Brousse-le-Chateaux, the prettiest village in France

Interviewer: Brousse-le-Chateaux, by the river Tarn in Aveyron, is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages in France. You went there, with your wife and children and grandchildren, on a perfect August day, blue skies and sunshine, not a cloud in the sky – what does that mean for you, as a photographer? Do you just take a few chocolate-box pictures, some family snaps and touristy images, have an ice-cream or beer and then go home?

Me: The place is charming for sure – a narrow road above a winding stream, a hump-backed bridge leading up to a church and the medieval chateau – more of a fort really, than a chateau – the honey-coloured stone, the flowers and greenery. So yes, some of the pictures I took are primarily for the family album, so to speak. Yet even here, you want to look out for the image that tells you something more about the place than simply, ‘we were here, isn’t it gorgeous?’

In these colour images, for instance, I’ve focused in on how green and verdant the village is – the little garden tucked away beside a house that itself is clinging to the hill beneath the chateau; the stream and vegetation beneath the curve of the bridge, the river along which the village road winds into the hills.

[click to enlarge]

Even the family pictures, the obligatory village views – I’ve tried to do something a little bit interesting. There is the picture of the family on the steep curve of the medieval bridge, for instance, where the bridge is as much a character in the image as they are. In another photograph, I caught a glimpse of a cyclist speeding down the hill, and waited until he came into the frame before squeezing the shutter. And then there is the detail of the door-knocker – I thought of doing it in black-and- white, but decided to process it in colour, instead, as the image was in any event almost monochromatic. And then, of course, there is the humour, the anachronism if you like, of the bright yellow motorcycle and sidecar, which I simply had to capture.

Interviewer: So, we’ve mostly escaped the chocolate-box effect – that’s good, I guess. And this despite the fact that these images are all in colour, and Brousse-le-Chateaux is so darned pretty.

But the next images are not in colour, they’re in black-and-white. And some of them suggest quite a change in tone, a change in mood, too, and perhaps in the message, or at least the interpretation. So what’s going on here?

Me: Several things. Once you are over the general prettiness – almost overwhelming when it’s a bright, perfect, carefree day in August – other things start dawning on you. The harsh angularity of the light, for example, falling like a blade between the stone-built houses. The harshness of the stone. A sense that life here, over the centuries, must have been hard, austere, isolated, but also simple, self-sufficient, hopefully contented. To give a sense of that – to give a sense of texture, not only the texture of cobblestones and buildings but of life in this place – you need black-and-white.

You can see for instance how black-and-white changes the perception of things, in this repeat image of the cyclist.

[as always, click to enlarge]

Interviewer: This gives a different sense of time, perhaps, as well as of mood. I don’t mean the time of day, I mean a sense of period. Or a sense of timelessness, perhaps – an editing out of the particularity of time and place.

Me: Exactly. And what is it you see in these images?

Interviewer: Well, the harshness, certainly. The overwhelming presence of stone. But also, in the image of the women sitting beneath the statue of the Madonna, something of the peacefulness of the place – and the presence of the Church, of course.

Me: Aha! I have to say, it was the presence of the church that struck me also. Something about the church being high on the hill, overlooking the village, not only as a physical structure, but as a structure of power, surveillance, earthly dominance. I’ve tried to express something of this in the next set of images, where you can literally see the shadow of the ramparts and the dome of the Eglise Saint Jacques le Majeur.

Interviewer: Shadow and light – it’s an interesting binary. Is the Church a force for one, or the other? Or both, perhaps?

Me: Well, you’re not going to get me there. I’m speaking here purely as a photographer. But it is interesting to compare the difference that shooting, or rather, these days, post-processing in colour or in black-and-white makes to an image – to its feel, emotion, symbolism even.

Here are two pictures of the interior of Saint Jacques le Majeur that make the point, I think. They’re almost identically framed, or cropped – in fact, they’re from the same original image. But how different they are!

This final image, to my mind, would have worked in either colour or in black-and-white, but it was the serenity, the formal structure and tonal subtlety of the black-and-white image that won me over, in the end.

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