Member of the Month January 2019
The Bougainvillea Project
An LA story that starts in France with a woman disguised as a man.
One day, I turned up the canyon road where I live, I passed, as I’d done countless times before, an enormous mass of pink bougainvillea. On this day, its color exploded against the sunny blue sky of Los Angeles, demanding my attention. Overcome by its beauty, I became curious. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Much of L.A.’s vegetation is not indigenous. Even the city’s famous palm trees were trucked in. I spent the rest of the afternoon enthralled with what I discovered.
Bougainvillea, native to Brazil, was named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French explorer and Admiral who set sail in 1766 to discover new territories for France. On the voyage was a botanist and his female assistant (and lover), Jeanne Barret. Since women were forbidden onboard, she’d disguised herself as a man. When the ship arrived in Brazil, Jeanne was sent on land in place of her lover, who was suffering from a leg injury. It was here that she was drawn to the bright color of the bougainvillea and brought it back to France where it was named after Admiral de Bougainville. Jeanne Barret became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, though no one knew this at the time.
Her pioneer spirit resonated with me. Like so many, I had come to L.A. alone, with a few hundred dollars to my name. As I attempted to navigate my way in the vast city, I was struck by the flora that was everywhere. With the bougainvillea, it was love at first sight; how it crawled up poles, swept across hillsides, cascaded down walls, decorated freeways — displaying its boldness and beauty with its fence-climbing gypsy spirit.
The Bougainvillea Project put me on the streets of L.A., driving for hours without direction, scouting random streets, double parking, and getting in and out of my car countless times. Eating in my car, listening to podcasts, I was living the car culture of the city as I made art. Chasing bougainvillea connected me to L.A. in a deep way. As I stood on the street with my camera, people walking by would slow down, then look where my lens was pointed. When they saw it was bougainvillea, there was often interest. “Pretty, isn’t it?” The L.A. that I connected with was friendly and curious. I’d answer questions and end up in deep conversations about life or love. People were helpful. I often heard, “There’s a big one on my street.” My eyes became attuned to spotting masses of bright fuchsia down alleys or adorning hillsides, rooftops, freeway embankments; I enjoyed the process, the thrill of finding it had me climbing fences, squeezing through gates, and balancing on walls to get a good shot. I called upon the spirit of Jeanne Barret (how L.A.!) as I voyaged through the city on my own expedition to rediscover, through over 20,000 frames, what Jeanne discovered in Brazil so long ago. I taped a sketch of her to my dashboard. If she could be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, surely I could stay the course of my urban journey.
I’m a portrait photographer. The bougainvillea of LA became my subject, a queen in my lens. These 500 images are my portrait of her, explored through the many different shapes and colors in which she exists on the streets of L.A. I included the landscape to show how significant the bougainvillea is to the visual narrative of LA, blooming throughout the contrasting urban structures and diverse wealth found in this city, secretly telling the story of Jeanne Barret’s courageous spirit, as well as the story of the many who come to this desert of a city to find their own place in the sun, like each of bougainvillea in these images, with their own story, no two alike. The bougainvillea blooms through the heat and the droughts, and it grows without prejudice in every neighborhood of LA.
Alexandra DeFurio is a Los Angeles-based portrait and fine art photographer. Her personal work is inspired by curiosity, adventure and a drive to uncover beauty even in unconventional spaces. Her credits include photographing seven published cookbooks, sixteen teen celebrity covers for Dream magazine including Ariana Grande and Zendaya, and photographs for Bop, Tiger Beat, Us Weekly, HGTV, Glamour, InStyle, House Beautiful and Josie Maran Cosmetics, among others. She lives in Santa Monica, CA, with her family.