In his foreword to William Wylie’s photobook Route 36, the poet and essayist Merrill Gilfillan states, “It seems continually necessary to reassert that landscape study and its reflective arts are anything but passive disciplines, that civilization in a sustaining, daily sense emerges most surely from good relations with one’s surroundings (the perfect word) and the inner landscape of possibility held in the head and heart.” This is aptly applicable to the photographs of Vicki Topaz of her rural French landscape photographs that encompass her photobook Silent Nests.
Topaz is investigating the old dovecote dwellings, also called colombier or pigeonries, of Northern France, specifically in the regions of Normandy and Brittany. She experiences the presence of these decaying structures from the perspective of an American, without a French heritage, thus she is not emotionally tied to the fading memory of these symbolic French structure. Her outsider’s perspective enables her to place these structures into a different cultural context, to observe the structures as they exist today and attempt to create a dialog with their past.
The colombier structures are relics of a past grandiose period, symbolizing power, prestige, status, wealth, privilege and essentially the French aristocracy. In France, the size of the building, number of nests (boulins, literally pigeon holes) and even their presence was regulated by law, known as the droit de colombier. For the aristocracy, these were important economic resources during medieval and later times as they provided sustainable supplies of meat, eggs, feathers, and manure. As such, the pigeons were also protected by law, and these same birds prayed on the commoner’s crops, threatening their livelihood, even their existence. Immediately after the French revolution, the colombeir structures, which were such a threat and so despised that they were subsequently destroyed in mass. Now the animosity for these structures has mellowed with time and as Topaz has found, can be seen in a calmer light.
Most of these buildings are no longer in active use, the spaces once reserved for the pigeons are empty and bare, many of which have been abandoned, crumbling under their own weight from disrepair and a lack of maintenance. Similar to other structures that are left to its demise, these are gradually disappearing from the landscape. They are fading memories of another time, which is bittersweet and in front of Topaz’s lens, now provide a sense of silent brooding, empty and elicit a sense of melancholy.
Topaz has elected to eliminate the direct presence of the people who reside near these forlorn structures, which may be due in part as to where these buildings reside, on grand estates or in fallow fields. Nevertheless, these intricately built structures reflect the hand of mankind in their intricate design and construction. As symbols of power and status, they were very carefully built with enduring materials, unlike the nearby villages and homes of the commoners. But even so, when left to the elements, they slowly deteriorate as nature gradually reclaims the stones and timber.
In the flat lighting, overcast skies and barren trees, these structures appear like silent soldiers on a melancholy watch, standing guard over ghostly memories.
Topaz’s black and white photographs are composed with a square format that is static and lends to a sense of formality, perhaps in keeping with their aristocratic past. The narrow focus that abstracts the foreground and blurs the background has a shared impressionistic quality with the photographic work of Keith Carter, Maruro Florese, and Susan Burnstein. Likewise, photographing French structural relics that are quickly fading from the present in a documentary style is reminiscent of Eugene Atget’s turn of the century Parisian photographic work. Only on a few occasions do Topaz’s photographs tip the scale towards sentimentality, such as the cliché of a colombier framed with blossoms from the branches of a tree in Spring bloom. On the other hand, she creates moody, introspective and poetic narratives, with slightly dark undertones that are both mysterious and delightful.
The book is printed and bound in a hardcover with dust jacket edition, and the accompanying text is provided in both English and French.
By Douglas Stockdale