There are artistic projects with long gestation periods, and then there are the ones that take almost an entire life. The new book from photographer Rachel Cobb, Mistral, is a product of the latter type of preoccupation. A lifelong fascination with the legendary winds of the South of France has yielded a lush and vibrant book—a work that resonates with the intensity of the forces it seeks to capture.
Cobb first came to the region she depicts as a teenager. Her family was from Texas but visited Provence in it’s “pre–Peter Mayle” days, as she puts it. In the village where her family stayed, there were no streetlights. “The garbage was collected by a husband-and-wife team on a tractor,” she tells me. Earlier, in the impoverished decades after the war, many families had been unable to maintain their ancestral properties, and so they had removed the roofs from their houses in order to avoid paying property taxes. (An unlivable house was a nontaxable house.)
It was during these early visits to the then-rustic region that Cobb first developed her fascination with the mistral—the unpredictable winds that result when high pressure in the Bay of Biscay (on the southwest of France) is matched by low pressure in the Gulf of Genoa (on the southeast of France)—pushing powerful gusts to the east. These winds have dominated the landscape for centuries, captivating artists and writers ranging from émile Zola to Vincent van Gogh. (Recall those hoary, fiery swirls in The Starry Night.)
Cobb would develop her own project intermittently on family vacations and sporadic trips, between journalistic work, as she experienced the mistral’s effects on her own life: When the photographer was married, her husband spent the first portion of their wedding day perfecting the seating arrangements, only to have his work destroyed by a gust that blew it all away. Despite years of dedication to the subject, it’s not an easy thing to capture, the weather, as Bill Buford points out in an introduction to the work. Cobb would “stalk the wind, in the same way that local Proven?al hunters might stalk a wild boar,” Buford writes, “hoping to come upon it before it got away, hoping to take it by surprise.” And so Cobb moved her family to France for a year, enrolling her young son in the local school, so that she could get the pictures she desired.
The result of the years—and one focused year—of photographic work is a book that is not only about bending trees and wedding veils held aloft, but also about the preparations and adaptations people invent when they want to live an orderly life amid forces of disorder. “As long as there have been inhabitants in Provence, people have had to struggle with this,” Cobb notes. “There are prehistoric walls on the northwest side of firepits to protect against this wind.” Front doors are often located on the shielded south side of the house to prevent excess banging. (“The doors, if they were left open for a moment, through forgetfulness, slammed to with a noise like the report of a cannon,” writes Zola in Doctor Pascal. “It was as if they were withstanding a siege, among the clamor and anguish.”) Rows of cypress and poplars are planted as windbreaks around vineyards. Custom-made concrete semicircles keep postcard racks from flying into the air. Stones are placed on top of terra-cotta tiles to keep them from being lifted away.
Cobb was careful to capture these quieter manifestations of the mistral as well. Life in Provence, she tells me, is not just a series of squalls. And so she wanted her book to mimic the uncertain pacing of life, with moments of quiet—a windfall of pears, a spiderweb oriented in a way that reduced its exposure—amid the more dramatic disruptions. “I took a lot of pictures of hair blowing,” says Cobb, “but you can’t repeat that forever.”