In September 2018, photographers Clément Chapillon, Francesca Allen, Brant Slomovic, and Ricardo Nagaoka spent 10 days travelling across California. Commissioned by British Journal of Photography in partnership with Visit California, the resulting bodies of work shed light on the lesser-known sides of the state.
It is barely midday in Palm Springs but outside the temperature is already topping 40 degrees. It is an unfamiliar heat and instinct tells you to open the window. I do so and instantly regret it; this is a city where air conditioning is not up for discussion. The landscape is surreal: towering palm trees sway in the humidity; cacti squeeze through pavement cracks; one minute you are driving along pristine tarmac roads, the next dusty, rock-strewn terrain. Coffee spots, diners and shops line the streets – all the tell-tale signs of a bustling city – yet somehow Palm Springs feels wonderfully different. It is impossible to figure out where the city stops and the desert starts. There is little distinction; the two cannot be split. Our time here is fleeting – we only have one day – but photographer Clément Chapillon could spend months in Palm Springs and its surrounding areas. “Everything is so photogenic,” he says driving out of the city centre. We both agree that we have never seen anything like it.
It will take us around an hour to drive to Joshua Tree National Park, yet Chapillon has other ideas. For the photographer, the journey is just as important as the destination. Often there is no destination at all. “It is impossible to plan,” he says. “My main process is just to get lost. When I am lost I have these magical moments where I am able to truly connect with the people and the land. If I prepare too much, I cannot be surprised by what I see.” We make multiple stops along the way: a wind farm set against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains, a clearing populated with palm trees with a shipping container in the midst. “It was this very tiny bubble of wilderness in the middle of the city,” recalls Chapillon, describing what drew him to the scene.
This September, the Paris-based photographer spent 10 days travelling across California. Commissioned by British Journal of Photography, in partnership with Visit California, Chapillon’s resulting body of work explores wilderness in its various forms. The idea for the commission came to Chapillon several years ago when he first visited Los Angeles. “I was surprised by LA,” he says. “I thought it would be a huge city with buildings everywhere. Instead it was this totally crazy landscape – close to the desert, close to forests. One day I took a wrong turn and I ended up in the middle of nowhere, yet I was still in the city.” Chapillon was so struck by what he discovered that he has wanted to return ever since. “This project comes from something personal that I felt here years ago,” he says. “My work always starts with feeling something for a place.”
California’s unique connection with the land is deeply ingrained in the state’s identity. Home to almost 40 million, it the most populated state in the US, yet nature continues to dominate. California has one of the largest expanses of classified wilderness in the whole country, second only to Alaska. Chapillon, however, is not interested in documenting wilderness as we typically understand it. His series places as much emphasis on urban environments as it does vast landscapes. The photographer searches for liminal spaces with invisible borders, human traces and enigmatic objects found in the middle of seemingly deserted landscapes. In California, wilderness is not simply physical untamed land, nor purely a mentality. “It is something stronger,” says Chapillon. “It is an energy that drives people’s lives, at all times, across the state. Even in the state’s bustling cities, wilderness remains part of people’s everyday consciousness. “In California, it is impossible to escape it,” says Chapillon. Palm Springs – a place where the desert spills into the city at every turn – embodies this narrative perfectly.
Piano music is a calming presence as we drive to Joshua Tree. “It is Israeli jazz,” Chapillon tells me. “I find this kind of music inspiring, it makes me work better.” The photographer travels regularly (his most significant body of work was created over several years in Israel and Palestine), and usually alone. “It is something that nobody talks about but photographers spend a lot of time listening to music,” he says. “For each series I create, I can usually remember the artist I was listening to at the time.”
As far as rituals go, this is telling. Chapillon is a photographer who must be totally immersed in the environment he is documenting. When he is making new work, taking photographs is his one and only focus and as a result he is always present, constantly observing and looking for subject matter that intrigues. During the Meet California commission he gains a playful notoriety for being late. This makes sense: time simply does not matter when he is photographing, it is not in his consciousness.
For the duration of the Meet California commission, Chapillon did his best to get lost every day. Leaving as the sun rose, often he would not return until after sunset. “I find myself lost in the middle of Angeles National Forest, just 30 miles away from the city,” he recalls, speaking of the two days he spent based in Los Angeles. “It was as if I was in the countryside: small houses on yellow-hued hills, desertic roads, farmers. Just after the forest, it is another life – so wild. On my way back, almost in darkness, I took a road from the countryside into the city. I passed bikers who were driving to enjoy the landscape: they probably came from LA, it is only a 30 minute drive from here.”
The portraits that form the series are all the result of serendipitous meetings: a classic car enthusiast driving the 1000km stretch along Highway 1; a runner atop a large hill, pausing momentarily to take in the views of LA; a group of people sleeping on the beach, under the stars. “Meeting somebody in a certain place is important. It is kind of magical,” says Chapillon. “It can be difficult because often you walk all day and do not come across anyone to photograph. You have to be fortunate, you have to get lucky.”
At the end of a long day photographing in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Chapillon happened upon Suzan preparing to camp in a secluded area of forest. “I saw this couple who were eating, very silently, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees,” he says. “It was this unique moment when the light was disappearing and everything was becoming magical.” In his photography, it is important for Chapillon that what he documents is real.
Although a more challenging way of working, he is conscious to never stage a photograph for the sake of composition. “To photograph is to deal with reality. This might be a strict approach, perhaps quite orthodox, but I don’t ever change what is going on,” he says. “I never ask people to look a certain way.” This was true of his portrait of Suzan. “In the time it took me to focus the camera and do a light meter reading, she was looking back to the trees with the same look she had when I first saw her,” he recalls. “In her expression you can feel the connection she felt with the trees.”
In French there is no direct translation of the word wilderness. “There is a word for nature, and a word for wild, but wilderness does not exist,” says Chapillon, with a tinge of amusement in his voice. For a photographer whose process is wholly immersive – led by instinct and the experience of being lost – creating a project about a concept so alien that it does not exist in your language is somewhat apt. Chapillon has never experienced the full extent of California’s wilderness before. Yet, after 10 days immersing himself in the landscape, he has a greater understanding. The experience of taking the photographs remains just as important as the body of work itself: hours upon hours spent driving along narrow, dusty roads; spontaneous meetings in the middle of the forest; getting lost in the desert as the sun goes down. All with Israeli jazz on his stereo.
Words: Anya Lawrence
Meet California is a British Journal of Photography commission made in partnership with Visit California. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.