As a photography historian and the director of the collections of the French Society of Photography, Luce Lebart might be reporting here on her own worst nightmare: she uncovers a ruined archive that’s been invaded and wrecked from within. These old photographs were damaged by an ancient flood, then abandoned in the dark for years. They’ve been overwhelmed by mold breeding on gelatine and starch, the organic elements of traditional photographic printing.

Mold comes to destroy human images of landscape and nature—and yet, a strange inner world is revealed. Intricate patterns and shapes appear that could be at the micro- or macro-scale; fractals or nebulae, the inner organs or cells of the body.

A photograph of a forest fire at night is encroached from the edges by white mold. A seascape of breaking waves has mold sweeping across it like foam at the edge of a beach. A mountain landscape where mold has arisen like a flock of white birds taking flight. A starry sky with mold spreading below, wild and churning like a desert storm. Trees and plants have attracted wilder blooms to superimpose themselves like vivid psychedelic visions.

Mold intervenes between the viewer and the scene of the photograph. It invades the surface like an army spreading across a map, like the outbreak of a virus. An uninvited ghostly presence that insinuates itself into the material of the image at the chemical level, inextricably.

The book emphasises the materiality of photographs, sensitive to light, but also vulnerable to unanticipated, undesirable transformations that occur out of our sight. This is nature as an irrepressible and implacable force, indiscriminating and uncaring of human values.

It’s hard to appreciate the quality of the original photos. Their damage doesn’t feel like a loss. They’re anonymous, but what if this was the archive of a famous photographer? In the words of Lebart, “these images remind us how the aesthetic qualities of a photograph are decidedly independent from the artist’s will.”

—Jack French

Editors’ Note: To read more of Jack French’s writing, be sure to visit his site where he reviews photobooks, exhibitions and photo events around the world.

Mold is Beautiful
by Luce Lebart
Publisher: Poursuite editions
Paperback: 40 pages