Envy is a peculiar emotion.
It’s one of the seven deadly sins, up there with Sloth, Greed, Anger, Lust, Gluttony and Pride. It can get under your skin and bother every moment. It can ruin an honest look at your own talents when you see someone else accomplish something that has eluded you.
Then again, with apologies to all my religious friends, it can also be a source of joy. I envy master chefs. I envy people who can speak several languages. I envy virtuosos in any field. I am not jealous of them—a small but important distinction—because I do not see myself chasing their goals. My envy is, in truth, an emotion of appreciation and respect.
I mention this because, in front of me, I have a new book that I envy. Mistral: The Legendary Wind of Provence by photojournalist Rachel Cobb is a deeply wonderful, playful, and moving collection of images and text that prove her achievement of something seemingly impossible: photographing the invisible.
Many years ago there was an American television show called Mad About You. It starred Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. Rieser’s character was a documentary filmmaker and in one episode—the only one I think I watched—he is contracted by Yoko Ono to film the wind in the canyons of New York City. The comedy of that episode was wrapped up in his frustration about filming what cannot be seen. At the end of the show, Ono accepts his failure easily. “It was just an idea,” she says. His honest efforts were dismissed with a shrug.
I remember this show because it struck a nerve. I live on the North American prairie. We have blizzards and tornadoes and derechos. Local myth claims some early pioneers went insane because the wind never stopped. I have tried to photograph wind for years. My efforts have been occasional but huge, and my results have been pedestrian, cheesy, cliché.
Here, though, there is huge success. Mistral achieves the impossible. As the press release for the book explains, “Mistral is a portrait of Provence seen through its legendary wind that funnels down the Rhône Valley, periodically gusting to 120 km per hour – hurricane strength on the Beaufort wind force scale.” Living in wind requires physical acts of patience, resistance, courage, creativity and sometimes resignation. All of these themes breeze through the pages of this book. It is bright and colorful and intensely present. As you might expect, many of the photographs show wind-tossed hair or wind-blown clothing as people tack upwind.
There are also many photographs that make creative use of blur, a slow shutter speed to convey the kinetic energy of a windscaped countryside. But those are just the basic tools. What Cobb expertly captures is the way a landscape can be shaped by incessant wind.
In his introduction to the book, Bill Buford writes, “I like all of Cobb’s pictures mainly because they make me feel the wind. My favorites seem to imitate its force, its blurry, primary-colored disorder. I can’t think of a higher piece of praise than that, after studying them, they make me want to rub my eyes. I feel grit on my skin.”
Sometimes it’s obvious, like the wind-blown spray from a wave leaping up by a roadside.
But sometimes you have to look at the seemingly tranquil landscape shot until you realize the tree limbs are substantially longer on one side—the downwind side—than the other.
My favorite parts of this book, however, are when Cobb captures what is best described as attitude—sometimes determination, and sometimes resignation. What impresses me about this collection is that every still photograph implies a narrative of wind.
The very best parts of the publication are those that show the tenor and touch of wind in that region. Faces, clothing, situations—every aspect of life is into or away from the wind, and I found myself lingering over the photographs, imagining the stories behind the shots. Mistral is among those great photobooks that provoke a creative imagining in the viewer’s heart and head.
In addition to the images, there are bits of text scattered throughout the book. Journal entries and sayings by others all speak to either the wind or the region, and the effect throughout the book deepens the metaphorical context for the photographs. More importantly (and impressively), there is an eloquent and compelling essay by Cobb at the end of the book. Part autobiography and part artist’s statement, it gives a voice to the reason for her interest in this project.
The book ends with the images reproduced as thumbnails with captions—but the captions are not necessarily descriptions of what appears in the photograph. They are often more evocative bits of writing from somewhere else. After the thumbnails, there is a description of the Beaufort Scale of Wind Force for Land Areas, and then a map of France showing the wind patterns followed by acknowledgments.
Mistral is an entertaining, informed and wise photobook. If I were writing Hollywood hype, I’d use phrases like “instant classic.” But I’m not, so all I can promise is that this book will cause smiles both wide and wry.