Five Questions for Aileen Ah-Tye, photographer of M.F.K. Fisher’s Provence

Five Questions for Aileen Ah-Tye, photographer of M.F.K. Fisher’s Provence

Aileen Ah-Tye is the photographer of the book M.F.K. Fisher’s Provence, with original writing from M.F.K. Fisher herself. We ask her five questions.


Can you tell us the story behind what attracted you to M.F.K. Fisher’s writing?

Two good friends recommended Two Towns in Provence — a book that consisted of her two memoirs Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town — when it first came out. So I read it and loved it. I had traveled over much of France, but never to Provence, so I was reading about new, interesting territory. I really admired her map metaphor when she talked about the process of writing at the very beginning of Map of Another Town. She has assumed the role of an artist who was sketching a vision of her “map of a town.” I loved the conciseness and fluidity of her description, as if she were a Chinese brush artist herself painting a picture of this process.

So I began to read as much of Fisher as I could, including her most recent book Dubious Honors, which consisted of introductions she had written for various authors, including Shizuo Tsujii, who had written Japanese Cooking. I liked her characterization of the fast food way of eating in a Japanese noodle shop. Here is a writer who could capture the zest, the simple pleasure of eating a bowl of udon. She could identify with our “earthy” pleasures, much like the French, and could address it with a unique directness and humor that — as Luke Barr described in his book Provence 1970 — made her writing “American” and “new.”

What was it like to show M.F.K. Fisher your photographs of Provence?

At the time there was no pressure, because my husband and I just wanted to share our adventures and perhaps confirm for her that Aix-en-Provence had not changed at all since she had been there. After a trip, we would show up at her home in Glen Ellen with a tray of slides and give her a slideshow. It was fun. I do remember our initial apprehension when we first drove through the industrial areas outside town. It was a drab, overcast day when we finally reached the Cours Mirabeau — Aix’s main street. There at the west end was the Rotunde Fountain with its cherubs, dolphins and swans. The fountain was “overstated, brassy, a trumpet call with flutes,” as she had written. Yes, in the sunlight one could well imagine the Rotunde “tossing its many plumes and jets of water like the breath of a hundred spirited horses.” I was delighted.      

Toward the end of another trip, I saw a bakery window with a display of breads in the shapes of a clown, a fish and a pig. The sight was uniquely French. It confirmed that Mrs. Fisher’s description of the “pageantry” of the bakery shop window withstood the test of time.  She liked the photo and immediately asked for a copy.

I cannot recall how many trips it took before I began to think, “I wonder if she’d consider my bringing back photos to accompany her writing?” We delayed asking until the tension almost began to prove unbearable. It may have been soon after I had brought back the photo of the breads — I cannot remember — when I asked very tentatively if she might consider the idea.  She smiled when she answered: “I thought you’d never ask.” It was mind blowing.

Who are some of your photography mentors?  Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a photographer or do they remain the same?

I’ve always been an admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who popularized the 35mm camera and the decisive moment when shooting street photography, an ideal I’ve tried to reach whether photographing in black-and-white or color. Whether you’re shooting action, a portrait or even a landscape, there’s a peak, spontaneous, story-telling moment you want to capture which sort of “says it all.” Everything comes together at once through your interpretative eye whether it be the light, the composition, and even the inclusion of a surprise element. Well, that ideal takes a lot of forethought and practice and study that haven’t changed for me even though I shoot digital now. The ideal remains the same, and I’m still learning. The cameras may get lighter and faster under very low light conditions, and you may be better assured of capturing a succession of moments in rapid order, but the principle remains the same.

What are you reading right now?

I just read Andy Weir’s The Martian after seeing the movie. It’s gripping and an easy read.  The film and the book definitely inspired my curiosity about our Solar System, the Milky Way and robotics, though I know little about science. I’ve also begun one of Jonathan Bate’s books on Shakeapeare, his Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. I’ll dip into a poem, maybe by Yeats, Seamus Heaney, John Donne. I love mysteries. I’ll reread anything by Agatha Christie or the Laurie King series on Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

What’s the one book you recommend reading over and over?

The Penguin version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.