Christelle Boulé crystallises the magic of perfume in her mesmerising images

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

How do you visualise the non-visual, something so intangible as aroma?

When Christelle Boulé arrived in Europe, she was struck by the scent of perfume that lingered dense in the air wherever she went. “It’s just not part of the culture in Montréal in the same way,” says the Canada-born photographer, who relocated to Switzerland in 2010 and now divides her time between Lausanne and Paris. “During my first year, I’d notice so many different smells as I was walking down the street. It was almost aggressive.” Over time, though, she not only learned to tolerate this olfactory assault but became enamoured, inspired, and even obsessed by it.

Born in 1984, Boulé began studying fine art but switched to graphic design, prompted by concerns about how she would make a living after graduating. Following several years working, she opted to do an MA in photography at the highly regarded École Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne. Her course mates seemed to have already found their niche – several of them chose fashion, others architecture. It was only when a tutor asked Boulé what it was that she truly loved that it hit her. “Perfume,” she says. “I decided I would make photography about perfume.” 

© Christelle Boulé.

An impossible task, surely? How do you visualise the non-visual, something so intangible as aroma? At first, Boulé pursued a conventional documentary approach, making portraits and detail shots that explored the memories associated with the perfume her grandmother had worn. But this did not feel right. “I was in the darkroom one day and I thought, ‘What do perfume and photography have in common? Chemistry.’ I decided to drop a little perfume onto photographic paper and observe the reaction.” The mysterious and beautiful alchemy that ensued marked the beginning of Parfums, a project that set her on the path that now defines her practice. 

This interest has led her down myriad lines of enquiry. The series Drops and Expanded Drops build on the tactics developed in Parfums. Where the first body of work was presented in bold monochrome, the newer photograms are intensely colourful, psychedelic even, at times resembling distant galaxies. Through Glass continues in this vein but focuses on perfume bottles. While making Drops, Boulé put out an advertisement asking for scents that people no longer wanted – often because they provoked sad recollections, anecdotes that contributors shared with her. “Without me knowing, I was collecting stories, collecting heartbreaks,” she says. 

© Christelle Boulé.

For Ones to Watch nominator Erik Vroons, editor-at-large of GUP Magazine, Boulé’s “vibrant and well-articulated visuals” and authorial clarity stand out. “Her images transcend a certain confidence and authority,” he says. “[Boulé has] a consistency of approach that you can absorb, trusting that the motivations underneath everything are genuine and that the methods and concept are relevant to what the maker seeks to get across.” The luminous, semi-abstract artworks in Boulé’s latest project, Botanica, are unmistakably hers, but instead of odours, they speak to the passage of time. Plant specimens, many now extinct, from the herbarium at the Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier are revived like ghosts. The garden she creates never existed nor will it in the future, but it flourishes in the imagination. 

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in photography and visual culture, for art magazines, book publishers, national press, awards, agencies and brands. Since 2018, she’s been contributing editor for the Royal Photographic Society Journal, is a regular writer for Aesthetica and author of Unseen London, published by Hoxton Mini Press.