Is a moment only decisive if its photography grants it immortality?
Apologies for the shabby Martin Luther King plagiarism 😉 My dream lacks the Earth-shaking power of his, its vision, and its boldness. But I believe it can speak to other like-minded photographers around the world and lead us all to a collectively meaningful body of work.
My dream’s been mentioned on this blog before: terroir photography.
Here’s a bit of context.
Remember the forest in a recent post of mine? It wraps around one of France’s chestnut hotspots, called Collobrières, hosting many, many, multi-centenary trees, a soil cover that’s a foot deep of pure leaf mold, and biodiversity on par with many world famous sanctuaries. Not far away, in La Roquebrussance, 1840 species of fauna and flora were identified in a 2020 survey. Now, for a commune that would barely be a speck on a map of L.A., that’s not half bad.
In the small but touristy village of Collobrières, no fewer than 8 restaurants offer the visitor a literal taste of terroir. Boar stew, cèpes omelette (cèpe is a big boletus mushroom), roasted beef cheek with roasted potatoes and garlic, the (short) list goes on. Mostly simple, but extremely high quality food, prepared in very ordinary but so very charming settings.
The decoration is old France, the faces are old rural France. The visitors could not be imitated in a high-budget movie.
They come for the food, they come for the ambiance, they come for the authenticity.
Authenticity which, of course, is meaningless to them, because that’s where they live, that’s what they experience everyday. Witnessing it immediately reminds you of numerous movies that do their best to capture that French vibe, but invariably fail because real-life characters are both far more ordinary and simultaneously far more individual.
I would dearly love to film this, in a human documentary fashion, to bring those people to the fore, give them the opportunity to immortalise their exotic way of ordinary life in a lengthy format, but lack the know-how, money and time to do so. So photography will have to suffice for now.
But I love those strangers, I love the sense of terroir, unintentional quality (it just is) and local culture they maintain through globalization and times of mass-everything predatory capitalism.
It is those qualities I have most come to love in Japan and Italy, two countries far more adept than most at maintaining the authenticity of their heritage. But these recent rural visits have made me realise how alive those traditions still are in France as well, and what a dumbass I have been to only seek them out in faraway lands. No more.
Terroir comes from Terre (Earth, soil) and is a term used to describe how the local culture of an area is shaped by its land, soil and climate. Its meaning aligns with that of unicity of character. What you find here is not available elsewhere, and vice versa.
In my first post on the topic, the area of Aubrac centered around high altitude (for France) plateaus, and a special kind of cow bred there giving the area renowned meat, renowned cheese and a variety of secondary products such as knives, forestry, crafts and, of course, gastronomy. Collobrières is all about the chestnut and the fauna hiding in those groves while still often ending up on those plates.
Wine was typically associated with the notion of terroir. These days, many a winery has fallen into the globalizing hands of the big luxury brands and are being patronized by people in search of a glamorous Istawhamable experience. Wines are being bent into a universal taste (ie over oaked and Parker approved) and, though some have gained in quality, many can no longer be considered as terroir wines. Nor will they appeal to true wine lovers who typically appreciate winemaking characterized by the careful preservation of terroir’s distinctive features.
Terroir is neither glamorous nor universal. More like rustic and typical. In Burgundy, the wine made from a vine row will taste significantly different from one harvested merely 50 meters away, because the soil and exposure to the elements varies on such tiny scales. And (most) producers attempt to emphacize that typicity rather than mask it with a feature-erasing dollop of oak. Culture creates more culture. Standardisation is sterile.
Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy similarly stage an epic battle between camp authentic and camp profitable. And, in a single-metric, money driven world, guessing the long-term winner doesn’t require much talent.
But in the meantime, those places, away from the tourist hotspots are havens of culture and human genius and sources of constant discoveries.
Long may they last.
So, why the urge to photograph all that?
Because nothing lasts forever, and the rate-of-change seems to be accelerating. Both in the extreme “Pareto-fication” of wealth distribution and in the climate.
Luxury brands have their upsides, even if these come with negatives. But the real silent killer of terroir in France is this:
Water. Or, rather, the lack of it.
Judging by the size of the front-row trees, I’ll let you estimate how much of the once abundant liquid is missing here. 200 meters upstream from this, there is no water at all. In an area known for its rainfall and defined by its forest, one can only wonder what will be left of all this if the drought continues for a mere 3 more years. While trees are marvelously adept at adaptation and resilience, there is a limit to everything.
And remember how people go bankrupt: initially very progressively, then brutally. I fear a same fate for those trees and the culture built around them. Tipping-points, anyone?
Hence the desire to photograph and immortalize as much of it as possible. And if the doomsday scenario never materializes, so much the better. I’ll still have paper memories of those visits 🙂
And the dream part ?
Well, to me, local photographers always make the best photographs. Being on site more often, being more attuned to the local vibes, they tend to produce the most relevant images for such projects. I will therefore limit my exploration to what is known as Provence Verte, a collection of a couple of dozen villages on my doorstep and each with its own ruins, bars, hills, castles, stories, local figures … That’s well enough to last me a couple of decades.
And I’d love for others to do the same in their hunting grounds. It’s tough to find out what is interesting, impermanent and typically authentic in our everyday digs. Finding exoticism elsewhere is more tempting but possibly less rewarding. And certainly less useful for a collective work on whatever your area’s version of terroir is.
It would be fantastic to build a collection of local projects over years, or decades, whether we live in a metropolis (few areas on the planet are more impermanent than old Shanghai, for example) or out in the absolute boonies.
Will you give it a thought? 😉
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