Lucien Clergue: Gypsies

Photograph by Lucien ClerguePhotograph by Lucien Clergue

During the mid-1950s Clergue initiated his photography of the cultural life of the European Gypsies. A significant presence in Arlesian culture, the Gypsies were treated with prejudice by dominant society.

As a child, Clergue was taught to regard them with fear; however, his interest in their music allowed him to overcome his prejudice and eventually develop close ties with them. Clergue became acquainted with the then-unknown guitarist "Manitas de Plata" and eventually acted as his manager and translator when the guitarist toured the United States.

While Clergue's photographs of the Gypsies document cultural life, they do not function as ethnography. Their interest is not so much in the quotidian as the extraordinary.

His high-angle photograph On forme le cercle ... , Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1958 is a birds-eye view of two dancers and their audience. A crowd ten to fifteen people deep watches the young couple; their faces match the concentration of the dancing girl seen in Clergue's José Reyes au milieu de la famille de Manitas de Plata, 1955.

One arm thrown overhead; hands clenched; the girl's downcast eyes render her not demure but self-assured. Clergue photographs the Gypsies as they perform for themselves. Holding themselves outside and above dominant culture, the Gypsies maintain a grasp upon rituals and traditions familiar only to their own.

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