We almost didn’t make it to France, despite my having won a Fulbright to pursue my research on honey bees. I was investigating how to improve honey bee health at the National Institute of Agriculture in Avignon, smack dab in the agricultural heartland of the Provence.
We had scrimped on clothing essentials to ensure our suitcases didn’t exceed the allotted limits. The man at the American check-in counter eyed us suspiciously, evaluating the bulging load we each carried on our backs. After checking us in, he demanded to weigh our carry-on. Two laptops, three external hard drives, two Nikon professional camera bodies, extra camera batteries, two flash units and an array of lenses stuffed into our backpacks put us 12 pounds over the limit.
“You’ll have to check it,” the man behind the counter insisted in a nasally, ingratiating tone of officialdom.
“I can’t,” my husband Michael calmly retorted. “It’s all electronics. I’m a professional photographer.”
“I’ve won a Fulbright to work in France for 10 months,” I piped up.
His eyes studied our faces for a moment, then he rapidly typed into his terminal. After a moment of frenzied key clacking, he looked down at our bags. “The flight isn’t fully booked. I’ll let you on this time.”
With a sigh of relief we retrieved our bags from the scale, shouldered the weight and hustled over to security. A 9-hour flight, a stopover and another short jaunt later, we landed in Nice, three hours by car from our final destination. Exhausted and a little disheveled from the journey, we emerged through customs into the bright sunny terminal. Ah, southern France in late October. It was going to be a glorious ten months.
Had we known it would be our last day of sunshine for three weeks, we would have paused to relish the event. We had four days to settle in to our rented apartment, familiarize ourselves with our little tincan of a Peugeot, learn the roads, figure out where we could buy essentials and adjust to our new location before I reported to my first day of work on November 1st.
The sky opened up as I’ve only seen it rain in the movies, a deluge of water that flooded into our apartment. Large rivulets of water streamed across the tiled floor as we searched for towels to mop up the uninvited invader. Relentless rain continued for a week, letting up only briefly. The weather turned cold and the wind kicked up. I layered my sweaters, trying to stay warm.
My first day of work approached and I was thrilled to finally meet the expert who was to be my mentor during my stay in France. “But no one works on November 1st,” a French friend informed me. “It’s All Saints Day, a national holiday.” Good to know, better late than not at all.
So Michael drops me off at work the following day. I’m greeted by one of my hosts’ PhD students, who introduces me to the team. I quickly learn that working at a French government institute is not at all like working at an American University. Registration and paperwork ensue. It takes a week just to be approved and gain Internet access for my laptop.
My husband, who has worked hives with me for more than a decade, often assists me with my research projects, lending an extra pair of hands. But that’s out of the question here in France, my host informs me. “Liability issues.”
So with only one car and many months to kill, what will my creative husband do? At first he drives from one historic town to the next. He photographs the beautiful old Roman ruins, the medieval perched villages, the undulating fields sprouting twisted orchards of bare cherry trees and ancient olive groves.
But the winters in southern France are bitter cold. The Mistral, a cold, dry, ruthless wind from the north, batters across the landscape at up to 50 miles per hour. The wind howls down the narrow town streets, whipping against the body with such force it’s difficult to set one foot in front of the other. The handsome towns, colorful and gay during the tourist season, sink into quiet oblivion in the winter.
Wealthy foreigners purchased most of the historic buildings and farms as secondary summer homes. From November through April, when the tourists seek balmier climes, the stores and restaurants shutter. Even the picturesque cafes, synonymous with the kick-back-and-relax atmosphere of Provence, disappear behind thick metal security gates. The cheerful hostess with her tray of rich espresso, café crème and refreshing Pastis only reappears after Easter, serving the steady stream of clients unwinding beside the petanque (a French version of boules) court.
Described by countless authors, the Mistral must be experienced to be believed. “When it blows for more than a week,” one of my coworkers at the institute informs me, “we have a rash of suicides.” After one week of unremitting wind, the water pipes freeze in our studio apartment. Ever apologetic, our sweet landlady lets us shower and wash dishes at her place next door.
With the cold battering us and my darling barred from my workplace, we decide to put his photographic talents to use and open a temporary photo studio in our apartment. He had always enjoyed shooting fashion. So at my insistence, we start a Facebook account for him. We befriend French photographers online and their models quickly add Michael as an “ami.” Within a month we have over 200 Facebook friends. The models adore his style of work and ask to be photographed.
Michael speaks but a few words of French, enough to say hello, goodbye and no thank you. French models almost universally speak nothing but their mother tongue. And yet, through body language and typing simple phrases into Google translate when sign language won’t work, he photographs myriad French fashion models.
French models refuse to look directly at the photographer. But in Michael’s style of imagery, he needs the model to look at the camera. When he makes a large print, the model’s gaze speaks directly to the viewer, arresting the viewer’s attention with an alluring look.
Michael bursts into song: “I’m gonna rock and I’m gonna roll, I’m gonna sing just to saaaave my soul,” dragging out the words in a jazzy drawl. He starts jiving in place, his feet making up dance steps as he belts out nonsense lyrics. His musical antics put the models at ease and instantly achieve the impish, playful look he wants for his photographs. Quickly dubbed “The Singing Photographer,” Michael is befriended by models throughout France, from the Provence to Paris.
When my research projects don’t require tending on the weekends, I assist Michael with the photo shoots. My job: help direct the models and coordinate the makeup artists, fashion designers and hairdressers.
To support an emerging dress designer who makes custom gowns and cocktail dresses, we arrange a photo shoot in a picturesque medieval village built on Roman foundations we discovered in the mountainous Ardeche. The dress designer uses several regional Miss France contestants to model her dresses. Michael brings another three models with whom he has already worked in the studio. A hairstylist Michael previously photographed agrees to transform the models’ tresses into elegant updos. But we need electricity for her curling iron and a place to dress the models.
Summoning my best French, I telephone the owner of the Ray Charles, a quaint yet sumptuous restaurant where we dined previously. Built into the barrel-arched rooms of a medieval house, the bistro serves delectable homemade meals. When I explain the upcoming photo shoot, the owner Corinne agrees to open her doors early for our entourage.
Our crew fills her eatery with bags, boxes of shoes and rows of dresses. Corinne welcomes us with light refreshments, excited to be part of the group. She admires the dressmaker’s craftsmanship as each model prances about in a gown.
“I wish I were young and getting married again,” she exclaims, while her eyes admire the corset wedding dresses. Although our team takes over her restaurant, hindering passing tourists from entering, she doesn’t seem to mind.
Tourists explore the historic village rebuilt by 10,000 international volunteers and stop to gawk at the models posing in the street, pulling out smartphones to snap a picture. A group pauses to watch Michael work with two of the models in black evening gowns. They quickly realize he speaks no French and the models don’t comprehend English. Mystified, a sightseer spins toward one of the models who is waiting her turn to be photographed again.
“How does this work?” he asks in French. “How can you work with him when you can’t understand him?”
Eavesdropping on the conversation, I hear the model respond in French, “Are you kidding? Working with Michael is super easy. French photographers tell me to look happy. How do I know what that means? With Michael, I simply do what he does.”
Since our return to the States, we continue to receive friend requests from France. Models we worked with want to know when we will be back.
“Not until after I finish my PhD,” we respond.
“At least that gives me time to practice my singing,” one model jokes.
To see a small selection of our work from France, like “Model with Michael” on Facebook. Have you always wanted to be in front of the camera? Michael has opened a second studio near ASU’s Polytechnic campus and provides free test shots to women who have an intriguing and compelling look.
Reach the writer at email@example.com