Oriane Thomasson, Paradis

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover (19.5 × 29 cm), 80 pages, with 66 black and white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 350 (French edition) and 400 (English edition) copies. Design by Rob van Hoesel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The idea for Paradis, the first photobook by the French artist Oriane Thomasson, was inspired by a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. First seen in the 16th century, the wunderkammer was a free-form collection of all things marvelous and rare: small works of art, goblets, unusual biological specimens, odd rock or crystal formations, scientific instruments, and other oddities. They are often considered pre-modern museums, yet more capricious, and with a broader goal to gather knowledge and explain the world through its wonders.

In a similar manner, Thomasson collects photographic curiosities, art and science, natural and artificial, to invent a new kind of visual narrative. She has assembled together photographs made during her trips to Laos, China, and Vietnam, as well as maps, archival images, and botanical and mineralogical illustrations, all to question Western representation of nature as exotic, and open new possibilities to rediscover it. 

As a photobook, Paradis is quite exciting. Rather thin and vertically-oriented, it feels delicate and elegant. The title, broken down into “para” and “dis”, is embossed in dark black font at the top of the cover (the paper also stands out with its nature-inspired surface), with the artist’s name placed at the bottom in a smaller font; the black stitches at the spine complement these text elements. Inside, the photographs are printed on various types of paper and some pages are slightly shorter than others. The resulting visual flow is unpredictable and exciting, and the absence of captions encourages us to use our imagination to understand the pictures. An essay by Thomasson titled “The Monkey and the Sarcophagus”, which appears over several pages throughout the book, is full of surprises, as it immerses us into a new fictional world. 

Our Western perception of the natural world is impacted by the age of exploration, as Europeans explored and colonized regions across the globe, also shaping our view of the nature they found there. Paradis is a mosaic of visual materials, and doesn’t follow any linear narrative, rather it invites us to discover these mysterious and unknown lands. The opening page assembles three black and white images. One depicts two giant lobelias in a valley (a fascinating plant with a towering flower spike usually found in East Africa); they look foreign and stunning under the morning light. This photograph comes from the book “Les expéditions africaines”, with photographs by M. Charles Alluaud, made during a scientific expedition to West Africa. Next to it is an image of two vertical structures taken over by nature; these are likely Cham Towers built between the 7th and 12th centuries. And the horizontal image at the bottom is a faded landscape. This opening sequence invites us to look closer, and to question the intention and context of images.  

Also at the beginning of the book is a full spread reproduction of a world map, an early work (1538) of the famous Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator. At that time it represented a truly revolutionary development in nautical cartography. But by artificially distorting certain areas, the Mercator map projects the message of colonialist superiority, vastly exaggerating imperialist power, and Thomasson places it right upfront to remind us of our biases. Near it, a black and white image of a plant with enormous fan-shaped leaves, known as a travelers palm, is placed next to a color photo of another plant with split-leaves; the first image also comes from “Les expéditions africaines”. 

In addition to various shots of the natural world, there are photographs taken in zoos, botanical gardens, and museums of natural history. In these spaces the natural world, made exotic and staged, is presented to the public. There are shots of tall palms and lush green trees growing in glass conservatories, a collection of rocks and minerals with labels in boxes, a fossil of a stingray, and dioramas (as products of the 18th century, they are often filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés). A striking black and white shot captures rows of skeletons on display at the Museum of Natural History in Paris; in another spread a vertical image of a vine with flowers appears along with an image filled with dinosaur skeletons and a quieter one of a single fish skeleton. Taken out of context, the natural world becomes fictionalized. 

Throughout the book, the pages slightly differ in their sizes, creating a layered effect, inviting us to look beyond the main image. As we move through the book, various types of paper feel slightly different, while the smell of ink also adds to our physical interaction with the book. A couple of illustrations are placed close to the center of the book adding another layer of excitement and surprise to the visual flow; one of them is “The Queen Flower” (or bird of paradise), as it originally appeared in the book “The Temple of Flora” (1807) by Robert Thornton (painted by Philip Reinagle), considered by many to be the greatest of all flower books. Art, just like science and natural history museums, impacts our construction of the natural world. 

Closer to the end of the book, there is a full spread black and white image of dense greenery with lush leaves; it is almost impossible to notice a tiny figure of a man in a suit right in the center (and even more obscured by the gutter of the book). This photograph is from the book “Portfolio colonial des possessions et dépendances françaises” published in 1895, and as the title suggests, shows landscapes, towns and industries under French colonial rule. Photographs like this one subtly frame the way we see the natural world, providing assumptions about what we see.

A number of photographs attempt to represent a pristine natural world. One sequence of color images brings to life bright flowers, each on its own page. Another photo captures a white calla lily, with arrow-shaped leaves and trumpet-like white spathes with a central golden spadix. Can we free ourselves from pre-existing constructs and rediscover nature? Thomasson’s fictional story begins with the line, “His consciousness was new, blank, empty of any impressions”; beautifully written and vivid, it offers her own unique vision for rediscovering nature. 

In Paradis, Thomasson assembles her own cabinet of curiosities as she explores the various functions of images and the way they influence our imagination. It is her invitation to rediscover nature’s ability to make us imagine and dream. As a photobook, Paradis is a small, yet quietly brilliant publication. Its success lies in the clever integration of concept, images, and thoughtful design ideas that reinforce their presence. By carefully connecting both the content and form, Thomasson has created a surprising and intimately memorable experience.

Collector’s POV: Oriane Thomasson does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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