Marguerite Bornhauser, Red Harvest

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover with spiral binding, 32 pages, with 25 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Simon Baker. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Asked about what inspires her, the French photographer Marguerite Bornhauser immediately mentions the sun and “a glimpse of light on a face, colors at the end of a sunny day, the shadow of a branch.” And so, Bornhauser’s visual language is full of bright colors, found abstractions, mysterious graphic shapes, and deep shadows. Before pursuing photography, Bornhauser studied literature and journalism at the Sorbonne University, and her work often plays with literary references. The title of her latest photobook, Red Harvest, refers to the 1929 classic of noir detective story by the American novelist Dashiell Hammett. The publication is an extension of the work shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2019 (here).

The protagonist of Hammett’s novel (and also its narrator) is a nameless operative known as the Continental Op; he arrives to Personville after receiving a wire and money from the editor of the local newspaper, hiring him to investigate a murder. Upon his arrival, he finds out that his host has been gunned down, so Op decides that he owes his client a quick look around and remains in town for an investigation, which only involves him in more violence. As its title suggests, this novel is filled with mayhem, and the bodies fall left and right. Importantly for Bornhauser, Hammett’s story is also sprinkled with details of colors, starting right from the opening chapter titled “a woman in green and a man in gray”.

Red Harvest is a thin softcover photobook with a spiral binding, which allows it to lay completely flat. With just a few exceptions, all of the images are full bleed, and a thin white border on both sides of the spiral ensures that the photographs don’t get interrupted by the binding. The cover image, a close up of a woman sunbathing disrupted by a shadow of a hand, has a monochrome red tint, and the title appears in white font on the top. The effect is obscure and vaguely menacing (like film noir), setting up the flow of images inside.

But instead of a harvest of dead bodies, Bornhauser’s photobook is a harvest of images that include the color red, often with an undercurrent of sultry unease. Intense bright colors, deep shadows, abstractions, and tight close-ups fill out the visual parade, with images of bodies, plants, and buildings accented by these approaches. The book opens with a shot of what looks like a branch of a lemon tree tied by a red ribbon, shot from underneath with a flash, providing an intriguing introduction to the red theme. 

Bornhauser creates associations and connections with her pairings and sequences of images, but ultimately she leaves it up to viewers to imagine a narrative. Many of the diptych spreads create visually striking combinations. An image of ripples and sparkles of flowing water over a mysterious red form is paired with the blue crackles of a smashed window. A tight shot of greenery with red flowers and green leaves with water spots is paired with a woman in a red bikini on a towel with similar water drops on her skin, both images activated by shadows. And a few spreads later, there is a close up of large jungle plants, with sunlight reflecting in green, red, yellow and blue across the leaves, and the blue color and the interlocking forms play with similar colors and arrangements in an image of a woman’s arms and a hand against her clothes. 

As the pages turn, Bornhauser offers further hints of intrigue. More deep shadows and splashes of color obscure faces and bodies, making it hard for us to see what is going on. Cracked pavement, spilled milk, and more red tints add to our sense of something being off. One of the most striking spreads pairs an aloe plant with spiky reddish leaves with a close up of woman’s legs covered by shadows and a reflection of red light on her skin. And the photobook ends with a shot of dry prickly wild weeds in sunlight, with parts of the thistle in the middle covered in bright red like a spot of smeared blood, alarming us that the narrative may have even more mysteries that we might have noticed.

Red Harvest is an elegantly simple photobook, and its distinct language of form and color makes it stand out. It is a great example of playfully using photography to offer alternate interpretations and entry points. One can simply enjoy the striking visual flow, or dig a bit deeper in its associations and connections, unlocking shadowy possibilities. 

Collector’s POV: Marguerite Bornhauser is represented by Gallery Madé in Paris (here) and Gallery Carlos Carvalho in Lisbon (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Marguerite Bornhauser, Poursuite Editions

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    Ok , as a fan of both Hammett and a bit later on Raymond Chandler , these two were the great film noire writers of the twentieth century. I have to get this book. I love how Ms. Bornhauser has gone about putting this together in a photobook. As usual excellent review Olga.

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