Mondement, Marne, France. Courtesy Atlas des Régions Naturelles.

The French artists Eric Tabuchi and Nelly Monnier drive for about 10 hours every day, looking for reasons to stop the car. They don’t typically break for lunch, instead pausing only when they encounter a subject worth photographing. Tabuchi is partial to triangular façades, construction sites, and the solitary plastic chairs that discreetly advertise sex work. Monnier likes anonymous landscapes, such as meeting points next to busy highways, and social housing blocks painted with abstract murals. Otherwise, they share an affinity for daymark towers, a kind of diminutive lighthouse without the beacon, junkyards, modernist concrete synagogues, rural skate parks, and signage including the year 2000.

In 2017, the couple started the Atlas des Régions Naturelles, an exhaustive and idiosyncratic inventory of France. Their plan is to take 50 photographs of each of the country’s 500 “natural regions,” a geographic unit borrowed from an obsolete pre-1789 map. “It’s meant to erase the inequalities between the regions that have come about since these map lines were drawn,” Monnier says. “The ordinary places, where people no longer even recognize the old name of the natural region, are just as important as the touristic regions that have held on to their power and economy.”

They’ve completed the northern half of the hexagon, from the prehistoric dolmen of Brittany to the minor châteaus of the Loire Valley, leaving about 13,000 photos to go. But when the pandemic put a stop to this inherently itinerant work, it gave the artists the chance to sort through their archives. In November of last year, they published the atlas-in-progress online.

The scale of the collection is a natural defense against cliché: for every cornflower-dotted landscape or turreted palace, there is a vacant parking lot, grain silo, or makeshift shelter built by “yellow vest” protestors. The artists confer the same attention on every subject, with a documentarian’s distant remove. But this encyclopedic approach also makes it unlikely that anyone would view the work—25,000 spare portraits of the French countryside—in its entirety.

Their solution, Monnier said, was partly inspired by shopping online for shoes. The artists designed a website according to the same logic that allows customers to sort between low heels and high heels or display all size 7 sneakers. The home page features an interactive map of France and a long list of keywords, both of which can be used to navigate through the images. Clicking on the map reveals all the photos from a single natural region; the keywords (mosque, factory, pond) instead call up all the iterations of a certain typology.

Atlas des Régions Naturelles website.

Additional tags classify the vernacular architecture. These granular filters differentiate the terracotta roofs from the slate roofs, the plains from the valleys, and the modern Catholic churches from the old Catholic churches, permitting the viewer to curate any number of personal exhibits. Under camouflage are structures lost to overgrown shrubbery; there’s also pastoral graffiti and a category of houses in which the windows and doors evoke faces.

These ephemeral galleries can likewise be generated via color and geometry: faded green water towers appear alongside pistachio green housing blocks and olive-green amusement park slides; a circle symbol calls up geodesic domes, the Roman amphitheater in Arles, smokestacks, and spiral train-station walkways. You can also search with multiple keywords: a particular combination might reveal only a single image (pink + snow + nightclub) or summon a whole pleasingly uniform world (cinderblock + autumn).

The minimalist website, built by web developers Emilien Escalle and Ahmed Ghazi, suits the graphic and often austere photographs. At first, the straightforward compositions can seem exclusively objective, like a Google Street View car with technically exquisite skills, but after even a short time in the archive, the artists’ interests start to become familiar. They have a weakness for kitschy typography, pop-art motifs, and a category they call personal initiative, a catch-all for outsider folk art, front-lawn Eiffel towers, and offbeat topiary.

Dino in Denguin. Courtesy Atlas des Régions Naturelles.

A 30-volume book series is currently in the works, and soon the website will host high-resolution versions of all the photographs, available for anyone to download. “We take photos of subjects that belong to everyone,” Tabuchi said, explaining that the mountains, the rural pizza trucks, and the airplane hangars are all in the public domain. “Since the objective of the Atlas of Natural Regions is to portray all of France, [including] very modest aspects of France, it’s important that it remains accessible to all.” 

As of December, the artists are back on the road, headed to the south via the Alps. “There’s a lot of visual diversity awaiting us,” Tabuchi says.