Bernard Plossu / Western Colors

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Photo: LensCulture

At Paris Photo 2016, I managed to catch up with some work by Bernard Plossu after missing his Western Colors exhibition at Arles (the perils of visiting quite late in September).

Plossu is a French photographer, born in Vietnam in 1945 and known for his landscape work. I was particularly interested in seeing his Western Colors work after the book caught my eye at Rencontres d’Arles earlier this year.

There is a lovely quote by Lewis Baltz at the front of the book, which, if you’ll forgive my translation from the French in my version of the book, goes like this:

“There is something openly romantic in the image of a French photographer who reads Céline[1] in a Ford parked for the night on a lunar plateau in Monument Valley. Plossu never abandoned Europe nor the French photographic tradition, he has, rather, added a world to the world which belonged to him from birth” (Lewis Baltz)

Bernard Plossu: Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1982

Bernard Plossu: Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1982

In the introduction to the book, Plossu writes about how when he was young in Paris his father took him to see all the western movies which came by. He was plainly touched and influenced by these films. What caught by eye originally is how he has managed to capture the essence of the areas he visited and I can’t help but be reminded by Robert Frank’s The Americans.

The photos span the late 70s to the mid-80s. Plossu writes that when he arrives in Taos, full winter had already started and he describes the beauty of the area as being austere. He setup in a small house near to Ranchos de Taos which had become an historical monument in the art world due to the work of people such as Strand, Weston, Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. He spent some time photographing the famous church in all weather and in colour as well as black and white. The resulting photo below, showing the church in snow, is very arresting and completely different from the stark planes of the Ansel Adams work.

Bernard Plossu: L'église de Ranchos de Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1978

Bernard Plossu: L’église de Ranchos de Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1978

What is immediately striking about the photos, and you can see this in the book as well, is that they have a curious quality of being quite highly saturated, but grainy, even a little coarse. According to the interview with Plossu by Elizabeth Temkin, this is due to the “Fresson charcoal process”. This seems to be quite a complicated and antique process, which is described to some degree on the Atelier Fresson website. The effect is very attractive and has been quite well reproduced in the book.

Bernard Plossu: Montagnes près de Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1978

Bernard Plossu: Montagnes près de Taos, Nouveau-Mexique, 1978

Plossu describes it in the Temkin interview: “What’s special is that it produces a particular mood, with a kind of grain that gives the land and the skies a matte sensation. It makes my pictures somehow peaceful and not at all tape à l’ oeil [flashy]. There is nothing glossy here, nothing spectacular, just the opposite, which is what I am looking for.”
There are very fews shots which contain people in the collection. It’s primarily about the (wide) spaces that they inhabit and the things which surround them. The link with classic western films is quite obvious due to the cinematic feel of the images. The Fresson process only adds to the feel. Well worth looking out for.

Notes

  1. Presumably this is a reference to the French author who went by the pen-name of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

References

Plossu, B. (2016) Western Colors. Textuel

Timken, E. (s.d) The Eye of the Photographer: Travels in Color. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/bernard-plossu-the-eye-of-the-photographer-travels-in-color (Accessed 24 Nov 2016)

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