Shortly after the death of my mother in 2002, my husband and I drove from Paris to the Czech Republic to visit his parents. We chose an itinerary that took us across northwestern France and it was then that I discovered pigeon houses (pigeonniers or colombiers, in French) and their story. Although I had previously visited France many times, I was not familiar with these fascinating structures. I first noted mention of them in a Micheline guide—there were a couple of illustrations that caught my eye. Soon after, while driving on a tiny back road in the area, I spotted an actual structure. At first I was drawn to them because they were so architecturally interesting. But, as I learned more about their story, the visual fascination merged with an emotional response, in particular to loss. Thus, the decision to return to France alone and start photographing.
Thousands of colombiers were built between the 13th century and the French Revolution. They were used to house pigeons that, at the time, were among the most delectable meats; the eggs were consumed as well, and the droppings were paramount in the fertilization of the fields.
As one way to help ensure the loyalty of his noblemen, the king decreed them the right to own pigeons, a great sign of status. This resulted in the construction of pigeon houses (big status symbol), one per landowner. The number of pigeons allowed was directly related to the number of hectares owned which determined the size of the pigeonnier. Some housed as many as 3,000 pigeons.
The French Revolution marked the demise of these structures, of this way of life, because it was the end of aristocracy as it existed during those times. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of columbiers were burned or torn down during the rioting of the Revolution.
They are historically significant today because they are architectural remnants of that part of French history. Interestingly, they are also a bit of an oddity: I have met some French people who know little about them.
Today, approximately 500 pigeonniers remain in Normandy and about 400 in Brittany. It is estimated that around 15 are lost each year, either torn down or having fallen to ruins. Many of them stand isolated in fields in various states of disrepair and have become a nuisance to farmers who do not have the substantial funds required for maintenance. Those in the best condition are generally found on the grounds of their original chateaux that have been held within the same families for generations. Many times, they are able to receive government subsidies for maintenance and in return are required to offer public tours of their grounds once a year when France celebrates its “patrimoine.”
These years of photographing pigeonniers was a quiet journey. I was by myself. While on the properties a few pigeons would visit occasionally. It was very sweet to see them.
I worked from a large map, primarily of the Seine-Maritime region of Normandy. I marked each village where I thought I might find a columbier. And we’re talking really small villages. Usually by driving from the village center on the small roads that lead to it, you would most likely find one and if not, the townspeople would direct my route or let me know of its disposition. Many times the pigeonniers would be on private property and thus not accessible. So, then began the process of obtaining permissions.
On my first trip I was lucky to meet a family with whom I ended up staying on each visit. This was most fortunate as I became “one of the family.” It turned out that one of the daughters-in-law was looking for temporary work and was very interested in my project. We contrived a system. After doing a lot of research I was able to provide her a list of every village in which I was pretty sure there was a columbier. She then would call the mayor’s office of each village, confirm if there was a columbier, and if so, would obtain the name and address of the owners. After receiving this contact information from her, I prepared a letter requesting permission to go onto their property and mailed it out with a brochure about my project, an authorization note for them to sign, and a return envelope. I sent out about a hundred, and all but two returned them with full permission to go onto their properties and photograph.
This would turn out to be one of the richest and most rewarding aspects of the project: meeting these people. Once I arrived, some would invite me in for coffee, some were shy, a few were suspicious but agreeable, but in the end, they all wanted to chat, to know about this American woman, alone, traveling across an ocean to photograph this (many times) dilapidated structure on their land. They represented a variety of professions from attorney to doctor, to village mayor to the cousin of Giscard d’Estaing (the president of France in the 1970s and 1980s) to aristocrats descended from the original property owners…but, many were farmers, simple, charming people who still worked the land.
The original conception behind placing the project in book form was to present the photographs, and the story, in a particular order so I could have the project sequenced for viewing.
It was also important to me that the project be seen as a whole, and a book achieves this. It is difficult to remove one image and have it resonate as meaningfully, reveal as much, as when all the pieces, all the photographs, are together, communicating in this way.
As I began slowly assembling the book, I began to see that is was extending past the images. I began to understand the art of the hand-bound book. I learned about the craft of a master bookbinder, John DeMerritt, and others. It soon became obvious to me that a “book as object” was in the making. This was and is thrilling as it has added another dimension to my work.
This project borders on being a documentary look at these structures, so it can be difficult for some to see there’s another story also being presented. I wanted to tell as much as I could through these photographs. And while these structures still no longer function as houses for birds, some still have a few birds in them. I chose to begin and end the book with birds to help people make that connection. So the few pictures I have with birds, I wanted to work into the beginning, middle, and end to help create the scope of story.
The diptychs were an opportunity to show the colombiers in the context of their setting: one structure in a field, another in a forest, one on the grounds of a chateau—and you can get a sense of the landscape, and thus where these structures live, you get a feeling for the setting and their past….
Part of the sequencing, as well, was to show my awareness of the seasons. I particularly wanted to contrast some of the spring and winter settings, which connect to some of the overarching themes—the passage of time.
Along these lines, I let this project take a good four years of my life, coming and going, waiting, looking, photographing.
When standing inside one of these columbiers, there is generally one window through which the birds would come and go, and if the windows were unblocked the sunlight could stream through onto a wall, a bit of sky brought down to earth. And it’s the power of light, of sun, that thing we have about chasing light. You just feel like you’ve arrived. The smell in there, it is an animal smell, still, and in fact it’s not uncommon for farmers to shelter their animals in the columbiers. There may be sheep and cows, in the big ones. The interiors are filled with the pigeon nests, boulins, niches in the walls, they remain.
Pigeons are very faithful, they become a couple and mate for life and will live in their “niche" until they are killed or have died.
Photographing was a quiet and reflective time, leaving my “home” at 8 am and not returning until dark, hunting for and photographing these structures throughout each day, gone from my “other life” for up to six weeks at a time.
And while the project’s beginnings are rooted in a place of sadness and grief, there was huge joy once I caught the rhythm and understood why I was walking through these Norman farms, once I understood what I was seeing, what was being contained within the frame of the images, why I was there.
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