Western Colors

Photographs from years living in New Mexico

[Photography by Bernard Plossu]

Hobo #20 —Paris, September 2016.

Hobo — Do you still believe a young man should ‘go west?’
Bernard Plossu — More or less… But more yes than no, because the land there is still wide open… and a new life still possible, I hope!!!?

Are there recurring themes or a recurring story that, no matter what, always seems to run through your work?
Yes there are always pictures of roads, paths, a way to always go somewhere else! Now I am older and I admire the pictures of the french garden of Paul Strand at the end of his life after years of travelling! I still walk and there are always pictures of rocks! I need them, but I dont know why? Probably because I am the son of a montaineer who taught me the mountains?

What were the Beats about?
The Beats, just before my generation, were rebels to straight organised life! And rightly so! It was a freedom, though, the right to be against America, meanwhile in Russia they were under police control all the time! Being a Beat was going away far, for no special reason but for the sake of freedom… Also jazz was part of it, and friendship among different colors, very necessary at the time, against the awful KKK.

You came of age just after the Beats. Your photos from ¡Vámonos! (or Le Voyage Mexicain) zig zag through Mexico with the pace of a Beat novel and were taken in ‘65 and ‘66. The Summer of Love was in 1967! Was the beginning of the hippie movement a continuation? Was it a larger counterculture? How authentic was it, really?
The Hippie movement was the natural continuation of Beat culture: less jazz, though, more Beatles type! But it was also totally sincere! Nothing like the press showed of sex and drugs, but a real philosophical movement that was the predecessor of ecology.

Is the spirit that defined your generation still alive? Personally I like to think some dreams have been passed on. That’s an essential thing that happens in life no? Myth…
I think that the spirit of my generationi is still on, yes. but as Dylan said, ‘the times they are a-changin’, and now when I see young people always their nose on their i-phones or cells, or portable computers, I feel that they lost the sharing part of life that was a key of my days! We were pre-ecologists, and that is still alive, that spirit goes on, even more necessary than ever, no?

Can you thrill to live and photograph at the same time?
But to live and to photograph is for me the same thing, of course! Photographing is a way to breathe and to be part of real life!

Like a lot of paths, at some point you have commit and maybe become who you were pretending to be. Did this profession come at a cost?
Becoming a full time photographer didnt ask any giving up of beat philosophy! On the contrary, it allowed me to go on travelling! Among places to India! Same thing for fellow photografer the Australian Max Pam, he has never changed! Even now!

Your black and white photos, it’s well known, are instant. You can focus quicker than anyone. Fastest gun in the west… But these colour ones, there’s something more still, like you’ve arrived somewhere and decided to stay.
True that pictures in black and white for me appear faster than the color ones. Well seen, Shawn. But I don’t know what there is more. I think that the content is the same though: My pictures, whether in B&W or in colour, speak of the non-decisive moments, not capturing but EVOKING a mood or a place! Maybe that is what you mean with “something more still”…

What are your favourite films? Westerns?
That is a wide question! Photographically, I was made by Bergman’s The Silence and La Notte by Antonioni, and all the Nouvelle Vague films filmed by great cameraman Raoul Coutard. But in my childhood and adolescence, I did see many many Westerns. I loved the cinemascope screen! And I became very pro-indian! These films like Broken Arrow opened my eyes and my interest for Apache culture.

How did a kid that grew up surrounded by the paved streets and old stones of Paris come to walk so thoroughly throughout the American Southwest—Apache, Chiricahua, Navajo country?
Arriving, and staying in the American southwest was being on the set of these Westerns for real at last! Walking all over the southwest was being into the western sceneries! But I preferred walking silently to horse back riding: It gives you space, smells, noises.

Sociologically, what do you feel are the most evident differences between Americans and Europeans?
Americans are less concerned about fashion about “le look”! Hippie culture, there was never a fashion! In Europe, the true hippies, disgusted, went away, horrified at seeing fashion and people magazine showing people dressed like hippies! They had only the look, not the soul! I met many French hips in India, great people. Maybe the naive part of Americans, less sceptic, less cynical, helped them go for it totally! Everything is possible in the US!

Any Native American lessons you might have heard that you can share?
Yes, walking in the desert, one learns how to feel the slighest details—animals, plants—and the quality of silence there is unique! How can one watch TV after? It teaches you how to see for real.

When I look at your colour photos I get a sense of a season or weather about to change. I’ve always found that to be a comforting time and place to be in. This storm rising. It’s beyond our control, it’s going to happen and all one can do is wait it out. For how long…
There is no bad and good weather! All weathers are interesting in photography! And I actually prefer what is called bad weather to a stupid pretty blue sky scenery. For instance, I always liked northern California and was always bored in southern California. Big Sur, so much better than Santa Barbara! I learnt weather in looking at Brueghel’s paintings. New Mexico is straight out of Brueghel !

Do you sometimes shoot digital? If not, can you explain the reason(s)?
No digital, dont like the battery that allows to take 600 pictures! I love the discipline of having rolls of thirty-six views, that’s all. And they look like technology in cars! Same bullshit. Not for me.

You once told me to not only travel but to go somewhere and then stay there. Can you expand on that?
Yes I did travel often, to far away places like India or Turkey , but I also liked to stay places a real long time, between two to ten years! That is the way I lived in Mexico, in Andalusia, and in the American southwest. Being a full time resident makes you live with the people there, becoming in a way part of their lifestyle. To photograph like that is different from rushing in and out. You get to know the small roads, the more secret areas, for which it does take time for a real knowledge! If I hadn’t stay in New Mexico for years, based there, I could never have done the immense serie of desert photos The Garden of Dust, which took me years and years, little by little…

Does the “West” still exist? Has it been replaced by homogeneity?
City life is similar in the US, but when you start travelling in the huge empty southwest, it is just like before! Spacious and windy, with the tumbleweeds going from nowhere to nowhere! Even if cities like Phoenix or Albuquerque keep growing and growing, once you drive away, there still are hundreds of dirt roads that take nowhere!

Do you speculate much on the future? What concerns and/or excites you about where humanity is heading?
I dont have the answer of the future. But even if modern life helps some aspects of our life, like medicine improving, hospitals etc., we pay a price for technology. The use of too many unecessary machines has become a slavery. Always keep in mind Orwell’s book, 1984!

Who is your favorite singer/writer/artist? If you met someone who had never encountered your choice, what single song/book/painting would you choose to convince them that you weren’t crazy?
Fred Neil with no hesitation. Low voice, twelve-string guitar, once you listen to his songs like “Green Rocky Road”, or “Little Bit of Rain”, you know the guy is great and humble. When he died, I was immensely sad, like loosing a best friend! Dylan speaks very highly of him in his book Chronicles, at the start.

You’ve always been so generous, championing other photographers and artists. Anyone you’d like to bring attention to?
Max Pam. And Madrid photographer Luis Baylon. and French traveller Françoise Nunez. Also many new young European photographers, for instance Melania Avanzato.

It’s time to go, hit the road: three things you will always pack…
Tomatoes, cheese and good shoes. And film!

A song to listen to while looking at your photos?
Coltrane or the composer Garrett List.

Where to next? To walk and live.
Italy, Italia, more and more, always! Dream of moving there for good.