Eigenzeit

Posted on March 21, 2014

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Whilst my mind is still turning on landscape photography I thought I would document here some recent investigations I’ve made into the question of why some ‘romantic’ landscape photography has been well received by the art community, whereas most have been dismissed as needless idealisations. For the purposes of this analysis I have focused on a single photographer Elger Esser.

Esser is a member of the Dusseldorf School and trained under Bernd and Hilla Becher. His work is almost all landscapes and has been well received in the art community. His large scale prints are exhibited at major galleries throughout the world. This is despite the fact that most commentators refer to his work as ‘romantic’, recalling 19th century landscape painting.

I showed this example of his work in my previous post here. The photograph is titled Cap Antifer, Etretat, Passage de la Courtine and print number 3 of an edition of 7 was sold at auction in 2011 at Christie’s in London for £20,000. The work is part of a series entitled Cap d’Antifer-Etretat. It is a large c-print with diasec face measuring around 1×1.5 m.

©Elger Esser

©Elger Esser

So why is it that Elger’s work has been accepted in the art world and the work of others is dismissed as eye candy for the masses and misleading idealisation.

The cynic in me might suggest that it is because Esser trained under the Bechers and that this affords him artistic credibility denied others. There is something in this but it is by no means the whole story.

Esser like many other artist/photographers works on series of photographs. Cap d’Antifer-Etretat for example is a series of landscapes which reference correspondence between the writers Maupassant and Flaubert.  Flaubert had asked Maupassant to provide him with information about a stretch of landscape between Le Havre and Fecamp in Normandy. He planned to use the location in his last satire Bouvard and Pecuchet. Maupassant had responded with a detailed description of the area complete with sketches. Esser used Maupassant’s reply to identify the locations for his own series. In the book Esser’s photographs are juxtaposed with Maupassant’s texts and sketches providing a strong conceptual basis, which references literary history. Esser’s other series are similarly well founded conceptually.

An overriding theme is Esser’s work is what he refers to as Eigenzeit, which means ‘own time’. He seeks to place his landscapes somewhere between the obvious present and an imaginary past. In other words when we look at his landscapes we might think that we are looking at an image from the past. However, Esser often includes small details from the present drawing the images back into the present. This conceptual play on ‘time’ runs through his work.

Another factor which seems to be important in the eyes of curators is the fact that Esser’s images are made using a 10×8 film camera and are developed and processed in the traditional manner. Esser has also recently produced exhibition prints using an almost extinct printing process called heliogravure. His use of traditional methods is mentioned without exception in the curatorial statements for exhibitions of his work and in the essays accompanying his books. Somehow this seems to add artistic status to his work. Could it be nostalgia? Could it be because film images are perceived as being indexical signs linked directly to their referent (whereas digital is not)? Could it be because there is a perceived greater level of craft and skill needed? Could it be because there is a view that art photographers use film and commercial photographers use digital? The truth is I am not sure as the commentators never explain why they believe it is relevant.

Scale is also an important factor in his work being perceived as art. Esser’s prints are very large and are often compared to landscape paintings. Indeed, when processing his work Esser often seems to add tints to his prints (blues and golds) to emulate 19th century landscape painters. (I am not sure how he does this). His work is often compared to that of Courbet.

So it seems that there are many factors at play which have lead to Esser’s work being accepted in the art world. Amongst them are:

  • Artistic provenance (via the Bechers in the case of Esser)
  • Work undertaken in series
  • References to High Art in his work
  • Clearly articulated conceptual bases for his series
  • Use of traditional film and archaic printing processes
  • Scale of his photographs.

I would be interested in the views of others on this subject. Just for the record, I find Esser’s work very interesting and all the more so since I have taken the time to understand his conceptual thinking.

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