AADL Malletts Creek exhibit showcases enduring beauty of Mont Saint Michel
An expansion of this local photographer’s 2010 AADL “The Waters of France” exhibit—where Mont Saint Michel was included among the waterways of Normandy—this latter photographic exploration of Mont Saint Michel’s famed French monastery, abbey, and fortification is notable for the expansive view Schopbach gives of its inhabitants and its timeless splendor.
As the display’s gallery statement tells us, this exhibit of 47 color photographs ringing the entry and public meeting room of this branch library “is a visual exploration of the many facets of Mont Saint Michel, from seasonal landscapes that encompass the entire island, to the many architectural details of the centuries-old buildings and streets that make it one of France's most recognizable landmarks."
Borrowing further from Schopbach’s statement (because she’s absolutely right), “Mont Saint Michel is magic. Everything about the island is improbable: its location, its creation, and its longevity.”
And longevity is just the right word. For Mont Saint Michel has held strategic importance for 1,300 years to various peoples and ancient nations predating modern France. Continually occupied since well before the 8th century AD, this rocky, tidal island of 247 acres in Normandy has been the seat of the monastery for which it’s named.
Cared for, renovated and successively preserved, Mont Saint Michel has been constructed in such a fashion as to house its famed abbey and monastery at top — with great halls below, aristocratic housing and their storage space — to fishermen’s and farmers’ dwellings housed outside the fortification walls.
Yet this description is merely factual information. As the AADL’s exhibition statement concludes, “Mont Saint Michel has hidden corners tourists never see if they only spiral up the main street. These photos are the artist’s Mont Saint Michel, a corner of Sandy Schopbach’s heart — the island, the town, and the Abbey.”
Schopbach — who divides her time between France, where she has worked as a translator, interpreter, tour guide and freelance journalist; and Ann Arbor, where she works as a court interpreter and has also managed Ann Arbor’s Bird of Paradise jazz club — is clearly enamored with her subject.
As she relayed in a recent exchange of correspondence, “Mont Saint Michel fascinates me. It’s tiny. And it’s been around for so long. It just speaks to my imagination.
“I’ve been there many times, the first with a French boyfriend; then, again, several times with family and friends. Then there was a time I went just by myself; didn't walk through the abbey, but just visited friends who live near there to walk across the bay when the equinox tide was out — over to the other island and back.
“It’s just a magic place for me,” says Schopbach. “Always changing: It’s always something new. Each time I see it, Le Mont is different, but always beautiful. In the soft light of dawn, or floating in the mist, or standing out boldly against the night sky”
For example, her “Mont Saint Michel — Spider Web” is a low-key tour de force whose subtle symmetry is evenly matched by the composition’s depth of field. The photo’s elevated background sees a small cemetery located near the medieval-era St-Pierre Parrish church while the foreground is a beautifully formed spider web drenched with morning dew. Each drop of moisture has a rhythmic place in the photograph and the photo’s internal tension makes “Mont Saint Michel — Spider Web” worthy of concentrated study.
“Pilgrimage — Mont Saint Michel, Normandy” is a welcome reprise from Schopbach’s 2010 “The Waters of France” exhibit. In this horizontally oriented photograph, she subordinates the key elements of her work to the overall composition; and like “Mont Saint Michel — Spider Web,” this photo has a restrained inner-tension that makes for a masterly work of art.
Featuring groups walking on a sandy strip outside Mont Saint Michel’s craggy tidal mountain cross at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches; as I made note in that earlier review, such a walk could only take place at low tide because before the 1879 causeway connecting the island was built, to venture to and from the mainland to the island was to risk quicksand and fast-moving tides.
In 2006, the French government announced a plan to build a hydraulic dam using waters from the Couesnon (as well as tidal variation) to remove accumulated silt and make Mont Saint Michel an island once again. And as Schopbach noted recently, “On July 24th, the summer high tide came in and surrounded the island for the first time since 1879, when the dike was finished.” Hence, the photo is now anachronistic and all the more impressive.
Finally, the exhibit’s modest masterwork is the thoroughly understated “Mirror Image,” in which Schopbach uses a time-honored photographic trick to reinforce her compositional gestalt. A long distant watery view of Mont Saint Michel captured at precisely the right moment, “Mirror Image” gives us an expressive view of the rocky mountain and fortification and directly below an equally expressive reflection of the edifice.
Capturing the site’s magnificence as well as craft an imaginative interpretation in this spirited photograph, Schopbach gives us a sense of its physical grandeur as well as a romantic sense for our collective imagination. “Mirror Image” therefore gives us a keen sense of this duality. And at the very least, it makes us want to visit or revisit this timeless visage of the past.
“Mont Saint Michel: An Island beyond Time” will continue through Sept. 12 at the Ann Arbor District Library Malletts Creek Branch, 3090 E. Eisenhower Pkwy. Exhibit hours are 10 a.m. to 9 a.m., Monday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m., Sunday. For information, call 734-327-4200.