No one would be surprised to learn that one of Germany's most respected contemporary photographers was a student of Bernd Becher at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf. After all, the Dusseldorf School, under Becher and his wife HIlla, has produced photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. What might be surprising is that the photography of Elger Esser, who studied with Becher in the 1990s, seems at first glance to be totally different from that of his famous colleagues.
While Andreas Gursky and other photographers from the Dusseldorf School bring a conceptual eye to the motifs to be found in urban and industrial buildings, interiors, houses and modernity in general, Esser's images are rooted in history and a sense of time passing; and if the analytical conceptualism which emerged from the Becher's relentless documentation of industrial structures marked the work of Dusseldorf alumni, Esser has concentrated on landscapes, seascapes and lakes, villages and old buildings. His photographs evoke a melancholy evocation of time past and childhood memories. He seems to have replaced conceptualism with a return to romanticism.
Esser's embrace of beauty in photography seems to support this view. With his commitment to the traditional crafts of wet darkroom photography and fine printing, he says that he 'can't help but generate beauty. If you want to create something timeless, something removed from the flow of time, then you need to search for things which endure time'. Esser's evocation of past worlds draws heavily on his love of literature - Proust, Maupassant, Fabre, Flaubert, Mann. Of these, Proust has been a continual source of inspiration and Combray (Giverny), currently on display at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMPA) in Tampa illustrates his primary artistic concerns in drawing on Proust. Indeed, À la recherche du temps perdu probably summarises well Esser's photographic quest.
But Esser does not stand for some uncritical return to the cult of beauty. Romanticism was a genuine revolution that challenged the classical past driven by the 'soul within', a reversal of the enlightenment emphasis on the laws of the natural world. Enlightenment rationalism did not seem to offer an adequate explanation for the pace of change and its effects. This reorientation away from natural laws to the artist was as profound as the other revolutions of the time. And Esser has embraced the revolutionary potential of the romantic mindset when he says that 'Romanticism was a movement which shook-up very elementary things; it was an insurrectionary movement'. Reacting in his turn to the conceptualism of Dusseldorf, Esser launched a radical quest for the 'landscape within'.
Raised by a German author and French photojournalist, Esser 'grew up with German values, but with a certain Italian and French spirit.' This changed his perspective on the world and time. It led him in particular to realise that Germany's adoption of modernity in the wake of 1945 seemed to fracture the country's relationship with the past.
Today he lives in Germany 'in order to retain a sense of longing for the other' - in this case, France, a country in which he regularly travels, photographing extensively in an effort to create a kind of 'mind atlas' of the country. He seems to find in France that relationship with the past which Germany has lost, a sort of counterpoint to Germany's relentless, if forced, modernism. 'Landscapes are like states of mind,' Esser explains, 'Everyone carries a landscape within them, one they naturally idealize.' (1)
And so we find in the Combray series currently showing in Tampa a collection of images of a France past - unpopulated scenes of villages, buildings and fields which bring to mind a feeling of gentle, quiet decay. The photographs are beautifully printed on large sheets of robust hand-made paper which hang on the walls unframed. Esser's photographs are printed as large-format heliogravures, a painstaking and high-quality etching process developed towards the end of the nineteenth century which produces remarkably fine details and subtle gradations of tones. Combining traditional craft printmaking with photography leads Esser to describe his practice as that of an artist using photography rather than that of a photographer. Their very materiality points us towards a past world.
All the photographs are monochrome. The severely restricted range of tones of each offers a wash of midtones which suggest a scene pulled from memory rather than the product of a precise and impersonal machine called the camera. Is it not the case that when we think back to the places of our childhood the images we see are vague and generalised, lacking in detail but charged with atmosphere? Esser's flat-toned photographs mirror the process of memory recall, the way in which we pluck out impressions from the millions of details which we encounter during our lives.
The scenes which Esser presents are unpopulated; not a single figures beyond a few horses appear in the images. Again, isn't this how we remember the places of our past as the broad shapes of buildings and towns vaguely delineated? In our mind we reshape reality - romanticism, perhaps, but a process which exposes the revolutionary potential of the romantic mindset.
In the end it may be that Esser's photography is not quite so different from that of his mentors and contemporaries in Dusseldorf.
In her notes accompanying the FMPA exhibition, Joanne Milani Cheatham suggests that for Esser 'it is as if you can take humans temporarily out of the landscape, but you can never erase the marks they have left behind in their stead.' With his love of nineteenth century literature and acute sense of its relationship to the history of photography, it would not be surprising if Esser had Atget's photographs of old Paris in mind. Atget's long exposure times resulted in people - up to that point the main subject of photography - blurring into indistinct forms in his photographs or even disappearing completely.
This was one of the features which attracted the surrealists and, later, Walter Benjamin to Atget. In Benjamin's view, Atget's photographs of deserted Paris streets and alleys were like 'the scenes of a crime', signposts without direction. Everyday objects of ordinary experience were revealed by photography as strange and unsettling: all was not as it appeared at first glance. In his Little History of Photography written in1931 Benjamin said that Atget 'looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift' his photographs running contrary to the 'romantically sonorous names of the cities; they suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship.'
In a similar way, the photographs in Esser's Combray series evoke the past by representing it much as our own mind processes might do. In the process that reality is reshaped. The romantic palimpsest of Esser's photographic techniques turns into a process of radical reappraisal of the past - a goal surely as conceptual in its way as that of the Bechers and their followers.
The curator for the Elger Esser exhibition Combray (Givernyy) is Zora Carrier who has arranged for Esser to give a lecture on his work and the Combray series in March. Keep your eye on the FMPA's website for dates and more details.
(1) All quotations by Esser taken fron Jochen Kürten, 'Elger Esser Captures the Landscapes of Longing', Deutsche Welle, 11 July 2012 available at http://www.dw.de/elger-esser-captures-the-landscapes-of-longing/a-16085726
Elger Esser: Combray, October 4 - March 29, 2014
Copyright © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs reproduced with the permission of the FMPA
Citation Alan Ainsworth, 'Elger Esser's Photography - a new romanticism?', 15.11.2014 available at http://www.zenfolio.com/alanainsworthphotography/edit/blog.aspx#1012801405