riders crowd the cars of the Paris Metro
Camille Picquot

A View From the Before Times

When riding the subway seemed mundane

Around the time she completed her photographic series Total Ground, shot on the Paris Métro from 2016 to 2018, Camille Picquot created a character named Nelson, a “complete stranger to our society.” “The most common aspects of life appear to me as potential dramas,” a fictional letter from Nelson reads. “What is normal, around here?”

The common and the normal in Total Ground are, in fact, sly deceptions, filled with drama. Some of Picquot’s photographs are documentary, while others are staged, lightly fictionalized renderings of reality. Actors and strangers often stand side by side in a single frame. Some of the more peculiar images in the collection, she says, are purely documentary: She prefers not to invent unrealistic scenarios.

Picquot’s work—in particular, her insistence that close observation can make strange that which most of us take for granted—gains new meaning in this time of global pandemic. “People are standing in big hermetic boxes that move very fast,” she has written of the subway, a mode of transportation that until recently seemed mundane. “Sometimes they stand so close [to] each other that they can touch and smell each other’s skin … They mostly pretend to ignore each other.”

That paradox of “group solitude” is Picquot’s primary subject in Total Ground. She is drawn to “intimate gestures in a public space”—the way people grip a subway pole or adjust their hair. These “microevents,” as she calls them, help shape a larger narrative. What is normal about our interconnected, impersonal existence?, Picquot’s photos ask. What lessons would a stranger to our society draw from a look around today?

Camille Picquot left photo: hands holding bag; right photo: crowded subway car
Camille Picquot: photo of hands holding on to subway pole
Camille Picquot left photo: stroller on crowded subway; right photo: two men sitting, one in surgical mask

This article appears in the May 2020 print edition with the headline “Social Distance.”