Photography and Art Capturing Provencal Scenes in Keepsake Photos
Ashley Tinker is the photographer behind the beautiful (and popular) Curious Provence Instagram feed, she is also the creator and writer of the blog by the same name. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Ashley headed to Florence, Italy for fine art school. You can probably guess that for someone who is creative, spending time in a glorious Italian city filled with Renaissance art and architecture was all the encouragement she needed to spend more time in Europe.
That, and a handsome man with a cute car.
This lady has many talents, not the least of which is working with her partner Robin on a complete renovation of the rundown house that they bought in the village of Maussane, in the Alpilles. After eight months of sweat equity, they transformed the building from an abomination into a tiny jewel of a home. Ashley has recorded much of their step-by-step renovation progress in her Curious Provence posts.
Now that the renovation work is complete, Ashley is focused on building her professional business – Photographer in Provence. Many of her clients are looking for timeless souvenirs of their holidays in Provence, and what better that hi-quality photos with stunning backdrops and the painter’s light?
We caught up with Ashley, between her photoshoots, to ask a few questions about capturing Provencal scenes in images, and her impressions of the expat lifestyle in the region.
What is Provencal Lifestyle?
How would you describe the lifestyle in Provence to someone who has not visited?
The lifestyle in Provence focuses a lot on the natural landscape. Living in Provence, you become keenly aware of the weather and how that might affect your day. It’s usually for the better. Often weather dictates the variety and timing of seasonal produce, impacting local businesses (market vendors, restaurants) who are dependent on those fresh ingredients.
Provence is suited for people seeking a slower pace, where you not only learn but are forced to appreciate the little joys in life. There is time to enjoy a coffee with friends in the sunshine. Your daily commute will likely be stunning. There are plenty of long walks in the countryside. And, endless cooking inspiration when you shop at the markets.
When you think of Provence what are the words and images that pop into your head?
Rosé. Paysan. Garrigue. Limestone. Hilltop towns. Apéro. Vibrant Colours (Van Gogh had it right!). Countryside. Seaside. Mountains. Orchards. Wild edible things. Orchards. Olives. Craggy rocks.
I could go on for days!
If you had to pick just one of your photos to describe Provence what would it be and why?
That is a difficult question, especially for a photographer! I would pick the photo above because it represents the part of Provence that I live in, Les Alpilles. I also chose the image because of the circumstances; it was a beautiful early spring day, I had been driving quite a bit but felt inspired to take a detour on my way home. I stopped in a tiny village, by the side of the road, because I was curious about some ruins at the top of it. I climbed the craggy rocks, in unsuitable shoes, to find this view at the top. I didn’t have my camera with me so took this with my phone. It demonstrates that even after living here for four (4) years, I’m still in awe of this place. Everyone I know that has lived here their entire lives feels the same.
To some degree, Provence lives on its clichés in photos – scenes of lavender, sunflower fields, and boules players. Is this your Provence?
Yes, this is absolutely part of the Provence that I experience, but often I am occupied during the summer months. During the winter, I have more time to appreciate the landscapes of Provence with the distinctive skies and chimneys billowing smoke from wood fires. Recently, I have started painting again, inspired to represent the beauty of the Provencal landscape during the winter months.
What does the Mediterranean climate mean to you?
When I think of the Mediterranean, I think of the small aromatic shrubs that cover much of Provence as well as the coastlines of other countries on the sea. It seems that each region has their name for the – Herbes de Provence – wild herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano) that can withstand the harsh sunlight and winds.
What is your favourite season in Provence and why?
A tricky question! I think I would have to say the autumn because the days can still be quite warm, but not unbearably so, there are fewer people around than in the summertime, and the tomatoes are just bursting with flavour.
What is your favourite activity in Provence?
Drinking rosé in a village square while people-watching, preferably on market day.
As a photographer and artist, is Provence a dream come true or overwhelming with too many options? How do you select locations, backdrops? How do you manage the ever-changing light and wind?
Provence is most definitely a dream come true.
Many of my Provence vacation portrait photoshoots combine both countryside and hilltop towns. I often choose places such as Les Baux de Provence, Gordes, and Roussillion for the beautiful old stone defensive walls, and their proximity to lavender and sunflowers fields, and olive groves. However, what is so fabulous about Provence is that every single town has its charms.
My locations are always changing which is great because I like changing things up. I work with sunrise or sunset light especially during the long, bright days in June and July. My clients get up early! However, they understand the magic experience of having these villages to ourselves to capture the flattering golden light. For photos, I quite like a little mistral wind (not 80 km per hour) because it induces a few laughs and natural poses.
When you first return to Provence what aroma “says” I have arrived?
The smell of wild rosemary, fennel and thyme.
When you leave Provence what do you miss the most and wish you could take with you?
I miss having delicious, simple, quality ingredients at my fingertips everywhere I go. I have noticed I often buy the same groceries but love them and feel lost without them. For example, fresh goat cheese, delicious olives, tomatoes (or ripe fruit of any kind), the wide variety of juice NOT made from concentrate, quality free-range chickens, French bread…Those are just my essentials!
When you hear the term “Provence-style” what is your first thought?
I think of what has become the modern Provence style, which is layered bright neutral tones using lots of linen, natural stone and old materials.
Provence and the Cote d’Azur appear to evoke a decorative style in homes, restaurants and hotels. How might you describe this trend? Is this decorative style transferable to other locations (in your opinion)?
When we were looking for a house to buy in Provence, we knew that we wanted an old structure that we could fix up ourselves. We spent the better part of a year renovating our tiny, village house in Provence. You can see the before and after versions of the home on the Househunters International show.
Our style is definitely in the orbits of Provencal decorative style. We used old materials and lamps, exposed our beautiful stone walls, and brightened everything up with lots of neutral tones accented with fun blues tones for our twist.
Personally, I think the style of Provence is transferable to other locations but at its best in old houses where there are niches, quirky angles, old stone walls and archways.
The Provence that many imagine today is relatively “new” thanks to the likes of Peter Mayle and others. What is “Authentic Provence” to you?
Authentic Provence to me can be a bit gritty but in a good way. I think of the market vendors eating hearty breakfasts (with lots of wine) together in the mornings. The farmers working in the fields, and orchards. The fishermen that take their fresh fish to scruffy seaside bars and grill simply their catch.
In your view, what words/photos capture the “heart” of village life in Provence?
The local café is the heart of all French village life. Everyone knows each other, and some locals manage to stay in the café all day! Historically in France, many towns had two (2) cafés, one for each political leaning. Now, thankfully that isn’t the case, although, there are some remnants from that era.
Food in Provence
Life in Provence seems to revolve around food. How would you describe the food in the region to someone who has not visited?
The food in Provence is similar to other Mediterranean climates, focused on using fresh, quality ingredients. Typical of the cuisine are vegetables, slow-cooked hearty meat stews, and fresh fish. It is a varied, delicious cuisine.
What are your favourite things to eat in Provence?
I often make daube, which is the Provencal version of Boeuf Bourguignon. I love the fish stews, the fresh goat cheese, soupe au pistou, the various spreads such as olive tapenades, and slow-cooked lamb.
What are some of your favourite Provencal recipes?
Soupe au pistou (a soup made with various legumes and local pesto)
Artichokes à la Barigoule (fresh artichokes, carrots, celery and bacon)
Marmite du Pêcheur (fish soup with garlic croutons).
Is there a food or ingredient that you wish you could find outside of Provence?
Not really many Provencal ingredients are available elsewhere.
On the other hand, sometimes I do miss having a variety of Asian food like Thai, Szechwan and Indian curries. I like to cook and make many recipes myself, but I can’t find decent naan bread! Sourcing specific ingredients and spices can be a bit challenging until you know where to look.
If you had to pick one, what is your favourite season in the markets?
That is hard! I would have to say spring when all the flowers are for sale, and the early vegetables are so beautiful, to eat and photograph. The bright hues of artichokes, peas and strawberries are a warming sight after the root veggies of winter.
How would you describe the markets in Provence to a friend in Canada?
Colourful. The prettiest I’ve ever seen. Convivial. Inspiring.
How do you photograph the markets? At some point, they start to look the same. How do you capture the unique essence of a village’s market?
I like to include the local architecture in photos of a market, such as in my images of the Gordes market. The feel of every market is different even though you may find some of the same stands. I try to evoke this in my photos and market tours.
Can you describe a “typical” market tour?
Around 9 am, we meet at the local café to start our morning with an espresso. Depending on the market, we will either eat breakfast with the market workers or meet the vendors individually as we taste our way through the stalls. I don’t rush my clients, allowing for a couple of hours of sampling the tasty products typical of Provence such as olive oil, olives, cheese, fruit and oysters. I like to point out the local architecture and offer some historical information, but nothing too serious as there are the buskers, and village characters to enjoy. At the end of the tour, we enjoy a glass of rosé together and take a picture with some of the market characters for a fun souvenir!
Expat Living in Provence
How important would you say French language skills are for someone hoping to visit the South of France?
We, should not expect visitors to be able to speak fluent French. However, a few words go a long way. It helps to learn to say “hello”, “do you speak English?”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”. Also, always say bonjour before asking a question. In France, if you don’t do this, it’s extremely rude. Having lived here long enough, I felt the same way when I was working in the markets.
What about French language skills for an expat in Provence?
French is absolutely necessary if you want to get the most out of living in Provence and integrate with the local community in any way. In the Provencal countryside, unlike a major city like Paris, you are less likely to find many people who speak English.
What resources might you recommend to others to improve their language skills?
Learning a language is incredibly difficult, or at least it was for me! Practising speaking is the best way to learn. I feel that no matter how much I study the language doesn’t enter my brain! Although some study is indeed useful, speaking, for me, was the only way. Volunteer. Become friendly with your French neighbour. Get a job no matter what it is so that you can speak French all day. Or perhaps a French-speaking lover…
What resources might you recommend to expats and those considering a move (or short-term stay) to Provence?
There is lots of technical information available on Angloinfo. I would reach out immediately to the local expat community for advice. Meetups and networking are also excellent.
How easy or hard is it to meet other expats?
There are many expats here in France, many of which are married to French people so once you meet an expat, you’ll often start to make French friends as well. Surprisingly, many of my expat friends are people that live locally that have found my Instagram feed, and we’ve connected. I wrote an article about meeting expats in Provence.
How easy (or hard) is it to meet French nationals? And, feel like they are friends?
Meeting people depends on where you live. People in cities or larger towns I believe are more open to engaging with foreigners. People in villages, such as mine, all grew up together and don’t actively search out new (foreign) friends. French people are polite but less likely to ask you out for a coffee the way a North American might. Friendships take more time to cement in Provence.
What would you say is the best thing about expat living in Provence?
The markets and high standard of food.
And, the worst?
The mistral wind and the seasonal economy.
Can you describe your village (Maussane-les-Alpilles) and what it is like to live in a small French town?
Moving from a city, even the suburbs, to a small town can be a difficult adjustment anywhere. I think what I thought was a French countryside thing is universal in small towns around the world in that everyone knows everyone’s business. Sometimes, I get up early to go to the bakers and look terrible and don’t want to bump into anyone I know. Of course, it inevitably happens. Also, neighbours find it appropriate to walk into your house with no previous notice. When you work from home, you certainly can’t stay in your pyjamas all day!
Does the “character” of your village change through the seasons?
The local Provencal economy is very seasonal. The population of the countryside swells during the warmer months so that small towns can feel quiet during winter. We made sure to find a location that wasn’t too quiet during the winter where there are people that live in the village all year.