Six years ago, photographer Jamie Beck was seemingly living life. She ran a thriving commercial photography studio in New York City and had all the trappings of success: prestigious clients from vogue at Nike, a nice apartment, designer clothes, a vintage car. However, surrounded by what seemed like a dream, it was anything but – Beck found she was dealing with a wild feeling of inexplicable doom.
Meanwhile, Beck was spending half the year traveling for work, when two jobs took her to the area she now calls home. A visit to the French village of Lacoste and then to Grasse, the capital of perfume, left her enchanted. After experiencing a turbulent and scary plane trip, Beck had an epiphany. She wanted to live in France before she died. Paris wouldn’t do; it looked too much like New York. So she went to Provence.
“It was just fascinating to me,” says Beck PopPhoto about what drove her to uproot her life. “The light was so beautiful. There are so many different textures, colors, meanings and essences that I have never experienced before that haunt me.
An American in Provence
What was supposed to be a sabbatical year turned into six years and counting in a small Provencal town. And now Beck has a book to show for it. An American in Provence tells the landscape through the seasons via recipes, anecdotes and, of course, photography tutorials, and Beck’s signature, painterly images reminiscent of the Dutch masters. It is, moreover, a record of his own personal transformation.
“What I thought was very external because it’s so beautiful and rich here, was also internal too,” she shares. “It changed me. Throughout this process of moving to France, I studied this change in the landscape outside my window and in myself, through my camera.
An American in Provence is exquisite in its skilful marriage between visual artwork and writing. Looking through it, I wasn’t sure which to turn to first – the beautiful photographs or the rich stories (and recipes) behind them. The images are a visual feast, attracting Beck a loyal following online. If she writes that her life in New York did not allow her to create the type of art she wanted, neither did she land in Provence with a vision of still lifes and self-portraits. They are the result of finally finding space and time to play and experiment, as well as crucial interaction with his local cheese maker.
“I was so present because there are not many distractions here. There is not so much noise. There is no entertainment, things to do. I just had my camera to entertain myself and play with photography again,” she recalls. “It opened up this whole level when the guy I buy cheese from asked me to do a still life of his cheese. He started a fire. I was like, ‘Wow, what’s up? there around us that is part of our daily life and that is incredibly beautiful?’ It’s about the life around us and the beauty of that life. It was definitely not something I had planned other than just wanting to explore and play. Really just playing with photography again and seeing where it might lead.
Over the years, the self-portrait has become another staple of the photographer’s repertoire. Allusions to Botticelli and other Old Masters abound in the deep shadows, rich colors and perfectly placed hands. Beck notes that Van Gogh practiced self-portraiture in order to better understand light and color – she does the same.
“It was just a study and a play,” she says at the start. “To find a deeper direction in my portrait photography. At first, I was just playing, even though I had an idea. But now, when I go out, I really try to tell a specific story of my life.
As the day at the market with the cheesemonger was a catalyst for her still life practice, Beck’s pregnancy with her daughter, now three, was a turning point in her study of self-portraiture.
“I became very in tune and attached to the land, the seasons and being more of a part of it. I wanted to express myself in this space”, explains the artist. “Documenting my pregnancy in a changing body was just a really fun aspect of it just because it’s such an amazing experience that we’re having. Now I’m trying to do things that are even more elaborate and more painterly and more detached from what we usually see.
For one who creates such elaborate scenes, Beck’s photography kit is surprisingly (and refreshingly) simple. She prefers her Sony α7R IV with a Sony 90mm lens for her still lifes; a 24-70mm for snapshots; and a 50mm and 35mm while traveling.
An American in Provence is a dance between the poetry of words and images. One moment you’re dreaming of the tantalizing champagne-soaked violet sorbet, the next you’re scrambling to assemble the materials for a cyanotype tutorial, all the while trying to take your eyes off the Provençal landscape, periodically crossed with a scribble line or two from his personal journals. It’s no wonder Beck has been hailed as the next Peter Mayle.
Asked about her favorite entrees, Beck shares three, though when it comes to recipes, she prefaces that it depends on the mood. A good starter for the novice cook, however, would be the whole roast chicken.
“We eat roast chicken all year round and vegetables [are] the only thing that changes. It’s so delicious and so French,” reveals Beck. “I just do the riser that you put the chicken on with half a lemon and half a head of garlic. It’s super easy. You don’t even have to have that much equipment. It’s just butter, the secret of butter honestly, and salt. Like everything.
She also mentions a violet sorbet made with champagne and a tutorial on cyanotype, which she strongly recommended staying in the book, as the analog process is popular in France.
“We get so much sun and they’re so easy to make,” says Beck. “And we have so many landscapes to forage and craft, and the color blue is the [same] blue of the [sky] here. It’s so Provencal to me.
Encourage others to step into their creativity
As for what she hopes people will take away from the book? An American in Provence can be a love letter to photography, but it’s also an ode to the beauty and life you can create, if you dare. There is something for everyone, whether or not you consider yourself a photographer or art lover. According to Beck, creativity is present in even our most mundane activities.
“I think we humans love to create and we are creators,” she says. “You can create a photograph obviously. You can create a painting. [But even if you’re not creative in the traditional sense] you also create the dinner and you create your outfits and you create your house. There is creativity in every aspect of what we do. It is part of our nature. I feel like the days we create are better days for us as humans.
An American in Provence is available for pre-order now with a November 1 release date.