It started, as most interesting stories do, with some major life changes and a Transatlantic plane ride. Jamie Beck was already an established professional photographer with her own studio in Lower Manhattan. But she felt it in her gut that she wanted to live in France.
Beck made the big move from busy New York to the cobblestoned quaintness of Provence in 2016. Though she intended it to be a one-year-sabbatical, it was not going to be any ordinary sojourn in France. It was the beginning of a transformative journey. One which would see the region and its cultural and natural world become a huge part of Beck’s inspiration. Today, she still continues to live in her beloved Provence.
The path she set off on, would see Beck cope with the challenges of being in a new country, while soaking up all that’s wonderful about Provençal life. All this, while creating art and documenting her life and artistic process via Instagram. Her striking photography, writing, impeccable fashion sense, and personality have won her a legion of followers.
As if that’s not enough, she wrote a New York Times bestselling book, her debut, An American in Provence, published in 2022.
In a world that’s increasingly moving towards over-consumption and over-scheduling, Beck’s books come as a delicious interlude. It is an invitation to stop and take a walk with her, exploring the fields and gardens of Provence. Come along as we talk to Beck about her latest book, her inspirations, and life in France.
The Flowers of Provence frames flowers not just as beautiful objects, but as an entry point for understanding Provence. Tell us about your connection to the place, and why it’s a compelling setting for this book?
Provence is my muse. She is breath and life; cycles of growth, rest and re-emergence. She changed my life forever. As such, I try to share her beauty and bounty with everyone to honor her. That appreciation for the daily life things that are all around us but my greatest joy of Provence is the flowers. Not only for their beauty, scent and decoration but how they are part of the ecosystem. Necessary for making honey, for pollination of fruit trees, and to tell farmers signs of disease before it attacks their crops. Flowers are edible, beautiful, used as dried herbs for cooking, medicinal, how perfume originated, essential oils and so much more. I dig deeper into the history and uses of flowers in this region, along with over 200 floral photographs, in my new book, The Flowers of Provence.
The marriage of words and images makes your book a sensorial experience. How did you arrive at this form of story-telling? What is your writing process like?
Writing is not something I’m terribly comfortable with because the process for me is so vastly different than when I photograph. When I create a photograph it is as if I have a perfect dance partner in photography. We can move through a space, an idea, and dance through the light effortlessly together. When I write, however, it feels like being drowned in a river. Fighting for air, grasping at words you can hold on to, not quite sure what’s around the riverbed. When I’m building a photograph I know where it’s going, I’m building what is in my mind’s eye. As an artist what interests me most is using words to illustrate what I was so accustomed to doing through photographs. Writing gives me an opportunity to explain what these images mean to me personally, and how and why they came to be.
Each photo is like a poem: every detail, petal, curve of a hand, is composed with intention. What’s at the root of your attention to the smallest details?
My time and experience in Provence has reawakened me to view life through the lens of childlike wonder. As if I am seeing everything anew for the first time and it’s … magical! I feel like this means being present and delighted by the small things such as a hidden snail still laying dormant in the bouquet of flowers I purchased at the market or the way the light dances across the Luberon as though it were fingers trickling across a piano. I also draw inspiration from old world paintings like those of the Dutch masters where the more you look within the image, the more things you notice. Those aspects of everyday life that are always present; you just must slow down and be present to noice.
Your work reminds me of Blake: ‘Like seeing eternity in the grain of a sand, and heaven in an hour.’ The joy that you derive in mundane aspects of life: a stray butterfly, a wet beetle, where does that come from? Can one learn to develop this gaze?
It is something I learned to appreciate while young and in the garden with my grandmother. I’ve always been keen on details and beauty but once I took my first photograph, I never looked back. I was constantly chasing that feeling of creating and capturing the beauty of a moment. Building my still lives, I am building out what I see in my mind. It’s rhythmic and natural which sometimes means trial and error. Anyone can develop this gaze by simply looking at what is already around us and finding what is delightful. Colours, textures, tones, smells, sounds, shapes, beauty is an endless opportunity… it’s just all in how you choose to see.
You use a long and intricate process to create your photographs, even using multiple ‘plates’ to compose a scene. Tell us more about your techniques, and inspirations?
I came into the digital world kicking and screaming post graduation from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology where I worked exclusively with film. I was looking for a way to maintain that feeling that I was able to create on film and in a darkroom. The grain, the depths, the tones, the details, the contrast of shadows and light… Now, when working digitally I want my work to feel like a painting. Sounds so clichée but my inspiration is life itself here in Provence. It’s art both in the technical sense but also in the sense of “l’art de la vie”. It’s one of the things I love and appreciate the most about France. The way every shopkeeper greets you (and expects a hello in return), it’s the way life in all its splendour moves like the seasons during the year. I slowed down to France’s pace which we can all agree is quite different from New York City where I came from. As I began to reconstruct what a 24-hour day was, my approach to photography changed. No longer thousands of photographs rapid fire a second, but instead, taking the long time to compose one image in an entire day. Making the photograph does not start with the camera. It’s starts with your day, your mindset, what is happening at the moment in life and then my job as a photographer is capturing that story to the upmost detail. If you’re flying through life, flying through frames, just imagine all the beautiful little details you’re missing. These details are aspects I will “paint” in layer by layer giving each my full attention in post production.
You have dedicated this book to your grand-mother. As I explored the book, themes of family and heritage stood out to me. Can you discuss the influence of family on your life and work as an artist?
My grandmother was a prominent figure in my life. I would spend my time with her in her garden, planting flowers, and enjoying all that nature had to offer. Listening to her talk about how she learned to grow vegetables from her father. However, it was not until the birth of my daughter Eloise, that I really understood the deeper meaning of family. As I look at her, I think of all that I am teaching her and will leave behind through her or my art long after I have passed. One of the hardest things I did was take a photograph each month during the first year of her life. It was challenging as an artist, as a new mother trying to find her way… This I could not have completed without my husband and partner, Kevin Burg. My family is my life and my life is my inspiration as an artist. I do not even see a line between the two sometimes as it feels so natural.
Your self-portraits are fascinating in the way it references classical art, while being an expression of your own life. What is the significance of these self-representations within your body of work?
I started taking self portraits when I arrived in France. I knew no one, spoke no French and had none of my usual models that my life in New York afford access to, so I just used myself to create. In teh beginning it was a way to see where I was in France but quickly became a tool, as France began to change me fundamentally, to study this metamorphosis I was experiencing in life visually unfold. I speak a lot to this body of work and era of my life in France in my 1st book, An American in Provence, which was a New York Times Bestseller as well as my technical process to creating some of my most iconic self portraits.
With social media increasingly moving towards video content, what has been your experience working with videos versus photos?
It has actually given me a greater appreciation for photography and how we experience it. By being pushed culturally into video (either by content creation or just consumption) it is helping me to understand that thing in which I have always loved, photography, so much more. With that said, what makes a compelling photograph? It is in part due to storytelling and the satisfaction of the artist in its creation, expression, and creative decisions. Video is no different in that regard, another tool under the same principles of storytelling. This is why so many directors and cinematographers are also great photographers, it’s just a choice on how to get the point across- in motion or frozen in time.
What do you appreciate most about living in France? What do you find challenging?
I was just telling a winemaker friend, Natalie Milan from Domain Milan in St.Rémy , the other day that one of the things I love most about life in France is my rituals. This is to say, going to the Saturday market, and buying local produce. Walking to each vendor and farmer, taking whatever is seasonal and fresh before going home to make lunch for our family. It feels so organic… I cook without a recipe and just let the bounty inspire me. As far as challenges, I would say the language is really tough though, not for my 4 year old daughter Eloise who likes to correct me when I am saying it wrong… which is most of the time!
What do you miss the most about the US?
As far as missing the most about the US, I would say in the beginning I really missed tacos and margaritas and the diversity in cultural foods I had at the tip of my finger in New York, but really, I don’t even miss them that much anymore. It is kind of funny when we go back to the states for family visits or work how incredibly fast things can get done which is nice once in a while. That and Americans have such an “everything is possible” attitude which is a fun break from the French one which is quite often, “It is not possible.” So I enjoy that about the United States but only because I don’t experience on a day to day I can appreciate it.
Any parting words for photographers or creatives who want to draw inspiration from you, to set off on their own ‘artists’s journey,’ but probably haven’t found the courage to?
It’s never too late. Do it now, it’s something that can change your life forever. Go with your gut. Make things for the fun of it, do it for you, therein lies the happiness.
What are your upcoming plans? Anything else you would like to share with us?
This October my second book, The Flowers of Provence, with Simon & Schuster will be published. This book is a celebration of one of my favorite subjects in the South of France- flowers! A mixture of my original art with floral tutorials from Provencal artisans included. After this, I’m looking forward to exploring new forms of storytelling through new products we have been working years on creating to bring to life the look, smells, and thoughts of Provence, as well as launching a new community platform for creatives, artists, and of course, FRANCOPHILES! You can keep up with all my news by following me on instagram at @jamiebeck.co and signing up for my newsletter.
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