Interview with artist and photographer Florence Montmare by Maria Molin
New York-based artist Florence Montmare's exhibition Scenes from an Island will premiere during the Bergman Week at the Bergman Center until the end of September. Fårö is also the place where the work was created. The exhibition is a tribute to the barren landscape. Time, transience, memories, longing and searching for a home are some of the themes.
Florence Montmare reads to me first in English and then in Swedish, words describing her staging of the landscape, which has now become an exhibition and is becoming a book. She sits in front of me in a white summer dress at Bergmancenter, in the middle of the feverish atmosphere that only lasts a few days for this year's Bergman Week. She wears white gloves to be able to browse the original photographs in the portfolio, placed at a safe distance from our coffee cups.“My dad was from Crete, another barren island. When I was standing looking out over the shore here on Fårö, I realized I belong here. It was as if two landscapes were combined into one,” she says.
It was during an artist's residence at The Bergman Estate where she was inspired to create the first images of the series Scenes from an Island. “The exhibition is the result of five years of experimentation, where I explored different metaphors on transience,” she says.
She was born in Vienna, Austria and grew up just south of Stockholm. After an MBA degree in innovation and design at Linnaeus University, she packed a suitcase and boarded a plane to New York. “I traveled with only $200 in my pocket. It was an adventure, I wanted it that way. At the same time I turned away from security, I wanted to see who I was without it. I was incredibly stubborn and ventured to New York to stay. I believe in instinct, when something feels right, you have to listen to it.” When we move out to Bergmancenter's café overlooking a meadow full of viper's bugloss, she holds up her right hand and takes off a golden ring to show me the inscription “Your Albin, 1901”.
“My family was originally from the island Gotland. My great grandfather gave this ring to my great grandmother in New York. They lived there for a few years. I've always felt a bond with them, even though I never got to meet them,” she says. A carrying theme of Scenes from an Island is the search for a home. What is home and how and where do you find it? “I've always felt rootless. I found a quote by the author Anaïs Nin who wrote: "My roots are portable". I think that was very beautiful and something I can very much relate to. I inherited an olive grove in Crete, New York is my base and I dream of spending more time at Fårö in the future.”
Florence always had travel in her veins. Both of her parents worked at different airlines and always had tickets in store. She sometimes sat in the cockpit and dreamt of becoming a pilot. “I guess it was the feeling of freedom that attracted me. I was told I should choose a profession I could make money from, yet I chose to become an artist, a profession where you have to fight hard to succeed, especially in a city like New York,” she says. “I am optimistic and have always had the feeling that everything is possible. It is our minds that limits us in terms of what is possible.”
Growing up, she spent a lot of time with her grandmother. They watched movies together, preferably costume films and dramas such as "The Thorn Birds" and adaptions of Jane Austen's novels. “We watched fashion shows and ballet together. She taught me oil painting and we drew together. We had an incredibly strong relationship, my Grandma was one of my best friends.”
Her interest in photography started early. As a child Florence photographed nature. She mounted the images into notebooks and wrote small poems. “One of these books, was about time, transience and dreams, themes I return to in this exhibition.” As an artist, concepts of time, how we view time and how time can be elastic, have always been a focus. “When you meditate or work with mindfulness, for example, it's like you are stretching time. In some works, I have almost created a performance around this, sleeping or waiting in front of the camera during extended exposure times. Through this process, I collect light in one unified place, light, which really doesn’t exist. My next project is also about this, about different ways of dissolving.”
The series Illuminations from 2002 is about a relationship that is coming to an end. The photos are taken at night with a 4.5 inch camera on a tripod in bedrooms in Arles, Paris, Stockholm and Mora. The exposure time for each image is three to eight hours. The project was a way of holding on to something that is disappearing. A feeling of creating a memory before it is fully experienced. “What happens to the emulsion of the film when you expose it for that long is that it stops acting in a linear fashion. The highlights, shadows and color palette becomes something quite different. As long as the shutter is open, the light will keep painting the picture. Other images are blurred and dissolved,” she explains.
When she came to New York in the mid-1990s, she initially worked at a newspaper and a web agency. One day she booked a ticket to South America, brought her camera and a backpack filled with notebooks and film rolls. “When I travel, I feel like I actually land. Through my diaries I have a dialogue with myself,” she says. During the trip, which lasted several months, she photographed nature and people she met in Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and El Salvador. When she returned to New York, she applied to the International Center of Photography with photographs from the adventure in her portfolio, which also included a series of portraits of Swedish girls who transitioned through her New York apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. “I created a story around the apartment and the girls' lives, those who stayed with me. When I was accepted to the full time program, I felt that it I was meant to do this, to become a photographer and an artist.”
She continued to study photography and design at the School of Visual Arts, primarily to gain access to a darkroom. “The process in the darkroom is so magical and dreamy. The love of the materials pulls me in. Now I work with both digital and analog techniques to create new hybrid forms. I start by sketching digitally and then I continue to photographing with the analog technique. Sometimes I choose to scan analog images and rephotograph them digitally. I try to break the images apart in various ways,” she says. “I don’t like perfect, sharp digital images. They are completely uninteresting to me. I work with many different layers in my pictures, and I think of the process more like painting. I find it interesting to break the boundaries between different mediums and expressions.”
In the summer of 2014, Florence traveled to Gotland with her husband Ambrose Martos on vacation. Ambrose, who is a clown and performance artist, is present in many of her images. “I always get inspired when I see him, he is part of everything I do, she says, smiling. I don’t know why, but I was very determined that we would travel to Fårö, it was like a fixed idea. We drove around on the island and I was fascinated by the scenery.” The first time she came to Fårö was in search of peace and calm, away from big city noise and stress. “You get to a place when you just stop and question what is important in life.”
Florence Montmare began the series Scenes from an Island during the vacation on the island. “I wanted to peel away all layers and get to a frame that just contained the basics elements; the water and the rocks. Then I began to imagine different scenarios that could take place here. I saw the possibilities of what could happen in the inner rooms of the landscape.”
When she returned to Fårö the following year to spend time at Bergman Estate, she had received costumes from the Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. They helped the non-linear narratives, as she filled the landscape with scenes, like little rituals. From being an empty frame, characters began to enter the photographs. “The process was much like meditating, but the opposite. During meditation, a lot of thoughts flow through your minds eye, like noise before you purify the mind and find stillness. Here I had to start with the most elementary before I could let any figures into the landscape.”
She found dancers and actors on the nearby island of Gotland and collaborated with in stills and films. “The whole of Fårö's landscape is like a set. The light is very special, like a large soft box. The actors pose, but I try to unpose them. I want a feeling of tension of something unresolved.”
Florence always wears gloves when she is shooting. As we create some portraits in the bay below Bergmancenter, overlooking Hammar's rocky beach where Ingmar Bergman filmed "Persona", she puts on her red leather gloves. They match the color of her lipstick and handbag. That's how I would describe her if I could only pick one word; colorful. Simultaneously, her images are often monochrome. “I am careful with color and can obsess over a color for a long time before I bring it in,” she says.
There is a mysterious feeling in Florence Montmare's pictures, which are often as ambiguous as dreams. I ask if she is nostalgic. “Oh, yes! I think it can be an asset because there is a gratitude in that, you appreciate what has been. Memories stay and live on with you, just like people who have passed, they live as long as we remember them.”
Her voice becomes warm when she speaks about the American photographer Deborah Turbeville, who was a mentor to her. “We had our tea dates. We drank smoky lapsang souchong tea in her apartment in the renowned Ansonia building on the Upper West Side. Deborah created photographs with the title "Block Island”. One of my pictures here in the exhibition, "Persona Shore", is inspired by the feeling in those images. It's about time past, or “Past Imperfect” as Deborah titled her work. Time has halted, it is timeless. It could be a memory of a summer day perhaps in a distant past.”
In the fall, the exhibition Scenes from an Island will continue to New York. "I wanted to show in Fårö first. I feel so grateful as Bergman's films have always been such a great source of inspiration and I want to give something back to the island Fårö and the Bergman Estate artist residency. The pictures belong to Fårö and it feels important to show them here first."
Florence reads another poem with her distinct American accent, words that may frame this text, just as they frame her scenes from an island:
Text: Maria Molin
Portraits of Florence: Maria Molin
”Baltic Sea Investigations ”, 2019
”Persona Shore”, 2015
© Florence Montmare