New York

Elger Esser

Sonnabend Gallery

A relatively young photographer from Germany, Elger Esser specializes in landscapes, particularly landscapes that are flat. He likes beaches and wetlands, places where the single strongest visual mark may be the horizon, a straight line dividing the view. In Saône, France, 2000, that line is virtually all there is: The river, apparently in flood, fills the image. A scattering of leafless, light-shed saplings to the left, their trunks submerged, and an unobtrusive row of half-sunk trees and brush in the middle distance may mark the near bank; then there is only water until the remote rim of earth on the river's far side, a thin indistinct band running quite level all the way across the picture. This makes the photograph's top and bottom halves—the sky and all below it—virtually each other's mirror; and the limited range of color, a pale alloy of yellow, ocher, and gray, extends the feeling that nothing is clearly delimited from anything else, that there is no there here. In Île St. Martin I and II, France, both 2000, the trees on the other side of a riverine pool are taller and closer, so that the picture makes room for more solid stuff, but here too there is a sense of placelessness. What made these sites worth photographing, what drew Esser to them? It was likely their flat anonymity, their lack of an incident to catch our attention, of a perspectival focus to channel our gaze. Esser prints his pictures big—Saône is more than seven feet wide—so their values are panoramic and enveloping, yet the eye skitters across them as across an allover painting, looking for the figure and finding only ground, or, often, water.

The horizontality that the photographs seek in the places they document makes me think of what Rosalind Krauss has called basesse—the sense of abjection or at least upset expectation arising from the denial of the human instinct for uprightness in the world. But though Esser's work does have a desert quality, it also plays, I imagine quite knowingly, with the visual conventions of the romantic and the picturesque, squeezing and draining them to control their emotional affect but not entirely erasing it. Caspar David Friedrich might be one reference for Esser's sea and beach scenes, and what is striking about the Île St. Martin photographs, or the pair of images evocatively titled Le Paradis, France, both 2001, is their subtle sense of natural biological energy—their sense of wet green warmth. Invested in the carefully filtered color and the play of organic form interrupting abstract rectangularity, nature here seems alive. Unpeopled, pushing toward empty featurelessness; the images still show places you might like to be.

Esser belongs to an ever-growing class of German photographers who are products of the teaching of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. I admit to a certain disappointment at this, as it makes some of his choices—the scale of his prints, the methodical routine of tracing a particular subject or motif through many variations—begin to look stock. Perhaps Esser is acknowledging his fellow graduates in Les Roches, France, 2000, which looks to have been made with Andreas Gursky's Rhine II, 1999, in mind—though there may be a little one-upmanship here, in that Esser apparently used straight photography to arrive at a pictorial construction for which Gursky resorted to digital manipulation. In any case, you wonder how far this line of work has to go before it seems played out. It doesn't seem played out yet.

David Frankel