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To Capture French Region Of Provence, She Photographed The Wind


Can you capture the wind? No, this is not a riddle. This is what photographer Rachel Cobb set out to do - and not just any wind but let le Mistral, the strong, cold wind that blows across Provence in the south of France. Cobb spent years photographing it, starting with Kodachrome film, ending with digital cameras. And she has collected her work in a new book. I asked her how this obsession began.

RACHEL COBB: The reason why I got started is because I wanted to try to tell the story of Provence in a way that hadn't been told. And when I first started going there, my neighbors would always - they would come outside in the evenings, and they would put their chairs out and start to talk about various things, especially the weather. And the Mistral was a big topic. You know, when was it going to calm, and when was it going to fall? In Provence, they don't say the wind stops. They say (speaking French); it falls. And so I thought because it effected so many aspects of life there, I thought that it could be a good lens to look at Provence.

KELLY: All right, so back to the central conundrum it must be to try to capture this in photographs, there's one that I loved that made clear even the spiders are affected (laughter) - the way that their webs get blown about. This is a photograph on page 49. Describe it for me.

COBB: Right. So spiders expend a lot of energy making their webs, and in order to lessen the damage, they try to build them to - so they won't get the full brunt of the wind. And so one morning when I was driving - actually driving my son to school, I looked out and saw these - an entire field of cherry trees, and they were covered with spiderwebs. And it was backlit, and there was a lot of moisture in the air and smoke 'cause they burn their fields in the mornings. And so that combination made the spiderwebs light up. And you could see them from a distance.

KELLY: It's beautiful. When you say you were driving your son to school, it becomes clear that while you are American, you - you've actually picked up and moved your life, moved your family to this part of France, giving you the chance to watch this unfold year-round and how it changes year to year. Is there one shot that you tried and tried and tried and tried and just couldn't ever quite get to capture this?

COBB: There are pictures on top of Mont Ventoux, the mountain that we look out on from our village. It took me ten years to get those pictures. I went up three times. And it was part of the reason why we moved there. We moved there for a year - picked up the family and moved to Provence for the year. Anyway, those pictures - I would - you had to have snow, and then you had to have a small warming period. And then the Mistral would come and blow the snow, so it would freeze it in shape. So picture of the pole - the snow actually looks like a flag...

KELLY: It does. I'm looking at it.

COBB: ...Coming off the pole.

KELLY: You've got this as a double-page spread, and it's incredible. It's snow just blown completely horizontally.

COBB: Exactly.

KELLY: Have you shown this book around in the village where you lived in Provence? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

COBB: I have. And you never know what people are going to think about you turning the lens on their culture and their place. I spoke to the mayor in our little village, and he looked at the book. And he said, well, I love the Mistral. And I said, well, I do, too, you know?


COBB: He loved the way it would bang on his house and make him feel safe indoors in bed.

KELLY: That's a lovely image. What is it that you love about the Mistral after all these - what? - 40 years of chasing it and trying to document it?

COBB: Well, I feel like the Mistral is the story of Provence because Provence was always an independent region, and it couldn't be controlled. It was not part of France until the 15th century. And the Mistral is wild and uncontrollable, and people there - although they complain about it, they kind of like it because it's - it is this force of nature that they can't - they can't do anything about it. And there's a certain pride in being able to endure it.

KELLY: Well, Rachel Cobb, thank you.

COBB: Thank you so much.


KELLY: Her new photography book is "Mistral: The Legendary Wind Of Provence."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.