a man­ner that engages know­ing­ly and play­ful­ly with the para­me­ters of the book.”

True Mark­er exegetes will find plen­ty of con­nec­tions between Petite Planète and the rest of his oeu­vreThough no cats ever made the cov­ers, plen­ty of girls did — or rather, plen­ty of women did, since a local female face front­ed every title he over­saw. One of those faces, gaz­ing stat­ue-like from one vol­ume on Japan, will look awful­ly famil­iar to any­one who’s seen Le mys­tère Koumiko, Mark­er’s doc­u­men­tary on a young lady he met in the street while in Tokyo for the 1964 Olympics. And in Toute la mémoire du monde, Alain Resnais’ short on France’s Bib­lio­thèque Nationale made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a cer­tain “Chris and Mag­ic Mark­er,” we wit­ness the cat­a­loging and shelv­ing of Petite Planète nev­er writ­ten — and one that actu­al­ly departs from the plan­et at that.

Around the same time, Mark­er pub­lished Coréennes, a high­ly Mark­eresque visu­al trav­el­ogue of war-torn North Korea. I recent­ly wrote about its Kore­an edi­tion for the Los Ange­les Review of Books, though the long-out-of-print Eng­lish ver­sion remains hard to come by. The same goes for the Mark­er-designed Petite Planète books, trans­la­tions of which Lon­don’s Vista Books put out in the 1950s and 60s, and about which Adam Davis at Divi­sion Leap has begun a series of posts with a look at Ger­many. You can exam­ine more of the orig­i­nals at Let’s Get LostIndex GrafixSÜRKRÜT, and this slide show from The Ressi­a­ba­tor. Our hyper­con­nect­ed era, at a dis­tance of six­ty years, places us well to under­stand the mean­ing of Mark­er’s state­ment on his trav­el-guide project: “We see the world escape us at the same time as we become more aware of our links with it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Owl’s Lega­cy: Chris Marker’s 13-Part Search for West­ern Culture’s Foun­da­tions in Ancient Greece

How Chris Marker’s Rad­i­cal Sci­Fi Film, La Jetée, Changed the Life of Cyber­punk Prophet, William Gib­son

Vin­tage 1930s Japan­ese Posters Artis­ti­cal­ly Mar­ket the Won­ders of Trav­el

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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