In Clémence Elman’s tropical paradise, things are never what they seem

This article was first published in the May 2020 issue of British Journal of Photography, The Modern Nude.

At first glance, you might struggle to situate the images of Clémence Elman. The French photographer’s recent series, shot last summer, seem to depict the quintessential tropical paradise, with citrus fruits, floral headdresses and ethnographic objects. Look closer, though, and you’ll find the trappings of the contemporary West: hosepipes, Birkenstocks, European plug sockets.

These photographs were shot at and around Elman’s parents’ house in Pau, an idyllic city on the edge of the Pyrenees with a famously balmy micro-climate. Elman had intended to travel further afield, but lacked the funds. “I felt very frustrated, but in the end it was a good thing,” she recounts. “I had an opportunity to slow down, and look at what was closer to me.”

Returning home, she began to stage photographs of her family. In doing so, she interrogated their bourgeois values, especially those pertaining to their relationship to the wider world. “Travel is very important to my family,” explains Elman. “We always speak about where we’ve visited, where we want to go. And the house is full of objects from different countries, and exotic plants.”

One image shows a bedroom decorated in wallpaper illustrated with ships and islands; another has Elman’s father’s face covered with postage stamps from around the world. This portrait re-enacts a childhood incident in which Elman adorned his face in dot stickers, but with the neutral symbol of the sticker replaced by one that taps into a network of global interchange.

Before taking up photography, Elman spent five years studying political science in Lyon and Toulouse. “I liked it,” she explains, “but I missed an artistic dimension.” Initially aiming to pursue comic-strip illustration, she quickly discovered photography to be the medium that suited her best. After spending a year at the Neue Schule Für Fotografie in Berlin, she enrolled at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles, where she is based today. Elman is one of 10 finalists for the photography prize at this year’s Hyéres International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories.

Elman’s background in disciplines such as history, sociology and anthropology informs her work. For her thesis at Arles, she wrote on exoticism and the jungle, researching everything from Apocalypse Now to the illustrations of 18th-century botanist Joseph Banks. A pair of images taken in Pau show a blossom-pink banana tree flower, first complete and then cut open to reveal its pulpy interior. It is as if Elman has performed a scientific dissection of a new- found specimen.

By contrast, many of Elman’s human subjects appear partially hidden, their faces variously concealed behind masks, leaves and 3D glasses. Although this decision stemmed from Elman’s shyness – “I felt that if they hid their face they wouldn’t disagree to be pose for me” – it has the effect of transforming the world into a place of surrealistic gameplaying and reverie, where, like her parents’ incongruous tropical garden in France, things are never quite what they seem.

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.