With or without a camera, Bernard Plossu is a man in awe. Even as I write them, even though they make sense, these words ring false. Françoise Nuñez is gone, having succumbed to cancer on December 24, 2021, and since then life has been devoid of life for Plossu, as it has for us who respected the silence in which Françoise took refuge on days when she wanted to be invisible. The extreme modesty of withdrawal. She was like the heroine in [Satyajit Ray’s] Charulata, with her intense, almost fiery gaze fueled by an inner flame of passion.
In my mind, the memories of the couple merge and overlap: Françoise running on an Andalusian beach with their children and Bernard in La Ciotat, among pine trees, the sea in the distance, the inimitable blue sky, and the sand like sand. This is one of the features of Bernard Plossu’s photographs: time stops, and the imagination flares up, like in these New Wave films he was so fond of, or in cinema classics discovered at the Cinémathèque du Trocadéro in Paris’s “beaux quartiers.” He could have been a filmmaker, having made many films with his Super 8 camera. But he became a photographer.
When I saw Plossu for the first time, at a vernissage, he sported a hippie look, with his long hair and a cotton scarf. He was surrounded by friends and hiking companions (“philosophical hikes” are his thing). He was very handsome; he still is. I didn’t talk to him that evening, and we didn’t see each much of other for a long time. And then, in 1998, Élisabeth Nora, who knew Plossu well and appreciated his photographs, wanted to devote a portfolio to him in the magazine L’Insensé. A brilliant idea. We took a train down to La Ciotat, the Lumière Brothers’s fantastic city. We spent three unforgettable days.
Françoise was there, a furtive presence, as if she were playing hide-and-seek, and Bernard, whistling, a pencil behind his ear, pored over his archives with disconcerting precision. He would get right to the point, and with each print he found, turn to us with an air of victory. I never understood how it was possible to classify negatives, but obviously it was: Bernard, who might seem spaced out, is very orderly, very meticulous. He is a true analog photographer: from the technique, to contact sheets, to the lab, to printing, he takes keen interest in the whole process.
We chatted about this and that, while I observed him: his way of moving, his swashbuckler’s vivaciousness, his concentration. His onomatopoeias. His glee at unboxing prints as if he just scored at a treasure hunt. And his endless anecdotes, about himself, his photographs, his photographer friends, or about his way of photographing. For example: “The only unit I deal with is 50 mm. The wide angle exaggerates things, it’s not for me. But 50mm, yes, that’s me. The 50mm lens is Corot, it’s sober and it’s my only style. This helps me confirm that my only style is to have no style. As Gauguin used to say, and I quote him from memory, ‘Effects are a good thing if they’re effective.’”
So no effects, no frills, but then what else? Perhaps Plossu, a member of a generation almost gaga about lenses (50 mm, his favorite) and film cameras (“I come from the 24×36 tradition, my third eye always at the ready”), first used the medium as a notebook. Useful during his travels: he was in Mexico in 1965, aged twenty, he “jotted down” “the road, friends, freedom.” These three simple words echo a sentence that captures him well: “I am possessed by photography.”
It was a precocious passion (first snapshot at eleven: a lady in a red coat in a park, the fall of 1956), nourished by beautiful books his mother would buy (like Izis Bidermanas’s Paris des rêves), and his father Albert Plossu’s black-and-white photos taken in 1937 during his camelback adventures with Roger Frison-Roche in the Grand Erg Occidental in the Sahara.
However, more than anything, the landscape is Plossu’s visual building block: evocation more than representation of landscape. It is as if every swath of territory he traveled through, whether in Mexico, where he became a “professional” photographer, in the United States, in India, in Senegal, in Morocco, in Spain, in Italy, or in Egypt, sparked a relationship so intimately emotional that it was imprinted in the image and flourished there quite naturally. It’s no mirror effect, but rather a bond so powerful, so intense that it reveals the photographer’s rootedness in the landscape and, beyond it, his constant dialogue with the world.
In this respect, his book Jardin de Poussière [Garden of Dust] (Marval, 1989), dedicated to his great hero Cochise (c.1870–1874), the chief of the Chiricahua Apache, is a perfect example: Plossu walked across the American West, thinking about the Apache (he would later photograph Nino, Cochise’s grandson). His books, some 150 of them, he says, were “all made to surprise.” It is a question of stepping into history yet without claiming possession of any place. Plossu does not seek to make headlines, he advances step by step, towards his dreams. This takes “wisdom and delirium,” and worth noting, his founding principle, “making a living from photography is a terrible challenge.”
In 2007, thanks to an invitation extended by Jean-Pierre Giusto, we prepared an exhibition around Plossu’s work in color at the Theater of Photography and Image in Niece, now the Charles Nègre Museum of Photography. The exhibition’s title: Plossu: Couleur Fresson. A small catalog was published, useful for those who want to understand how Plossu came into the world of color. I remember our walks around the Theater, Bernard spent his time disappearing and reappearirng, and I kept looking for him. What was he doing? He was photographing.
Plossu has reached the age of retrospectives (he was born on February 26, 1945 in Vietnam), he had them very early, he can imagine soothing projects. Françoise—also a photographer, also a wayfarer—is at the heart of his future: “We were so closely together in life as in photography.”
For Plossu’s latest publications, see two exceptional portfolios presented by Anatole Desachy, a young, dedicated and daring bookseller:
36 vues, published by Poetry Wanted in the series “This Is Not a Map” edited by Rémi Noël; 36 images accompanied by Plossu’s commentary.
Charles Nègre Museum of Photography, in Nice.
Two galleries representing Plossu in France:
Galerie Reverbere & Galerie Camera Obscura
Upcoming exhibition, in Hyères, at La Banque, Musée des Cultures et du Paysage, end of October.
One of Françoise Nuñez’s favorite books:
Bernard Plossu, Avant l’âge de raison, published by Filigranes. Text by William Lord Coleman.
My favorite book by Françoise, also with Filigranes, L’Inde jour et nuit, text by Jean-Christophe Bailly.
My favorite book by Bernard, published by Marval, nuage/soleil, text by Serge Tisseron.
And, of course, Le voyage mexicain, Contrejour, text by Denis Roche. Published in English as ¡Vamonos! Bernard Plossu in Mexico by Aperture.