Book review: ‘Abandoned France’ by Sylvain Margaine

Engineer turned photographer turns his lens on his home country’s industrial heritage.

France comes in different shapes and sizes: from the all-too-familiar hustle and bustle of Lille and Paris and the all-year fussy sultriness of Le Cote d’Azur to the overwhelming calm and quiet of the deserted country roads of Normandy and Bretagne. I had a chance to drive along the latter last summer and was genuinely surprised by their pristine beauty, emptiness and near-absence of people and cars.

It is that other little-known France, or rather the country’s rich, yet long abandoned, industrial heritage, that is the subject of ‘Abandoned France’ (photos by Sylvain Margaine, text by David Margaine, £29.99, ISBN 9782361952167) the latest photographic masterpiece produced by Jonglez publishers and edited by Thomas Jonglez himself.

After several similar coffee-table volumes, covering ‘forbidden’ places in the USA and elsewhere in Europe, Sylvain Margaine has finally aimed his all-seeing lens at the heritage of his native country – France. The result is truly astounding, with all those picturesque, yet seemingly moribund ruins, coming back to life and telling their stories in his stunning photographs. One can look at each photo for hours and keep uncovering more and more telling details about those long-disused plants and mines, factories and mansions – all adding up to a revealing vicarious tour of France’s hidden corners.

“We seek to present these places – from the seemingly trivial to the most important – as reflections of the country’s rich history,” David and Sylvain Margaine write in their short – I would say, extremely short – introduction.

Indeed, words are pretty much superfluous here, for the pictures: the long-abandoned, yet still surprisingly ‘vertical’, Uckange blast furnaces in Moselle; the Lavoir des Chavannes coal preparation plant in Saone-et-Loire, drafted, among others, by the engineering consultants Penard-Caquot et Companie; the enormous and multi-tiered Chahi Relais storage cellar in Rouen; the old Rodolphe mines in Alsace, reproduced on the album’s cover, and all other sites – pretty much speak for themselves.

E&T readers may be familiar with the work of Sylvain Margaine, who has been described by Le Monde newspaper as “census-taker of monuments”, “storyteller of heritage” and “an urban explorer”. Not only have all his previous albums featured in the magazine’s reviews pages, but he was also a member of the jury for a couple of E&T’s photo competitions. Margaine’s popularity among our readers can be partly explained by the fact that he himself is an engineer – by education and by spirit, and his view of the world is bound to appeal to the members of his chosen profession. ‘Abandoned France’ therefore can be a very welcome Christmas present from engineers. And to engineers too.

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