Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Photographer I Admire: Vicki Topaz

Rare and Romantic French History:  The lost colombiers of Normandy captured in heart-breaking beauty by San Francisco photographer, Vicki Topaz

In her gloriously poetic new book, ‘Silent Nests’, photographer Vicki Topaz presents stunningly beautiful hidden dovecotes, the historic architectural marvels of Normandy. Topaz devoted five years of her life to recording these beauties—and has captured a sense of lost lives and history with her lens. Come and meet Vicki and view her superbly sensitive images.

Several years ago, during a brief stay in Normandy, photographer Vicki Topaz spotted a large, isolated structure in a farmer’s field off a back road. Curious to learn more about it, she perused books in the local librairie and discovered that it was a pigeon house, or colombier, and possessed an intriguing history. These unlikely birdhouses, abandoned relics of the past, thrived from the 13th century until the French Revolution.

Drawn to their melancholy nature and historical significance, she set out to photograph these unusual buildings. As she learned more her initial reaction to their physical beauty merged with a feeling of loss. She returned to Normandy many times, and eventually to Brittany, to seek out these long forsaken structures scattered across the French landscape.
Her photographs have recently been published in a very special book, ‘Silent Nests’ (see below for more information).

I recently sat down in San Francisco for a chat with the great Vicki Topaz to uncover her motivation, her inspiration, and her obsession with dovecotes:
DDS: What was your attraction to these rare architectural discoveries?
VT: I am drawn to projects like ‘Silent Nests’ that take many years to complete, and my interests lie in topics that attract me on every level...emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. ‘Silent Nests’ falls loosely into the category of landscape...the landscapes of northwestern France in which the colombiers once thrived, the French countryside that reveals remnants of other eras. 

DDS: You spent many winters in France to capture these beauties.
VT: I photographed this project over a period of about five years. During this time I visited Normandy and Brittany often, with each visit around 5-6 weeks, mostly in fall / winter, and some in spring. I needed this amount of time to feel my way around this extraordinary region of France, to fill up my imagination of how life might have been over the centuries when colombiers flourished.

DDS: Why did you photograph in winter? It's so moody, with such a sense of history and eras past.
VT: I photograph in the winter months, as well as early spring, primarily for the quality of light. The luminescence of the light in the region, and the barren, still landscape provided a perfect backdrop for the colombiers. During this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, I was able to best portray these once prominent dwellings without the interference of the harsh light and shadows of the summer sun. I found the solemnity of winter was evocative of time passing, eras long gone, a certain sadness, and a sense of loss. 

Wintertime in rural northwestern France is quiet, only a few people on the roads, especially when snow is falling. That suited my purpose photographically and personally. I was seeking some time alone, and was delivered such an unexpected gift with the discovery of these amazing buildings, solitary in their landscapes. 

I felt the aura of medieval France in the stillness of winter as if transported back in time. It could have been any century.

DDS: What are you working on now?
VT: My current work, entitled ‘Silver: A State of Mind’, is a series of portraits of women who possess one of the most distinctive outward signs of aging--silvering hair. The project deals with the transformative and challenging aspects of aging and aims to reveal the core energy, vitality and allure of these women and how they are moving through this time in their lives. I find the silvering of hair is an entry point to a diversity of thoughts and ideas on the subject. This is a different sort of "landscape"--women who are aging and the vistas they inhabit.

“Upon arriving at one of these dwellings, usually tucked away in the countryside, or perhaps still part of an original estate, I was always struck by their silence and stillness,” said Vicki Topaz. “ They feel haunted by their past histories. At the same time, colombiers are very captivating and retain some of the sweetness of their former occupants, of their characteristics—gentleness, loyalty, social instincts, and ability to hone in on home. These qualities are sometimes represented by a heart mosaic pattern still visible on the facades of a few brick colombiers. Occasionally, some are still inhabited by a few pigeons.”

“These buildings were framed long ago, by their time, their usage and their placement in nature,” said Vicki Topaz. “I have discovered them in their final phase of existence, that of beautiful, deserted, and sometimes-forlorn structures. The era they represent, a composite of medieval tapestries and art, of inequitable power and political revolutions, of scientific discoveries and fantastical beliefs, has long since disappeared.”

Lesser structures have been built to worship gods, let alone to commune with birds. – Scott Martin Kosofsky
“The fate of these once prestigious structures compelled me to attempt to reveal the way they embody the loss we all experience through life changes, decay, and the death of loved ones,” said Vicki Topaz. “The colombiers’ survival represents the continuity of objects long after their builders have gone. I find this thread of continuity provides a measure of reassurance, a silent affirmation of our shared history.”

‘Silent Nests’, Photographs by Vicki Topaz
Published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany.
Essay by Doreen Schmid & Gilles Boussard
Hardcover with dust jacket

English / French
ISBN 978-3-86828-077-7
Distributor/US: Consortium / Perseus Distribution

Where to find the book:
I recommend buying it from small independent booksellers, photography galleries and design stores. It can be ordered through any bookshop. It is available in San Francisco at William Stout Architectural Books, Nest store in Pacific Heights; Zaragoza, San Anselmo and Photo-eye Bookstore (online bookstore) http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/
Amazon.com is also very convenient. 

Vicki Topaz is a San Francisco-based photographer whose interest in cultural and social history, memory, and the passage of time informs the imagery in her work. Her monograph,’Silent Nests’, published by Kehrer Verlag, is the first photographic investigation into a little-known niche of France’s rich cultural legacy—the pigeonniers (pigeon houses) of Normandy and Brittany. Topaz’s other photographic series include 'Interiors' and 'Pastorale'. Her work is widely exhibited and collected by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Getty Research Institute, Fidelity Investments, Musée de Normandie, the Joy of Giving Foundation, and the Paul Sack collection, among others. Her current project, ‘Silver’, is a series of penetrating portraits and interviews of women who share their experiences about growing older in society. Topaz is a co-founder and board member of PhotoAlliance, a premier non-profit organization dedicated to presenting photography in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

All photography by Vicki Topaz, used with express permission of the photographer.
Tyler Jacobsen © 2010

Vicki Topaz has a darkroom and does all film developing and printing herself. She recently had three images enlarged and printed digitally (38" x 38"), by Urban Digital, and noted that they are really gorgeous. 

For further information: www.vickitopaz.com


*Chic Provence* said...

Hi Diane, stunning & original, these film photographs you have shown us from Vick Topaz. You can almost feel her actual hand on these images..ghostly and enchanting..

thanks so much for the enlightenment!

a bientot!


Brillante Home Decor said...

A dark room? Film? I am so happy to see these almost forgotten words. I believe B&W digital is not completely here yet even if I have seen good quality prints lately. I am a purist for my fine photography and the Leica camera is my faithful friend. I really enjoyed her images, so evocative and pure.

Concrete Jungle said...

Now I am even more excited to visit the area...just two weeks...
Daughter #3 took Grandad's old camera and now is very keen on film leaving her digital to the side....I myself am into instant gratification but looking at these pictures I perhaps should expand my horizons back...if you have a minute check out http://www.welovebluestockings.com

Marnie said...

thank you for this interview - I was especially taken by her description of her current book: Silvering: "silvering of hair is an entry point to a diversity of thoughts and ideas..." I agree 100% having a few silvery sparkles in my mane. Loved listening to your interview on Skirted Roundtable - just heard it last week -

mary said...

These beautiful images touched the chord of melancholy in my soul. "Silent Nests" is now at the top of my Christmas wish list. Thanks immensely. Mary


Both my daughter, Carrie and I love dovecotes. Such a treat to see them so beautifully photographed.
Thanks, Diane!

studioJudith said...

Brilliant images of these corners of
"silence and stillness."
Thanks for the introduction to this beautiful book !


I followed your note from Vicki's

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Good Morning, dear Friends--I'm so gratified with the response to Vicki's beautiful work, and the artistry and emotion to brings to her photography. I think everyone noted also the subtext...the sense of loss for times past and history faded from view.

Dear Kit-Loved hearing from you. You are right, these are very personal and emotive photos, and Vicki's eye and sense is evident everywhere on the film She shoots film...which amazed everyone. See you soon I hope.

Dear Albarosa--Yes, darkroom! in her house in San Francisco. Yes...speaking of times past and long-gone ideas. Time to bring out the film and the Leica!

Hi Heather in Phuket...interesting that everyone commented on and was amazed by FILM...so poetic in this case. Vicki develops her own images...thus the beautiful and depth and originality of her work. I love the deep sense of emotion in her work--even beyond the fading light and the composition, of course. Plus the content.

Hi Marnie--Yes, Vicki produces amazingly original books. Dovecotes in France...not your everyday volume, but such an essential and vivid and inspiring book. I had some friends comment that they would love it for a gift...hint, hint.

Hi Mary--yes, her new book is yet another deep and emotional topic and I am sure it will be great. I look forward to seeing it.

Hi Sally..yes, dovecotes. Now when we return to France we will know what those mysterious and wonderful structures are beside the chateaux! Notice that all the architecture is different...and I love that there are still some doves in residence, even of the falling down colombiers. See you soon, I hope.

Hi Judith--wonderful to hear from you, in Santa Fe (lucky!!). loved your note and am happy that you are joining THE STYLE SALONISTE salon and tribe.

cheers to all, and I look forward to hearing from each and every one of you. DIANE

Design in the Woods said...

Her work is stunning. Definitely on my Christmas list too. Thanks for the introduction!

vicki archer said...

Diane....You are absolutely right, I am so taken with these images and I love the fact that they are shot during the winter months. Thank you for introducing me to Vicki Topaz wonderful work, xv.

Cristin @ Simplified Bee said...

Wow, her work is beautifully haunting. I found it fascinating that she preferred to shot in winter. What a lovely read!
Many thanks,

Square with Flair said...

How picturesque these structures are. The charming details such as patterning of stone and brick, the dormers, and half timbered exteriors, make each one a very unique architectural treasure.

While the soft black and white images are moody and atmospheric, I am so entranced by the buildings that I long to view them in colour also. How pretty they must look in their verdant, rural, old world settings. The softer focus used here makes them particularly dreamy and romantic. For these black and white images, it was a good aesthetic choice to photograph when the surrounding trees are bare. The perceived greater volume of leafy trees would have detracted from the colombiers being the centres of interest, and the delicate looking branches form the ideal counterpoint.

Imagine the great beauty of flocks of pigeons or doves gathering to roost at dusk, as they swirl about these satisfyingly cylindrical buildings. I admire the geometric purity of these generously scaled dovecotes, and they call to mind the image of the dove in the arts through the ages, especially in Christian iconography as symbol of the Holy Spirit, or in the exquisite 20th century drawings and collages of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. These magnificent pavilions show that in the old world, the beautiful white dove was a much esteemed creature.

I applaud Vicki Topaz’ project, ‘Silver: A State of Mind’, to record women with silver hair. Our society and culture are far too ageist, and we need more exposure to alternative images of people than those in ads and fashion editorials.

“No Spring nor Summer Beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one Autumnal face.”
- John Donne

A very interesting subject and post Diane…

Karena said...

Vicki's photography is wonderful and the images of these works of art are breathtaking. Thank you Diane.

Art by Karena

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-
Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I have passed them all on to Vicki Topaz...who is thrilled to bits.

Dear Carla-I'm pleased this book is on your 'wish list'...and perhaps you can treat yourself to it. I collect books...several a week, mostly design...and I must say this book and Vicki's photography are rare and original and unusually personal. Wishing you the book!

Hi Vicki-You live in Provence, which is all sunshine and vivid color. It's so interesting that in Normany and Brittany where Vicki shot the images--it is so completely different, another country.

Hi Cristin--yes, she found the subdued light of winter was perfect for the mood she wanted to capture. These photos would not have had the haunting sense of loss and history and romanticism, if they had been shot in full sunshine. Did you notice that she prints her own film! See you soon.

DEAR SQUARE--Thank you for your fantastic and witty and brisk and bright email. I appreciated your points and your insight. Black and white--did you notice (please look back) that these images almost have green and sepia tones in them. I don't find them cold at all. Black and white, in her artistic goal, was perfect.

Hello, Karena--It is only about 20 years since photography was truly first consider art, seriously. Now photography like this is truly expressive and personal and 'one-of-a-kind' and classic. So happy to hear from you.

cheers to all, DIANE

Claudia Juestel said...

Stunning images of amazing structures. So glad to learn more about them.

I am also quite intrigued by Vicki's silvering hair project, although not willing to succumb to my own silvering hair quite yet.