Cartes postales du bagne

Cyanotypes at the well

IMG_8567At the disused well in the Camp de la Transportation in St Laurent du Maroni, I made two cyanotypes using plants I had just picked from the vegetation protruding from the well. I was interested in the plants as potential symbols – of the lives of the bagnards who had previously existed here. These cyanotypes are made using Sunography paper, the most readily available commercial light sensitive papers that I’ve found. This technique was borrowed, or serendipitous, just as was the idea to collect plants in the first place – Sophie had had some light sensitive paper that she had meant to pack for the trip but forgotten, and so asked me to see if I could get hold of some. As it turned out, I really got into using the papers and so it ended up becoming my ‘thing’. I’d bought a packet of paper to take to French Guiana, which contained six sheets, and so it felt appropriate to do the same in New Caledonia and create six images there as well. This was partly due to price considerations – we hadn’t allocated this in the budget, and personal money was tight. This chosen ‘scarcity’ of the material ended up making me so much more careful and deliberate in my choices about making the pictures, in contrast to how I was taking digital photographs where my attitude was to document as much as possible. Thinking back on it with this in mind makes it seem almost wanton to have made two cyanotypes in the one location – but if I recall, this was the last day in St Laurent and I had been holding back, wanting them to be good.


I rinsed the papers under running water at the Camp’s toilets, and wanted to document them straight away in case the image faded away, as it had done the first time in the forest.
Obviously these images show no real details of the plants, and would be useless for plant identification. But perhaps that makes them slightly more suggestive of the metaphorical senses of haziness, not seeing clearly, imagining, that I am hoping to get at in relation to depicting the bagnards? This is completely indirect, setting up in my mind the idea that the weeds and incidental vegetation at our chosen sites can be made to stand for the lives of real people imprisoned in the penal colony; then picking those plants and so killing them; then turning their dying matter into the subject of a photograph; then treating that photograph as itself a precious totem of the bagne; as well as pressing the dead plant matter between papers and later scanning it to become a digital image file.


I am also interested in the reverse of the cyanotypes, and the enigmatic shapes that were produced here. This followed from having noticed a number of maps in the archive which showed a technique of painting in watercolour (‘aquarelle’) on the reverse of the map sheet in order to produce a gentler shading effect on the front. An example here is a plan of St Laurent showing the vivid colours, which make a composition of abstract shapes that still possess the appearance of a map, to my mind. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that this painting is unintended, since of course it has been made deliberately, but it’s not intended to be presented for viewing. There is also an interesting implication that we, as the viewer, are now looking ‘upwards’ at the underside of the town, which is brighter and more vibrant than the ‘correct’ viewing position using the cartographic view from nowhere looking down from ‘above’. CR

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