It was in the backwaters of France that I decided to do the research right here for my Master’s in anthropology. Almost every morning, the sun crept over the forested hills at seven but was quickly pushed away by dark clouds, which brought rain the entire day until sunset, where our perennial star showed the locals that it was still alive.
I knew the region pretty well. Together with my parents and two brothers, I spent at least three summer holidays in the early 1960s in a village that seemed absolutely forgotten by the rest of the world. It was here in 1965 that I got my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic for my 12th birthday, and my father, who had always been the photographer of the family, asked me to take his picture, standing beside his 2-stroke German DKW Junior, whose roaring sound could be distinguished at least two valleys away.
I remember a trip back in 1963. My “old man” — he was in his early forties at the time — wanted to pay a visit to the Caves of Lascaux. To admire the fantastic colorful murals, painted some 17.000 years ago. And it was that Easter Sunday that we descended the stairs leading to the enormous steel doors that were opened for the very last time to the general public. It would be a life-changing moment for all of us.
Despite the 1000 km drive from Holland, we came back many, many times.
Skip forward some 17 years to 1980 and instead of a completely care-free holiday fortnight, I came back to the Limousin region of France to do some serious fieldwork in order to get my Master’s in Cultural Anthropology.
My camera this time was not the Kodak Instamatic. The dense pack I sported everywhere harbored my Leicaflex SL with two lenses; a Leica ELMARIT-R 35mm f/2.8 and the Leica ELMARIT-R 90mm f/2.8. A year or so before my journey to France, I paid a bundle for this secondhand set. But what a difference it was to my Practicas; I couldn’t believe my eyes when I developed my first films. So crisp and so easy to enlarge into fine black and white prints, showing such a fine tonality; incomparable! Only my old Rolleicord donned with the famous Schneider-Kreuznach lenses could match these images.
Anthropological fieldwork implies “participant observation,” the key method in this sociological discipline. I had brushed up my French, and think I wasn’t shy, but the extremely bad weather prevented me from meeting people by accident. Luckily, there were some key informants, as the entire family from whom I rented the same old house we had done 17 years before, was incredibly hospitable and quite willing to talk endlessly with me and thus helping me to do my research.
I have such good memories of “mémé” and “pépé,” the grandparents, who did all kinds of odd job’s close to the house, whereas the farmer and his wife took to the fields farther away, the two octogenarians proved a “Fundgruben” of local knowledge. And “local” is to be taken very literary here; both had never been farther away in their entire life than the church some 9 km away!
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My research involved the way in which the famers and villagers perceived their surroundings, the way they used their fields and the toponyms and field names that were used; in other words: what does the “terroir,” their landscape, mean to them? So, my enthusiasm for landscape photography equaled my anthropological interests, and both were equally rewarded. As I had no car to my disposal, I was stuck to the immediate surroundings for a couple of months, and did my “traveling” on foot. I learned that this is the perfect way to get completely immersed in the land, not only seeing it, but feeling and smelling it. One is really able to internalize one’s surrounding, and this has a noticeble effect on one’s photographic senses as well.
Early in the morning, or just before sunset were the perfect moments to take a hike – as it mostly rained during the day – together with the Leicaflex and its two fabulous lenses. As there was no “entertainment” whatsoever in the village, I had ample time to develop the Agfapan 100 Professional films in the ever trustworthy Rodinal (1:75, 18 min.). And I was glad that I brought the developing tank and the chemicals. Every two or three days I had the joy of pulling out 1.60m of (mostly) perfectly exposed, razorsharp images, which only stimulated me to keep photographing.
Back home, I started printing the bundle of negatives I developed in France; and this was a joy as well.
For some forty years these photographs have been lingering in albums and boxes, until I just lately saw them again because I was sifting through all my stuff as I was going to move. I do hope that with the selection I am able to present here , that the subscribers and visitors to EMULSI VE taste something of the land I was immersed in.
Of course, the digital age has not left me untouched, and I enjoy the instant results and the ease with which one is able to share pictures with others. But, for serious work I still prefer film. Kodak Tri-X 400 is my favorite workhorse for roll film and the Agfapan 100 clones for 35mm. At the same time, I must admit that scanning one’s films is too alluring and keeps me out of the darkroom all too often.
I am convinced, though, that film photography will never disappear.
Thank you for reading my short slice of personal history.
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