Boris Malafosse is not a full-time photographer. He hardly counts as a professional. A schoolteacher in Marseille, he happens to make interesting photographs, some of which he sells as unique artist’s books, and more of which he deliberately puts without commentary on a web-site remarkable for its lack of context. ‘Amateur’ carries overtones of poor standards, of trivial irrelevance or of self-indulgence. Malafosse is a kind of amateur, but none of those overtones apply. By earning his living elsewhere, Malafosse preserves his freedom to photograph exactly as he wants, with neither commission nor client to show him the way. That’s all. For quality, for standards, and perhaps for relevance, Malafosse is the real deal. I could certainly name many and many full-time photographers who fall far short of Malafosse’s level, whichever way he pieces together the elements of his life.
In September 2011, Malafosse had a show at Le Lièvre de Mars (the March Hare), a bookshop in Marseille. I’m not even sure it wasn’t his first show. I missed it, but I saw the releases, and I found myself intrigued. Here was a photographer working in Polaroid – a medium now rare and formally obsolete, at least until the efforts of the Impossible Project bring some derivative of it back to currency. Here, too, was a photographer apparently making collages. The self-imposed clash was flagrant: Polaroid ( at least in its original configuration ) was made to be easy. It was famous for its immediacy. Collage is by definition a slow way of making images: it’s done by layering, and the meaning and the emotion are contained in the accumulation of all the layers together. There’s a big contradiction there, and Malafosse seemed to welcome it.
Another contradiction is in his subject matter: Renaissance paintings are often held to demand an exaggerated respect, as a distillation of classical mythology or Bible stories or sometimes just the heavy aspirations of donors or other wealthy patrons. Painting was weighty, each piece pregnant with meaning at the time it was made, and the passage of time has only added to the freight that each carries. Malafosse lacks nothing in respect, yet he often couples bits of these paintings with the scruffy, anonymous, hot-country vegetation of the south of France where he lives. Agaves, cacti, scrubby brush, holm oak and tough pines: these are plants which collectively mean a lot, but which are almost never taken individually. So what is Malafosse doing when he puts the elements of the one in the other? What are a couple of holy Botticelli ladies doing in the agaves?
I think there are three answers. Botticelli was a fabulist. He told stories in paint, for very particular reasons. Put a factual, scientifically accurate gloss on that — and one specifically tied to the hot landscapes of the Middle East in which his stories were supposed to be set — and you immediately throw doubt on our comfortable, habitual reading. The very different bits of picture set each other off and the careful composition is designed to help you notice it happening. Malafosse supplies a modern proscenium through which to admire again in a new context pictures which are so familiar they might not reach us with full vigour without some such reintroduction.
Secondly, he has an unblinking concentration on surfaces. If you put Adam and Eve in a jungle lush even by the standards of Thomas Struth’s Paradise series, you ask questions about the frailty of flesh compared to long thorns, and more obliquely, about the customs of unrealistic depiction even in the most nearly ‘real’ traditions of paint. It works both up and down, too: just as the realist work is contrasted against the greater realism of photography, so other pictures here are phantasmagoria contrasted against the unimaginable but nevertheless simply accurate fantasies of natural selection.
And thirdly, I think I discern something less rooted in art history. Malafosse wants us to have a picture experience which is fresh and which he, as ‘our’ artist (I mean that in opposition to the old masters he samples from, who are in a sense everybody’s), can claim as properly his own. Beyond the clever construction of the ideas in these Polaroids, we have to notice the confident, even rather easy construction of them just as pictures. They fit. They have points of humour and points of pathos. They balance. They are, in other words, real pictures as well as real meditations.
Boris Malafosse’s website is HERE and the particular series is called Ut Pictura. Several of the other series are interesting, too, notably a black and white 35mm one called Notes Pour Le Voyage en Belgique which is more plainly indebted to a surreal inheritance than Ut Pictura, and another called Couleurs, which plays more between three dimensional objects and the flat planes of photographs and other graphics re-photographed.
All three of these series could bear interesting comparison with pictures by a number of different photographers current and earlier. There is certainly a widespread revival of ‘manipulated’ or ‘altered’ photography at the moment. I put it down to a certain consciousness that everybody is now a photographer of sorts. ‘Straight’ photography is now available to all. Therefore those who would distinguish themselves have to make something different. Embroidering on photographs does it for some, but there are a hundred variants. Malafosse has found his way, in sympathy with some tendencies of the moment, in counterpoint to others. He is plainly highly literate in a certain kind of imagery, and is certainly not any kind of outsider artist. I suppose he’s just a good artist who hasn’t found his dealer yet, and there’s no shame in that.
The artist’s books are available HERE, and as usual, I feel I should add that I have no commercial connection with the artist, the bookshop, the website which represents him or anybody else concerned.