The magic of black and white photography is not only grounded in its ability to emphasize the lighting, tones and textures of a given subject – it also has the power to elevate the poetic elements of the story behind each image. The artistic beauty of shooting in black and white is the intention behind the process – to strip the world of color and leave its elements bare to be interpreted through minimal shades and tones. There’s a timelessness to it – black and white welcomes you into the parallel dimension that exists alongside our polychromatic world.
The foundation of photographer Camilo Leon-Quijano’s series The Fume of Sighs reflects this balance of contrast and poetics. The project is about his friend Maryse, an 83-year-old woman born in Marseilles who currently lives in Sarcelles, where she moved with her husband Michel in 1969. But in August 2017, Michel passed away, and her friend, Camilo began spending more time with her. “At home, she mourns while emptying the apartment of a variety of objects,” he explains. “When we are together, we remember Michel. We talk about life, death and absence. In a sense, we became confidants for each other’s secrets, fears and anecdotes. We replaced our respective solitudes – me as a migrant, she as a widow – with stories and dreams.”
Eager to visualize this alchemic relationship, Leon-Quijano made the decision to create a series about Maryse in black and white. He explains, “I chose it for two main reasons. The first is a narrative choice: black and white detaches the story from a fixed reality. The second is aesthetic: I wanted a graphic interplay based on contrasting lines and textures.” These two elements come together to create a sense of structured disconnect – an ethereal storyline grounded in striking forms. “Black and white allows us to focus on the graphic contents present in the frame, and at the same time allows us to detach from a ‘single truth’ represented by color.”
The range of experiences between the two friends are also reflected in the range of image styles. Leon-Quijano uses a variety of techniques and exposures, all while maintaining a monochrome through-line. A sharp, contrasted photograph taken in broad daylight might appear alongside a blurry, grainy image of Maryse in a mask – a reflection of the many layers that come with friendship. Speaking about the masked Maryse, Leon-Quijano explains, “One day, I asked her to show me some souvenirs from her travels, and we discovered a series of Indonesian and Venetian masks. The night before, she had a terrible nightmare. She dreamed about a flood in her apartment, and she wasn’t able to get up and walk around. I asked her to put on the mask, and we took a series of portraits throughout the entire afternoon while she was wearing it. This image in particular is the result of a long exposure – I wanted to depict the nightmare and anguish she had experienced the night before.”
The story that Leon-Quijano aims to tell, then, is that of both friendship and mourning, and how those two pillars are intertwined in his relationship with Maryse. “Mourning, death and life are not linear and teleological experiences,” he explains. “Black and white allowed me to touch on the different aspects of our lives, and it also gave me the possibility to open up the meaning of the story I wanted to tell.” While we regularly feel emotional associations with topics like friendship and mourning, they are rarely made tangible, which is the challenge Leon-Quijano overcomes in this work. “Photography is much more than a medium to catch the light,” he explains. Photography has been a creative tool for revealing the hidden and silent experience of death, mourning and friendship. While my friendship with Maryse is quite unique, I think that our feelings and experiences are common. This is a story about life, absence, love and friendship. It documents the uncertain experience of being alone, but also the alchemy of an unpredicted encounter.”