“It is better to dream your life than to live it, even though living it is still dreaming it.” These words by Marcel Proust stand at the opening of FLORE’s book, entitled L’odeur de la nuit était celle du jasmin. They set the tone and invite to a journey, serving as a guiding thread through fifteen years of the artist’s work. But what is the time and place of this journey? While in reality the book takes us to present-day Vietnam and Cambodia, the photographs explore Marguerite Duras’s Indochina of the 1930s, and the writer’s words are interwoven with the images. Indochina was also home to the photographer’s grandparents. There are no coincidences in life. Even if FLORE does not qualify her project as autobiographical, she is reflected in it as in a mirror.
Her personal history and major life events play a key role in her work. After a decade-long career as a live performance photographer and a portraitist for the national press, in 2008 FLORE decided to devote herself to her personal projects. She had taken a similar approach twelve years earlier following the death of her companion: “The darkroom was my refuge, and developing photographs was a way to express feelings of loss, absence, and suffering. You create what you are!”
Since then, her photography series have imparted her story in bits and pieces. Sabah el Nour, for example, goes back to her Egyptian childhood, while Maroc, un temps suspendu [Morocco, a Time Suspended] revisits the land she crisscrossed in her early teens, in the mid-1970s, with her mother and sister. Between these two projects, she spent two years working on a carte blanche art commission at the Rivesaltes transit and internment camp. “I wasn’t looking for family traces, but instead sought a more general point of view, a form of truth, even though my approach is not documentary.” FLORE notes, however, that she is the granddaughter of Spanish refugees. In her oeuvre, individual stories are always closely intertwined with history. The intimate conveys the universal.
A self-taught artist, whose darkroom experience goes back to her teenage years, FLORE develops most of her photos by herself. This is a matter of both devotion and theory: “I believe in the power of hand-printed images and their expressive capacity to communicate sensations and emotions to the viewer.” A hardworking perfectionist, she continuously experiments, carefully choosing her paper and process: from tea-dyed (“but not just any old tea”) and wax-coated prints to pigment prints on Japanese paper, to rotogravure and Polaroids: “This involves hours of trial-and-error, going back and forth before making the final choice,” she explains.
The result is well worth the effort, both in terms of exhibitions and book publishing, as L’odeur de la nuit était celle du jasmin, published by Maison CF, clearly shows. The book offers a sensory experience, both visual and tactile: the velvety texture of the cover and the vertical format evoking a Chinese screen are combined with Japanese-style binding. A total of 64 photographs are interspersed with golden sheets “alluding to Marguerite Duras’s gold lamé heels in L’Amant.” Everything has been thought through, down to the last detail: “We worked with Clémentine de la Féronnière, a very committed gallery owner and publisher,” FLORE said, delighted to have been able to turn her vision into reality.
Perpetually reinventing itself, her work alternates between black-and-white and color. The latter makes rare incursions into her latest series: “It’s a way of creating a temporal rupture and livening things up,” she explains. Similarly, after having used the square format for a long time, “which ended up suffocating her,” in 2016 she switched to 6 x 7, which she describes as “a stocky rectangle.” Another development: small in size, even miniatures, her prints now reach as much as 40 x 40 inches or 28 x 35 inches. In either case, the aim is to encourage the viewer to take the time to look.
One series after the next, FLORE weaves a singular body of work that blurs spatiotemporal markers. The inextricable warp and weft of past and present, here and elsewhere, are signified by film grain and blur, or by a somber, sunless atmosphere, as in her latest book. Positioned between nostalgia and melancholy, FLORE manages to lend material existence to intangible, invisible treasures, such as memories and emotions, creating a profoundly unsettling oeuvre.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography. A regular contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and the Quotdien de l’Art, she is also an exhibition curator and a faculty member at the École de Photographie (EFET) in Paris.
FLORE, L’odeur de la nuit était celle du jasmin
With writings by Marguerite Duras
Éditions Maison CF, 146pp, € 45
Available here. And 2020 Nadar Prize.
Galerie Clémentine de la Ferronière
The Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière Photography Award exhibition
Académie des Beaux-Arts, TBA
Festival du Regard, Voyages Extra-Ordinaires
Cergy Pontoise, to reopen after lockdown, through January 31, 2021