Paul Von Borax and “Les Fumeuses”



The first time I saw Paul Von Borax’s photos was by an odd mix of coincidences during one of my researches on photography. At that time I didn’t know who the author was, but I felt attracted by the sensations that those images were giving me. So I began to look at them from a different perspective, not as photos, but as if they were pages of a tale written in an old, dusty book, releasing that peculiar and sometimes sweetish scent of ink and paper. I was totally bewitched! I had to find out who was the maker of all this! So I started investigating and eventually I discovered the name of the author and, much more, I found out that in the course of the years what was initially a simple hobby to him had turned into a real passion until becoming his second skin. Out of conventional boundaries, he loves improvising, follows his intuition and often his dreams that at times he represents in his pictures. A narrator of tales who follows the “writing light”, an explorer of the World on a quest for the unusual.

What you will read here below is the recount of a brief encounter, in a freezing winter day in an unspecified place, with the French-German photographer Paul Von Borax.[1]


B: Paul, it is a real pleasure for me to get to interview you and I immediately grab the chance to ask you what it means in your work to describe yourself as an anarchist of photography, in a reality like today’s, where almost everybody is aiming at the perfection of the image?


P: Hi. Well, I don’t care about perfection, in a way. I prefer the feeling instead of perfection. I think you’d better have to imagine what you can’t see, more poetic. So, if there are scratches, no problem, if the model is not a top model, no problem (it’s even better, I like real humans). When I see fashion pictures, it’s so often boring… I just try to tell a story.

The second thing is: I don’t like long shoot. To me, 30 pools in a shoot are a good thing, and 2 hour shoot is a good thing (sometimes, longer because of the makeup) but spending a whole day on a set is just not possible for me. And, in another way, I’m an anarchist because I don’t make ALWAYS THE SAME PICTURE, often, a photographer makes the same picture all the time, that means you can say: oh! It’s him! I don’t care of that either. I don’t care about being recognized. I just want to make all I want when I want with the people I want. Polas, underwater, light painting, argentic, digital…

It is not a good thing at the end: impossible to find an agent… I used four of them… I gave up… too messy…


B: Narrator and explorer: how do you combine these two moments in the creative action?


P: I love making stories… and I hate preparing the shoot, so I have no options but being creative at that moment. I tell stories in my head, and try to translate them into pictures on the set. But, there are so many things that could be different from what you’ve imagined before you’re on the set, that I prefer not preparing anything: elements of style, people, MUA, a place… and let’s go.

At the beginning, I would tell the model “Come on, let’s take some pictures”. And they would come, just like that. And we would do what I had in my head at the moment. Today, it is hard to find somebody like that, like an “adventurer” model (I still have some, they’re my friends now…)


B: Photography as “writing light”. Could you explain us better what this notion means to you?


P: Uh, no. I’m really bad in light. I can’t work with more than two flashes… too hard for me. So, I often prefer using the lights I find on the sets and switching on and off some of them… but what I know is that light is light because of the shadow, and you can tell things because you want to show them (in the light) or not (in the shadow), and with these two options (and middle too) you can create the ambience you want…


B: Paris, August 1942, street talk says that there’s a place of freedom frequented by women only, where one can smoke, get drunk, indulge in pleasure and love. No one knows exactly which neighborhood of Paris it is; the only known fact is that it is never in the same place. Those who heard about it call it “Les Fumeuses”.

Where did you get the idea of “Les Fumeuses” from?


P: At the beginning, there was a shoot, just like that, with my fantastic wife, Rachel O’Chocolat, a friend, Lise, and a MUA, Foxy. I tried this 1920’s/1930’s era. Because I found some stylism on eBay, and then, I liked the picture very much… I let them sleep for a while, and a story unraveled in my head… as soon as I had the story, I did the shoots very quickly, and made the book, 6 months for all of that. But I never heard of a story like that for real, maybe it existed! I don’t know…


B: You have chosen a specific period to stage this work. Paris during the war, under the German siege. And the protagonist of your story – whose name is indeed Paul Von Borax – is a photographer because he’s a lover of light and of feminine beauty, and a committed pacifist. But he is not the sole protagonist. There is a narrator of this story, the photographer’s brother who, after ten years from Paul’s disappearance, decides that the time has come to understand what happened. So, he begins searching for him and discovers the existence of “Les Fumeuses” through some photos taken by the only man, his vanished brother, who had access to that secret place full of freedom. Two faces of the same person. A role play that finds its conclusion in the freedom to choose one’s own life and death. And it is just the narrator who tells us so in the last page of his story: “Je crois que mon frère est mort avec ses fumeuses. Je crois qu’il a choisi  sa vie et sa mort. Qu’il est maintenant une volute perdue. Perdue mais libre. Et, moi, Je fouille les cendres.[2]” And for you, not as narrator or character, what does freedom of expression mean?


P:  Aha, it is a game. Paul von Borax is not my real name, of course. It is a character I play when I want, and he’s never alone. He has the same name of his father’s, grandfather’s, great grandfather’s and so on, for 17 generations… then, the character never dies, some of its performers, yes, but the name belongs to more than one. All Paul Von Boraxes have adventures… in  their own period. So, I’m free to tell many stories. The second reason is: a dramatic end is a real end. If everything disappears, there is no possibility to check the reality of the story. No witnesses, no places, no proof… the real end.  Easy, isn’t it?


B: Yes, absolutely easy. And then there are them, “Les Fumeuses”, beautiful and sensual women caught in intimate moments. Far and unreachable feminine figures of times gone by, with their looks and movements, at times lewd, they whisper stories in our ears. Praise of feminine beauty, the third face of the artist’s free expression through his “women/models”. What do they tell us and who were they?


P: They tell us about freedom, they tell us of beauty, they tell us about sexuality, they tell us of eroticism, and they are WOMEN! Not less. I’m still speechless when I see them… I LOVE WOMEN!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!!


B: How did you succeed in recreating the type of atmosphere that is such a peculiar feature of “Les Fumeuses”?


P: It is funny, because the places where we shot are far from this era, but the clothes, the makeup, the bodies of the models (not thin) are part of the atmosphere. We played a lot, we had fun, we had stars in our eyes, when everybody brings the little thing that makes it twice better. When I asked the models to come, and explained them the project, they all said: can I bring something? Well, YES OF COURSE, and we’ll see…


B: I know that this is one of your favorite works. Simple affection or is it because there is so much of you?


P: I love it because we had fun, it is beautiful, and… it is finished..; I’m lazy… I love making photos, and I love when it is finished and I just can admire them.


B: A personal curiosity. In another of your works titled “Les Baigneuses”, you tell us of beautiful, lascivious and indecent feminine figures, far and fleeing like in a dream, who appear every day at dawn on the lake shore to bath with the first rays of the morning sun. Muses of times gone by who with their beauty would lead men to folly. Although the atmosphere and the technique you have used are completely different from those of “Les Fumeuses”, is there a sort of bond between the two works?


P: Well, not really. The “Baigneuses” is a tribute to the painters of the 19th Century, with the old photo process, CYANOTYPE to be closer to the era. The only bond is: I LOVE NUDE WOMEN, and a lot of the “Fumeuses” came in the “Baigneuses”, because I like to work with the same people, it’s easier for me, it is not necessary to convince them. I can fail, no pressure.


B: I finish with the question we were all expecting. Are you working on some new project? Could you give us some preview?


P: I will finish an old serial called “Les Sauvages Blanches”, it will be a beautiful book: a travel blog of Paul von Borax (another one) in 1902, finding some white settlers lost along the African coast two centuries ago, back to savage life…

Another one is called “Odalisques”, when Paul von Borax (the grand grandfather of the 1902 one) had been captured by Arabs and forced to… photograph their wives in their harems…


B: Paul, thank you for making us relive the atmosphere of “Les Fumeuses” and not only for that…


P: You’re welcome! Have fun! Beat life!



[1] www.pvonb.net

[2] “I believe that my brother died with his fumeuses. I believe that he chose his life and his death. That he is now a lost curl of smoke. Lost but free. And me, I look for the ashes”


B.O. ©Floz Visions 2015