#1328. I had a (photographic) dream

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Dec 11

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.

 

So, terroir?

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? 😉

 

​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Paul Perton says:

    Pascal, I think this is not only a great collection of images, but the front end of a great idea.

    Count me in – I won’t be around here much until the New Year, but in the interim, I could be drawing up a list of places to visit and make a start at recording.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The first two images strike a cord – that ice crusher on the bar is exactly the same as the one in my kitchen – a mere 13,856 kilometres away! And 40 years ago, I was heavily into weights & body building – so does that ornament on the bar mean the barman is a weightlifter too? Naah – probably just co-incidence!
    Your “task” is a tough one – the character of my location is best defined by comparing it with a small village, in a distant time zone – as if we are in a time warp. We all know one another – well most of us do anyway – and most of us still care about one another (except for some of the “drop ins” and “Johnny come lately” types who just don’t make the cut). But that’s an impossible one to photograph.
    My dentist & my barber, are just up the street, and my doctor – although his surgery is on the other side of the city – lives a couple of streets away from me. In 5 blocks, we have a jazz club, dance studio, pizza bar, and half a dozen other cafes or restaurants – and soon we’ll add a fully restored hotel from circa 1903, together with a mini-brewery and an apartment building reminiscent of some of Frank Gehry’s work (although on a far more modest scale). And further down the street from the hotel, a 20-storey apartment block with views up and down the river, and across to the Indian Ocean and the various islands offshore.
    For a small (pocket handkerchief) sized suburb, it has quite a buzz as a place to live. But to photograph it – especially difficult with the bits that are yet to be built! – is a pretty daunting task!
    I have told you before, Pascal, that dad was a highly regarded winemaker in his day – but he and I used to go head to head, like a couple of bulls having a fight. He had his ideas, I had mine – his were exactly what you’re describing, and I kept telling him I preferred something more subtle, something that would give me the opportunity to learn more about the different varieties and the different regions, without the uniformity that mass production, blending, chemicals etc gave to the wine.
    And travel to Europe – to regional country towns in Italy and France – gave me exactly that opportunity, so I’m 100% with you on that one. Big business = corporate greed for profit = uniformity in the market place = dull & boring. You can do it with spanners, Ikea furniture and motor cars – but please stop doing it to what I put on my dining table, to eat and drink!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Pete, all the things you mention do make up a very typical culture. And Freo has a particularly typical vibe. So you’re fine, if you want to join in.

      In WA, I can think of a few ideas, though it’s now been 7 years since my last visit (boohoo):

      * Little villages. They all have that little park with playgrounds and barbeques and gallas, but also the aluminium housing that makes sure this is definitely not the UK. The roads are wide, and there’s a Western vibe in many places, with shops that sell furniture from the 1950s or so, but it’s very different from the US Southwest. It’s very typical of WA.

      * Grey nomads. They’re a culture for sure!

      * Overlanders/campers fishing and camping on lakes and beaches. But that requires gear and commitment to reach.

      * Aboriginal settlments, though they require permits.

      * The outback. There’s nothing like the Nullabor, this side of the Kalahari. But, even close to Perth, Black Boy forests and the wild parts of Kings Park are very typical.

      * Surfers. Their community, their utes, their boards, the people watching, the restaurants and other amenities devoted to them, the beaches … are all very typical of WA.

      * The world surrounding cricket.

      * Even more crazy, the lunatic world of footie 😀

      There’s probably a lot more. That’s just a few ideas.

      Cheers

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Lovely idea, Pascal! I’ll do my best to put together a set of images from my “hunting grounds” to share. Your images make me yearn to be back in France….with a camera this time!

  • David says:

    Hi Pascal
    Your post rings with so much truth. As photographers we have the chance to capture much of what will disappear or truly change.
    Best
    David

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, David. And when we think of the photographers we tend to admire (Adams, Leiter, Winograd, HCB, Brandt, Parr, and many more) we have to make sure some of us do the same work of documenting the iconic, the quirky, and the typical of our time and location. I don’t think many of the pros today are very interested in that sort of work. So the next generation might not have the same background to turn to. That would be sad. All the best.

  • Jon Maxim says:

    Hi Pascal,

    You have eloquently put into words something that has been niggling at me for the last few years. Like you, I have mostly “documented” far away “exotic” places (e.g. France…) and, usually, at a frantic pace (I have to balance the desires of my non-Photographer wife, who wants to experience things, with my desire to contemplate before I press the shutter). However, I am keenly aware that I could do better by slowing down and looking around me. My problem is that I keep on thinking there is nothing special around here. I know it’s not true but, as the saying goes – familiarity breeds contempt. You have inspired me to get off my a** and do something I know I need to do.

    Thanks,
    Jon

    P.S. Who are you people? I stumbled on this site by accident. You all seem to know each other, I have commented and received such nice and useful replies. It seems to be the kind of community that I like. You can respond directly to my email, if you like.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jon,

      I know how you feel. That frantic feeling during traveling is there for me too, as my wife doesn’t share my enthusiasm for photography either. And I’ve come to want to slow down and explore locally. As you say, it’s hard to see what others can find exotic in our own neighbourhoods. But it’s all there, I suppose. So I will continue to dig and hope others will join in 🙂

      Who are we? 😉 Ah, DS is 15 (?) years old. It used to be a much bigger blog, where gear reviews drew in the crowds, and got me invited to launches and previews. But I didn’t enjoy this and have instead focused on more personal topics such as learning to see, learning to trust our gut, …

      At its heart, DS was always mean to be a collaborative blog. I started it with a couple of friends who stopped very early, but were soon replaced by people like Philippe Berend and Paul Perton. Over the years, over 50 contributors have sent in posts, and we’ve all become good friends, although we’ve mostly never met 🙂 That’s my type of online space. Competitive forums and frantic (again) social media are just too much for me 😉

      I hope you continue to find DS to your taste and look forward to more of your contributions 🙂 🙂

      Cheers,
      Pascal

      • Jon Maxim says:

        If I wanted to contribute, how would I do it? … and I always have to fill in my comments by “comment as a guest”. Is there another way to do it?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi Jon, I’m not sure about the comment process. Typically, you should have to fill in name and email address, but your browser should memorize those so you don’t have to type everything every time. Is that not what’s happening?

          To contribute a post, you can just send an email with the text and images to me and I’ll put it up in your name 🙂

          Cheers

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Very nice photos, Pascal… always that impression « to be there »… part you part gear, I guess…
    And a very beautiful idea… Candide returns to his garden 🙂

    Since 8 years that I live 4-6 months per year in Vietnam, I patiently built a small set of pictures for a project called « Gens de Saigon »… I will pick a few from them, many taken with old iPhones… nothing amazing like yours, but it’s the subject, right? Sometimes I sense that here at wonderful DS, the quality of some pics can be intimidating…
    Do you know how you plan to publish our photos? By photog, area, theme?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Pascal.

      I haven’t thought of an outcome yet. If we just each write posts, and there is some traction, we can maybe work on a collective website, an exhibition, … who knows 🙂

      I look forward to meeting the people of Saigon 🙂

  • What you say about the influence of money distorting culture and society plays, to my mind, particularly strongly chez les américains. Authenticity? It’s very difficult to find. Why? Because so many people are “playing to the crowd” and are living to standards set by monied interests, including those filtered, algorithm’d, amplified, and manufactured mind shaping agreements/consents dispensed through social media.

    Of course we don’t know how/when things will become unrecognizable, but consider what’s changed in just 10 years. People today walk around in such a deep state of isolation that they won’t put down the LCD to actually see and experience the world around them. Is this really the pinnacle of human evolution, to become slaves in corporate fiefdoms via cellphones?

    As an aside, to avoid Robert Parker-ized wine I’ve found visiting les salons des vignerons independents can help. It’s good to be able to talk wth people and to try and understand what’s really going on. I’ve learned a lot by simply being open to what others have to share and to take a deeper interest in how things are.

    About a year ago I remembered where I live, what might be possible photographically, and was able to set aside the sometimes strong desire to go elsewhere to make images like other people (who’s work I admired). I feel I can now more fully embrace where I am, what I like, and to concentrate on making the best images possible. I don’t need to travel to make as good a photograph as I can. There’s a certain richness right here.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Christopher, Yes, social media has conditioned us to play to the crowd and become extremely self-centered. It’s a trait we will pay dearly, I think. I don’t think this is the pinnacle of human evolution either, more a form of mental slavery that was very presciently told in “The Matrix”. But all is not bad, and I think we are past peak social, and more and more people are moving away, realising what it has done to their lives, their creativity, their real social life, their friendships … So there’s hope that all of of this will eventually go away.

      I don’t want to sound anti big-brand. In many vineyards, they have made the wines superior by bringing in funds and talent. But not always so, rarely within the purchasing power of true wine lovers, and not always with the greatest respect for the typicity of local terroir. For this, as you recommend, local vignerons are still the best bet. Burgundy is now the herald of this and quite a few initiatives are seeing the light in Italy as well. There’s lots to look forward to beyond the Super Tuscans 🙂

      Your expression “I remembered where I live”, is spot on. For me as well, it’s like a bubble burst to reveal how interesting the local scene can be. Cheers

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Pascal,

    Your dream is a stimulating one—and for many reasons. There is the sense of human warmth in your photos—or maybe it is lived-in warmth. Your photos are of spaces and place, of culture, and also of the practices of everyday life within them (which Michel de Certeau reminded us are often unconscious, and it sometimes seems that acting unconsciously can take on ever more dangerous meanings in our overheating world). As photographers we can record the places and the practices we enact within them in order to help us see both, to recognize them, to preserve their cultural and human value and to maybe see the potential contained in them—all acts necessary to the conserving of resources and the healthiest elements of our cultures. And, yes, this work requires the specificity of your terroir photography. And, as you suggest, we must account for witnessing. There are certainly many calls out there for creating records of specific locations in the world as we are likely to lose much now and so much more in the coming years (how awful it is to write that). But we must not lose the human warmth of the interior shots you have recorded here; they are one important vision of human being. And we must not lose the beauty of the exterior shots; our homes, the where we come from of who we are. Perhaps the recordings of a terroir photography might remind us in time of things still worth fighting for in times when the struggle feels hopeless. And maybe too, terroir photography can be seem as maps or blueprints of some of the best things worth rebuilding since we aren’t on a path that will allow us to leave the world better than we found it. I suppose we can just say that as long as there are humans, we will always create lived-in warmth. I don’t know, but I don’t think we should be leaving such important issues to chance. Thank you for your important post and wonderful photos (I especially feel lived-in warmth in the second and third photos and in the black and white of the couple at the bar.)

    Claude

    • pascaljappy says:

      How true, Claude, thank you. I too hope and believe that realising what good we have surrounding us will make us want to preserve it. And particularly the human warmth and culture you mention. I think it’s beneficial to us, as individuals, to open our eyes to what we easily neglect. It’s a form of mindfulness that grounds us and probably keeps us happy and healthy. And it’s good for all of us if we can share it with others. That’s not to say we should never again catch a plane to visit the other side of the world, but we will then probably do so with more wide open eyes and not with the systematic craving for exotic lands that fills the voind when we are unable to find sustenance nearby. Cheers. Pascal

  • PaulB says:

    Pascal

    I will take on the challenge of photographing what surrounds me rather than seeking out the exotic. Which is some ways will be tough, I live in an industrial city, but there are a lot of options in the larger area. Perhaps Nancee and I could meet for a photo walk. We are not that far apart.

    One thing I would suggest, is something I realized when we were photographing almost anything nearby during the pandemic, make photos of anything that catches your interest no matter where your are. My city may be boringly familiar to me, but to someone else, somewhere else, it may be exotic.

    Now I have two questions for Nancee.
    1. Would you like to meet for a photo walk?
    2. When you travel to France, may I carry your luggage? 😉

    PaulB

  • >