• Lavender, honey, olive oil....

    May 4, 2014

    Liz Wells

    Lavender, honey, olive oil, huge bulbs of purple garlic, stacks of green and white asparagus, market stalls laden with saucisson, enormous punnets of strawberries! I am on holiday in the Garden of Eden that is Provence, as a guest of Savannah College of Art (SCAD) on their French campus at Lacoste, near Apt, about an hour southeast of Avignon. I am presently the sole occupant of an 8 bedroom stone built house with views over the valley to the slightly larger village of Bonnieux perched on the next hillside. Limestone predominates, and the slopes bear remarkable white scars where vegetation doesn’t grow. Bonnieux villagers can look back at Lacoste, particularly at the now derelict castle where the infamous Marquis de Sade lived under house arrest. SCAD’s properties include a former farm in the valley, currently a base for interior design students engaged in a consultancy to convert the former railway station in Apt into an active community space. It is reputed that the farmhouse is where the Marquis’s guests were housed, awaiting their turns for evenings up the hill.

    I worked my passage in the form of ‘crit’ seminars with three different groups of students, juniors (equivalent to BA Year 2) and seniors (final year), most of whom are majoring in photography. Some projects were memorably impressive in scope, questions, experiment and imagination. There is little to do in Lacoste at this time of year; the village has two cafés, one shop, and a small tourist information. SCAD maintains their own refectories, a little library in a former boulangerie with rooms on many levels where, somewhat like Alice in Wonderland, not only do I keep bumping my head but also you find students curled up with books in every corner. They have 24 hour access to studios and darkrooms (chemical and digital). There are no painters here this term; textiles, art and architectural history, and industrial design complete the five departments present for the Spring term. The Summer term (July onwards) is probably more raucous as the other major presence in the village is Pierre Cardin who owns various design shops (closed at the moment) and arrives with guests for the July music festival that he runs in one of the former quarries above the village.

    So, how to make photographs that don’t look like tourist calendars in a landscape replete with regimented vines, poppy field currently in glorious red bloom, and every green hue that can possibly be imagined? There are village characters, picturesque homes and old farm equipment. But there are also caves, steep hillsides, and multiply layered histories. Apparently a cache of arms hidden in a blocked off cave was found only recently when doing conservation work in Lacoste; who knows how many more there may be, and how many personal histories and memories are implicated. It is no accident that there is a museum of the second world war at Fontaine de Vaucluse; this whole region was active in the resistance.

    The name of this village some 40 minutes from Lacoste refers to the ‘fountain’ the top of the Sorgue valley, overlooked by the ruins of a medieval castle. Water gushes up from a source somewhere deep below the stone into a natural bowl surrounded on three sides by stark cliff face; at this time of year it rushes it’s way down the gorge over stones and round dams – although I am told that by high summer it will be a more benign stream. Henry James visited as a gesture of homage to the Renaissance Italian poet, Petrarch (who lived and wrote here for many years), and complained somewhat testily at huge waterwheels powering a woollen mill and a paper mill that for him interrupted what would otherwise have been a picturesque walk to the river source. I thought them rather impressive as industrial legacies; I especially like the fact that one of them still runs the studio where they continue to hand-make paper.

    But the valley also lends itself to reflection on land, landscape, place and community in terms of change and development. My host, Tom Fischer, who has pursued various photography projects concerned with land and environmental degradation, including working with environmental lawyers in the US West. He has been visiting Lacoste since SCAD took over an existing art school there about 14 years ago, and has become very interested in the Luberon region, particularly the valley farms in the valley in the Lacoste area. In effect, by their presence, the American students are creating an archive for the future, simply by photographing in the present – assuming, of course, that they find ways of seeing that transcend the calendar pictorial.