Fragrant Colors — I can see perfume!

Swiss-Canadian photographer and art director Christelle Boulé developed a unique and experimental process to transform perfumes into visually striking photograms: In a laboratory, one drop of a scent is applied directly onto photographic paper. Once the perfume has dried, the paper is exposed to light and undergoes an elaborate color development process that allows the perfume to appear. Together with Boulé we chose 15 dazzling visuals from her Drops series to highlight here. Learn more about Christelle’s process and her passion for scent!

Fore those fond of traveling: more images from the Drops series will be part of the Official Selection of the Photography Festival Boutographies 2017, held in Montpellier in May.

Drops by Christelle Boulé.


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Christelle Boulé turns liquid scents into galaxies of light and color.


Helder Suffenplan: You developed an entirely new form of visualizing perfume with the Drops series. Can you explain what we are actually seeing in these images?

Christelle Boulé: What you see are drops of perfume on photographic paper. Each image shows a chemical reaction between the photographic light-sensitive paper and liquid perfume.

HS: What exactly is the process for creating these visuals?

CB: It is a quite unique and experimental process. In a photo laboratory, one drop of each fragrance is applied directly onto photographic color paper. Once the perfume has dried, the paper is exposed to light. The final step consists of developing the images in the color development process, allowing the perfume to appear.

HS: Is this the regular development process that is used in analog photography?

CB: Yes. Except the regular development process is used for enlargement of film negatives, and allows for the reproduction of multiple copies of the same photo. For the Drops photo series, the unique and experimental part of the project is the fact that I use liquid perfumes directly on the light-sensitive photographic paper to get a chemical reaction.

From there, making a photograph directly from the light-sensitive paper, without the use of a camera, is called a photogram. What makes a photogram special, and what makes it interesting for me, is that I get one unique, original print. It is almost like a painting, except I paint with perfume and light.

HS: How did the idea come to you to develop this technique?

CB: I have been working around the topic of representing perfume visually for almost two years now. I tried a few photo projects to see how I might develop a language that could translate something we cannot capture, something that is invisible. It is not an easy task to visually represent something as evanescent and personal as perfume.

It is through multiple projects and experimentation that I arrived at a thought: What if the perfume liquids react on photographic paper? I honestly thought I would not get any results. I was so surprised to see the first perfume appear in front of my eyes. I immediately had to check if every other perfume would react differently. And they did! That night, I remember I went to celebrate, thinking, “I got it!”

HS: How do you select the fragrances you use?

CB: I choose a little bit of everything, from niche fragrances to more commercial perfumes. The visual outcome is my main interest so I choose from a large range of perfume concentrations, from cologne and eau de toilette to eau de parfum and even perfume extract. These various perfume concentrations each give a very different visual outcome. The more intense a perfume, the more intense the visual results. For example, colognes are usually cloudier and give a subtler outcome, while the eau de parfums are usually more intense visually.

But, I selected some of the perfumes for the project simply because they had a strong sentimental value to me, and I wanted to see what they looked like: for example Opium, the smell of my mother; L’Air du Temps, which was worn by my grandmother; or CK One, which is full of memories from my teenage years.


“It is such a pleasure to watch the images appear.”


HS: Did you find that some perfumes perform better than others?

CB: I would not say that they perform better, but they clearly have a different way of behaving. Some perfumes have a lot to show. And the most intriguing thing is that I actually found that most somehow fit to what I was expecting from them. For instance, let me tell you about Angel by Thierry Mugler. This perfume often slaps me in the face when I pass by someone wearing it. Guess what? It always presented itself very strongly on the photographic paper, showing defined strong shapes and complex textures, deep blue and bright whites. For me, Angel visually translates exactly as it feels to my nose. And that is interesting! It is such a pleasure to watch the images appear. In a way, I feel I recognize them when they materialize on the paper.

HS: Do you interfere with the process to bring the visual effect closer to the olfactive footprint, or do you just let things run their natural course?

CB: I want the perfumes to speak for themselves. My goal is to interfere as little as possible. The only step in the process where I have to make a decision is when I expose the paper to light, as I am the one who chooses what color range I want the photographic paper to be exposed to. Throughout the color development process, I am deciding on the main color to give the photo. But the fragrances sometimes interfere with the color choice I’ve made as they lie on the paper for a while; they often surprise me with some additional color.

HS: What role does the actual smell of the scents play in the process of editing and selecting the images?

CB: I select the images according to their visual results; the scents are not important for me. My book Drops presents 100 perfumes on photographic paper, which I chose from a total of 300. The final selection was made according to the visual outcome: colors, textures, contrast, etc. I wanted to choose as broad a visual variety of images as possible.


portrait of christelle bouleChristelle Boulé, photographer & art director. Photo: Chirstelle Boulé.


HS: In the 1960s and 70s, Otto Piene, a member of the ZERO group, used fire to “paint” on surfaces. Andy Warhol actually urinated on copper to create images through oxidation. Do you see a link to these approaches?

CB: Yes, of course! These are both works that gave great importance to the materials and the chemical reactions of the objects. The life of the artwork does not depend on the artist’s decisions alone. Also, just like in the Drops project, they left great space for smell in their work: urine and fire must inevitably have left a fragrant trace to the work. I find it interesting to integrate sense of smell into artworks because it engages the viewer in a very different way.

HS:You have dealt with the topic of perfume before, for example in your photo series Opium and also in L’Air du Temps. With Jenny Smells Like Biscuit you created a booklet about fragrance entirely without images. What is it about fragrance that fascinates and inspires you?

CB: It is a really rich topic that can span the territory of personal stories, olfactive memories, scientific research, and much more. Perfumes tell stories just as photography does. It is an extraordinary playground for me, and I honestly could not think of a better topic for a perfume lover such as myself. As a photographer, I want to try and represent the power of smelling a perfume in a visual way. Can I translate this feeling through images? It is an exciting challenge for my photographic work.

HS: Can you tell us a little more about these previous projects?

CB: Jenny Smells Like Biscuit is a project about different people wearing the same perfume. Originally, it was meant to be a casting for portraits, but the email exchanges between the volunteer models and myself were already enough to depict the personality of each perfume wearer. I decided not to go further with the photo shoot and instead created a publication with a selection of messages from different people wearing the same fragrance. For example, four out of seven messages from men wearing 1 Million asked me if they could be naked for the photo shoot. Invictus men described their body and their muscles, while Chanel No. 5 women were very polite and classy. There it was; I did not need an actual image.


“1 Million wearers mostly talked about sex and nudity.”


HS: That’s interesting — it seems one can actually draw conclusions about a person’s character based on their preferred fragrance?

CB: Yes, totally! And what an incredible surprise! I must admit, I did not think it would be so precise. It is almost cliché when you look at the messages I received: various women wearing Chanel No. 5 sent such brilliant and sophisticated messages, while 1 Million wearers mostly talked about sex and nudity. For this particular project, the goal was to include as many people as I could in order to be able to make a “portrait” of each perfume. That is how I selected the perfumes: based on the most popular ones.

But, imagine the type of messages I would receive from wearers of more eccentric and less commercial brands. Most of the niche perfumes have this incredible chance to be totally free of images or campaign ads, leaving the entire place for the fragrance itself. I suppose the types of messages, and the characters according to each fragrance, would be much more diverse.

HS: What was the idea behind the Opium series?

CB: The Opium photo series was inspired by the olfactory memory triggered by one smell. Opium was the perfume my mother used to wear when I was young. It also became my brother’s signature smell in his teenage years, as he started wearing it as well. My memories related to this fragrance are a sweet mix of those two loved ones. I decided to tell this story through a series of photographs that I presented in a publication.

HS: Opium is an unusual choice for a teenage boy — or did he go for the male version of the fragrance?

CB: Oh, my brother was always a unique little person, very sensitive and very emotional. He really was just living his young teenage years trying to figure things out, you know. Wearing Opium was just a small part of all the colorful ways he was exploring his sexual identity. So yes, it was a quite feminine and unusual choice of perfumes for a young boy, but nothing was too strange for such an open-minded person!

HS: Your work uses a broad spectrum of approaches to the topic of smell.

CB: Yes, my inspirations come from various angles and can be very personal, or experimental, or factual. It depends on what types of projects I feel like pursuing, and what questions I want to answer.

HS: Speaking of your personal connection to smell — what is your earliest scent-related memory?

CB: The smell of paint. My mother was a theatrical scenic painter for opera and ballet, and she would sometimes bring me to work with her. I remember looking at ballet dancers practicing their choreography while my mother would finish some last touchups for the premiere. I still enjoy the smell of fresh paint; it reminds me of a very fascinating part of my childhood.

HS: Was perfume used in your family on a regular basis?

CB: My dad does and always did wear perfume, but not my mom. She would wear Opium for important events, but that was pretty much it. Perfume was not something that was passed on to me in any sense — it was not part of my family rituals particularly.

Oh how I remember my grandmother’s scent though. She did wear perfume on a regular basis, and I loved her smell and her house’s smell. But I didn’t know it was perfume, I thought it was her house that smelled like that. Then one day, about 4 years ago, I was attracted to a <i>L’Air du Temps</i> bottle in a store … and I smelled it … ! I will remember this moment for the rest of my life: so many childhood memories came back to life within a second! That day, I realized my grandmother’s scent — and therefore so many of my childhood memories — was held inside this tiny bottle of perfume! It’s so powerful and yet so strange to think a perfume could offer me such strong emotions.

HS: What was the first perfume you used?

CB: Growing up in Montreal, Canada, I guess I was influenced by more American perfumes. My first perfume was White Musk from The Body Shop — a perfume oil. Then around 12, I got CK One for Christmas. The worst part was that I did not really like the smell, I was just amazed by the advertisement with all those 90s supermodels.

HS: Do you frequently use fragrance today? Which ones are your favorites?

CB: I must tell you the Drops project got so crazy for my nose that I had to take a break from wearing perfume. I could not bear to smell perfume on my skin for almost 1 year. I am slowly going back to wearing my favorite fragrances, which are Petite Chérie from Annick Goutal which feels like childhood to me, L’Eau d’Hiver from Frédéric Malle which is so comfortable and delicate, and Eau de Gingembre from Mizensir — an incredible refreshing and luminous perfume that Alberto Morillas kindly offered me during a meeting for my research on the Drops project.

HS: Will the Drops series be continued?

CB: Yes. I am already pursuing the project through a new angle. I am currently searching for a perfumer who would like to collaborate with me on a new photo series — Hello? Anyone out there? I can’t tell you too much but I can say it involves the raw materials used by perfumers to create fragrances. To be continued!

HS: Thank you!


Name: Christelle Boulé
Occupation: Photographer, Art Director
Location: Lausanne


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