“How can you govern a country that has 258 different types of cheese?” This quote is often attributed to General de Gaulle while he was head of state. But aside from dairy products, France also has 22 administrative regions, 96 départements, and 450 provinces. These pays, also known as “natural regions,” are used to describe small territories spanning fifteen square miles on average. Their size means that they slip through the net of administrative division (régions, départements, and cantons), and are home to unique geological and human heritage. Before the French Revolution and the creation of the département system used today, they made up the official subdivisions of France.
By rehabilitating these territories and their old-fashioned names – Les Baronnies, La Tarentaise, Le Pays de Lusignan and Vouillé – the authors are purposely turning away from the French trend of hyper-centralization to reveal a new national geography. If you think you are visiting Finistère in Brittany, you may actually be in the Pays Bigouden, Poher, or Pagan. As for Provence, there are many, including Dévoluy (in the Hautes-Alpes), Dracénois (in eastern Var), and Vésubie (in the center of the Alpes-Maritimes). Meanwhile, Parisians may think they know the capital, but they might not be aware of the provinces of Brie, Gâtinais, Hurepoix, and Goële just beyond the suburbs.
A Slow-Motion Road Trip
As you may have guessed, local exoticism is on your doorstep. And discovering it is possible under just one condition: getting away from the overrepresented city of Paris, the châteaux of the Loire, and the beautiful French villages which simply look like postcards. A different manner of travel is what painter and artist Nelly Monnier and photographer Eric Tabuchi offer in their work. Since 2017, they have been slowly crisscrossing (at just 12 miles per hour) the little rural roads of this fragmented France, capturing images of a mining town in the Pays de la Loire, an abandoned village in Bassigny, and the Familistère de Guise housing complex in Aisne.
“Come rain or shine, we drive from 9 a.m. until nightfall, with a stop for lunch in the car,” says Nelly Monnier. “We have a regional roadmap, complete with our notes, which helps us navigate little-used roads at a similar speed to cyclists, until the perfect subject forces us to stop or make a U-turn.” With a combined artistic and documentary method, the duo photographs, in no particular order, factories, grain silos, apartment buildings, detached houses, water towers, traffic circles, barns, churches, and supermarkets.
“We don’t see any hierarchy between a château, a church, a grocery store, or a gas station,” they like to say. And sometimes, the perfect picture appears where they least expect it. According to Eric Tabuchi, it can be a moving experience simply photographing a mazot, “a small wooden building typically found in Haute-Savoie, decorated with sculpted motifs,” in the province of Faucigny. The same wonder can be felt when observing the enormous, empty, plastic swimming pools that look as if they are hanging in the air, a staircase hewn into the rock, and an abandoned red building surrounded by wild grass and topped with a giant sign for the Atlas furniture store, conjuring up an atmosphere of the American West.
It is almost as if nature was complicit with Eric Tabuchi’s images, which are influenced by American photographers such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, and Lewis Baltz. “Through them, I discovered a very free photographic method combining voyages, vehicles, and vernaculars,” he says. For Nelly Monnier, the perfect shot also often appears in a detail or an intention. Recalling the hamlets nestled in the valleys of the Cévennes mountains, she says: “It is not rare to discover a little cemetery behind an abandoned farmhouse, where a Protestant family is buried with bouquets of plastic flowers decorating their headstones.”
Atlas des régions naturelles – Volume 1 by Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier, Editions Poursuite/GwinZegal, 2021.