Gilles Ehrmann

Centre Photographique d'Ile de France

Gilles Ehrmann is certainly not an unknown photographer—witness this retrospective, which was first presented at the prestigious “Rencontres internationales de la photographie” in Arles last summer. But it is no exaggeration to call him low profile. During the 1950s and ’60s, it is true, he worked for two quality magazines, Architecture d’aujourd’hui (Today’s architecture) and Réalités, and he does exhibit from time to time, but for some forty years, he has clearly preferred to pursue a personal imperative, a kind of photophilosophical quest that has most often left its traces in the form of books.

In the photographs themselves, this willful transcendence translates into a striking absence of anecdote, an absolute congruence of subject and structure that leaves virtually no place for the details that serve as markers of a particular moment. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing ever moves—time literally stands still. A 1952 self-portrait (the earliest photo in the exhibit) shows Ehrmann as an eternal twenty-four-year-old posing on the ruins of a house somewhere in the south of France. His 1958 photo essay on the newly independent Guinea is not a document of revolutionary idealism à la Paul Strand’s Ghana: An African Portrait, 1976, but, like his photo essays on the U.S.S.R. and Europe, an attempt to immortalize ordinary people. Ten years later, Faire un pas (Take a step, 1968) would similarly record groups of villagers in Northern India, Afghanistan, and Nepal with the fixity of Italian Renaissance frescoes.

This rhythm of time outside of time is not unrelated to the way that Ehrmann himself works. Les inspirés et leurs demeures (The inspired ones and their dwelling places), a study of visionary builders that was published in 1963 with a preface by André Breton, took more than five years to put together. Oedipe Sphinx (Oedipus Sphinx, ca. 1950–56), a collaboration with the poet Chérasim Luca on the streets of the dead and their mortal remains (mummies, skeletons, funeral monuments) was 16 years in the making, and is now out of print. Ehrmann’s “current” project on alchemical symbolism, L’Air de Paris, was nominally begun in 1992 with a grant from the Ministry of Culture but incorporates a study of artisans that he started in 1980 (and that has its roots in some of his very earliest photographs of potters in the south of France).

Not surprisingly, the works that result from this extended process of searching and questioning also require a kind of time outside of time for viewing. They are all strikingly beautiful in their elegant geometry of light and shadow, volume and texture, all perfectly composed in both senses of the word. But in their very perfection, the visible image serves to evoke an invisible reality. This mystical bent —Ehrmann himself would call it alchemical—is most pronounced and unsettling in the photographs from Oedipe Sphinx. A winged funerary sculpture posed before a family crypt in Italy is so bizarrely covered with dust that it appears to be the solarized portrait of a real person; a group of mummified corpses from Mexico in their varying states of decay are gruesome reminders of the possibility of death after death; two other cadavers, reduced to the treelike con- figuration of their arteries and veins by an enterprising Neapolitan embalmer-prince, question the very meaning of “lifeblood.”

As in all of Ehrmann’s photographs, these are not spectacular images, but unexpected ones. And alongside the heady questions of life and death that they raise, a more mundane variant on artistic creation also comes to mind: Would it have been possible to create works of this depth and purity within the time, and space, of the art world?

Miriam Rosen