For most archivists, finding mold among collections represents the beginning of one’s worst nightmares. Yet, rather than panic, the discovery last year of two fungi-ridden, heavy wooden boxes of photographic glass plates in the basement of the National Library of France in Paris triggered wonder and appreciation. Part of the reserves of the French Society of Photography (SFP), the original photographs are largely hidden beneath colorful spores that have sprawled across much of their surfaces in mesmerizing patterns, inspiring director of the collections and art historian Luce Lebart to preserve and share the unexpected creations. She has since published Mold Is Beautiful with Poursuite, a 40-page book featuring a selection of the transformed images.
Likely dating to the 1920s, the images emerged when Lebart was preparing to digitize SFP’s autochrome collection. Victims of a flood that occurred half a century ago, they remained forgotten in their boxes, which, being damp and dark, were highly attractive hosts for mold. Archivists who worked at SFP before her time, Lebart said, may have easily tossed out the images to prevent further damage, but they had probably forgotten about them. When she came upon the plates, the abstract compositions they presented took her by surprise, and she brought them to Bertrand Lavédrine, a specialist in autochrome and photo preservation at the National Museum of Natural History who also expressed his fascination in the myriad forms created from decomposition.
“[Mold] is a ‘risk factor’ and an ‘agent of deterioration’ to be fought with,” Lebart told Hyperallergic. “In this sense, their creative potential is unjustly neglected; and yet, since the dawn of time the transformative power of microorganisms has been used to produce wine, beer, bread, and cheese.
“Today, presented for contemplation, these images remind us how the aesthetic qualities of a photograph are decidedly independent from the artist’s will.” she said. “It’s something well known in the history of photography. Images that are documents produced for the archive or for illustration, even if they are not produced in an artistic context, can have a significant aesthetic value.”
While Lebart tried to identify the original photographers, the images were too disfigured for her to trace their histories — which is why no text accompanies those included in “Mold in Beautiful.” Many of these are landscapes, and the scenic views are engulfed by mildew that introduces new layers of intrigue to the original images. A silvery picture of a sea-side cliff merges with what could be the pockmarked surface of the moon; a forest, perhaps at dusk, now features a border of blossoming purple splotches. One particularly unique image shows a mountain range beneath white shards that may resemble either a bizarre snowscape or a frenzied flock of feeding gulls. And a number of them resemble iridescent oil spills, and like those catastrophes, are curiously beautiful in their devastation.
According to Lebart, some of the mold specimens are actually previously unidentified, so the glass plates are currently undergoing examination in a chemistry laboratory in Paris before they return home to the archive. The potential of new scientific findings makes the photographs particularly exceptional, existing as artifacts that reflect on the past yet also hold significance for the future.