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
Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
400 N. Ashley Drive, Cube 200
Tampa, Florida 33602