Elger Esser

Elger Esser spent his youth in Rome before becoming a student of Bernd Becher in Düsseldorf, where he currently lives. This exhibition gave a general overview of Esser’s work via eight pieces, each representing the nearly constant repetition of the same scheme: the horizon between sky, earth, and water. Such extreme specialization—along with reiteration—of subject matter is the prerogative of many present-day photographers, in the same way that seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters concentrated on only certain types of imagery—seascapes, snowy townscapes, or rustic summertime views—for their clients. Specialization guaranteed quality (someone who was good at ships in a storm might not be able to paint snowy fields equally well) and the artist’s recognizability. Today, this latter prerogative appears to be essential, above all in photography, where it seems more difficult to make one’s mark on our received visual language.

In this sense, Esser has succeeded perfectly; his horizontal landscapes of water and large skies, yellowed by slight overexposure and imbued with a milky, warm atmosphere, are his alone. And yet recently the artist has begun to eschew his signature imagery with a series of black-and-white photos and enlargements of watercolor postcards. These new works hark back to the atmosphere of old Europe and, above all, the nostalgia for antique photography. For example, Esser depicts a provincial gothic church, as in Rumilly-les-Vaudes, 2007, from the ongoing “Combray” series, begun in 2007, or the water in a canal amid the trees, as in Pontorson, 2007, from the same series; both are heliogravures on handmade paper printed with no blacks, only an infinite range of grays. Looking at these images, what comes to mind—as prompted by the series title—are Marcel Proust’s descriptions of Romanesque Breton churches, or the photographs that might have been made of those churches in the writer’s day. Herein lies the problem: There is no particular framing, but rather an isolated memory, a literal souvenir that becomes potent only when literary or visual quotation takes over. This nostalgia is further accentuated in Esser’s use of an old hand-colored postcard, rephotographed and blown up to the vast scale of current art photography, in Honfleur, 2008, an image of a small pier with a docked sailing vessel. It evinces longing for an image that was an image, that is, an enduring memory of a moment and not just one frame in a film that includes millions of others that roll before us. Moreover, Esser’s photograph promotes the sensation of “stopping”—not so much of a chronological instant, because few photographs are further from the idea of a “snapshot” than those of Esser—but of halting and reactivating memory through a visual-emotional state. Indeed, it seems that for Esser, this state of active memory cannot be triggered without recourse to quotation and to the idealistic photographic stance that, in the period bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, went by the name of pictorialism.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.