Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

Lucid Dreams in the American West

Painted body bits, pigment-dusted deserts and living Matisse models all wrapped around indulgent landscapes


Jean-Paul Bourdier is a UC Berkeley Professor and a photographer whose work explores ‘being.’ Each image is a scene, staged and captured without any digital enhancement. It’s all analog photography — what you see on the page is what was really there. Jean-Paul is currently preparing to publish his third book on this theme, entitled BODYSCAPES II: Theater of Life.

For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with him about the images.


Emily von Hoffmann: Can you please describe the concept of your project, Bodyscapes, for our readers? How did this idea arise?

Jean-Paul Bourdier: The work has moved through many phases over the past 40 years. All of the stages, however, are based on a search for intimacy with what is giving birth to every second of our existence: this earth and sky. The question, “How do I remind myself that I exist?” is one of the bases of the work. The moment I exist, I realize that there are no limits among body, mind, earth and sky…I simply enter the unknown. Entering the unknown, I enter infinity — that is, no space and no time. This cohabitation with infinity is a second basis of the work. And if I push this further, I might say that the embrace of infinity may also be called love, truth or beauty; here, however, language is inadequate. In this stage there is no room for ugliness or beauty, all things are perfect the way they are…and labels disappear.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

J-PB: On one hand, I wish to create situations that are unexpected or experiences that are similar to creating the aliveness we feel when listening to a piece of music. We become alive when we drop into the unknown of a sound…when we enter the present moment.

On the other hand, I wish to suggest the infinite through the absence of scale within our Earth-dwelling, within its landscape, gravity, horizon line or sky. All the phases of the work overlapped. It all started with my work with ice and sand, then I moved to working with pigments, then working with the body. Some samples of each are accessible on my site.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

EvH: Each of these shots contrasts hyper-realistic landscapes with sort of raucously colored figures, which the viewer learns are not photoshopped but rather actually painted. What was your creative process like when preparing for these scenes? Did you sketch and iterate much, or were these more spontaneous?

J-PB: I like that you picked up on the “raucously colored figures,” as I, myself, am often surprised by them. If I were to ask myself why, I would say that they are often an acknowledgement of our brutal passage on earth and, more importantly, they depict the colors of our egos projected on the landscape. For we are like chameleons, changing colors to get what we desire or to repel what we fear. So, you will notice that the range of colors varies from where the body disappears in the landscape to where it plants itself aggressively like a traffic light.

My process also has changed over many years and is now totally hybrid. I used to draw sketches and stuck to the ideas as if they were the best thing in the world; slowly, I realized that the best shots could also happen when I was not in control, at the end of a shoot, for example, where friends would present different ideas or performances. Now, I collect my drawings in an organized way on perhaps a thousand small cards that I can move around, group or organize differently in function of what the landscape offers or what the group would like to do. But a lot of projects also come up “spontaneously,” depending on the climate, available materials or collaborators’/performers’ intuitions or desires. Some projects are long-range dreams that are just waiting for the landscape to welcome them.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

EvH: Why is it important for the project that no Photoshop be used? Can you discuss that creative choice a little?

J-PB: As I see it, my lucid dreaming is linked to thinking, which, in turn, quickly takes me out of existence. If I feel that I exist, I do not think, and if I think, I do not exist. The question of how I can divert thinking into existing is a basic point of departure for working with the landscape, or all that is. In being a hyphen between heaven and earth, this body has already all the freedom necessary… in this situation, why would I need Photoshop? Do I need more freedom than the very ingredients of existence: Gravity, horizontal line, view-framing, sensing and thinking? If I (even remotely) realize that walking on this earth is truly magical, can I find a way, through painting or staging, that slightly changes perceptions so that I realize that the enchantment is right here at every step? If I do away with the earth and its demands, how can I enjoy the experience of being while doing and how can I point at the “extraordinary lightness of being?” The simplicity of being is always naked in front of our eyes. The only veil is our thinking mind; do I need another (digital) veil or do I need to see without the glasses of thinking?

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

EvH: In some images, the figures blend into the earth, while in others they contrast. What conclusions are being suggested via the choice in paint color? What significance do these differences have for you, as the creator, and for us, as the viewer?

J-PB: In addition to the chameleon image I just referenced, there is also the dimension of light. As scientists have told us, matter is made of particles that are empty, and all is light. It is quite puzzling for my dualistic mind to see matter as empty and light as an experience that has never been touched or found (not to mention its extraordinary properties, from being infinite to traveling without vector or having a constant speed in an otherwise continuously changing universe).

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

J-PB: How can I materialize the phenomenon of this body dancing like a ball of light? One of my answers to this question is through the painting of the body so that we see it for what it is and not for what we have been programmed to think it is. In many instances, there is also a reflection on the futility — at least for the dominant groups — of segregating humans according to the color of their skin. I am this whole earth or I am not this earth; such are the poles between which I live, from existing to thinking. Such are the poles between which the work presents our lives: either melted in the earth or in contrast to it.

Thanks to the prison of the mind, we may experience the freedom of being. No color (or matter) exists out there; the world is painted according to the colors constructed by any viewer’s mind and senses. Displacing visual perception is one way to render this fleeting “reality.”

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

EvH: As a practical or logistical matter, how did you decide which landscapes to photograph? Where are some of these locations?

J-PB: So as to remain close to the infinite nature of our surroundings, I tend to favor desert landscapes and the deserts of the American West are the closest to where I live. But as long as I can also work with single and dense expanses of textures and colors (flowers, bushes or rocks for examples), I am also happy, for I am interested in the painterly quality of textures. The spread of one color renders the work closer to painting and therefore closer to the artificiality of any means of representation attempting to discern a moving reality. Behind many photos are days of walking and “scouting.” Most places are chosen for what they suggest, but also for their graphic quality, plasticity or colors that could be a suggestive background to engage the brief flowering of our being on earth.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

EvH: Who or what are some of your inspirations, in any medium?

J-PB: My inspiration these days is very close to the work of old painting masters that we all know. Inspiration, however, can spring either from the curious outflow that mind produces or from any visual image that provokes an association or a point of departure. This includes newspapers, online art, books, my students’ projects, etc. My key discipline is to immediately draw whatever I “see” during the day, for I tend to forget everything after a few hours.

EvH: If you could go anywhere in the world for your next project, where would that be, and what might that center on?

J-PB: Curiously, I used to have the strong desire to travel the world, which I did for many years. But now, in spite of many kind invitations elsewhere and, perhaps because this staging requires a lot of gear and my production means are limited, I only want to be in the deserts of the American West.

But in the end the desert is always my inner home so I do not need to go far.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Bourdier.

Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.

Jean-Paul Bourdier is a Professor at UC Berkeley. You can see more of his work on his website, and support his new book’s Kickstarter here.