‘Entre trois mers’ – literally between three seas – is an old-fashioned expression that stood for France. Surrounded by the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, the country boasts miles of coast that reveal a fascinating array of landscapes. The body of works presented in this digital display was photographed between 2019 and 2020, with Elger Esser journeying as far as Covid-19 related travel restrictions would allow him to portray the coastlines. It consists of direct prints on silver-plated copper plates coated in shellac, an extraordinary technique that reflects Esser’s interest for bygone photographic processes.
Elger Esser, Saint Marc sur Mer II, 2019, 33 x 43 x 4 cm
Elger Esser, Fecamp, 2019, 26.5 x 33 x 4 cm
“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”- Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Conceptually, Esser focuses on a thorough study of places through a series of uninhabited landscapes where seemingly disused buildings appear to merge with their environment, questioning the traditional divide between nature and culture. In these timeless compositions, shot in places that shaped the Western way of thinking, the buildings seem to belong to their surroundings, evoking the organic growth of philosophical theories and scientific findings in locations associated with a strong cultural heritage e.g. the Mediterranean, Egypt or Palestine.
Gustave Le Gray, La Grande Vague, Sète, 1857
Elger Esser, Vague, 2019, 39 x 54 cm
These photographs from the three seas were inspired by Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884), an influential French photographer whose pictures are imbued with the feeling of belonging to the world rather than of being merely depictions of it. Aware of the limitations of his medium, Le Gray devised several technical improvements. He is notably famous for striking seascapes in which he assembled two negatives, one for the sky and another for the sea, hence bypassing the different exposures required and the challenge of capturing them both in one image.
Elger Esser, Mont Saint Michel II, 2018, 26.5 x 33 x 4 cm
Over his career, Esser has collected more than 25,000 postcards from the areas around these very seas, representing 30 years working across France. They bear witness to a constantly changing landscape that is yet set within boundaries. The Mont-Saint-Michel is an abbey built on tidal island off the Normandy coast. Esser pictures it from such distance that only the outline of the architecture becomes visible, growing into a dark shape floating at low tide between a pink ocean and a white sky, barely attached to the mainland by a strip that stretches on the left side of the picture.
Alfred Robaut, Ambleteuse, Fort Vauban, 1852
Elger Esser, Ambleuteuse, 2019, 33 x 43 x 4 cm
The Fort d’Ambleteuse was built by legendary architect Vauban on the northern tip of France in 1680. It is imbued by a golden light that is characteristic of Esser’s approach – an almost blinding atmosphere generated by the reflection of the sun on all the components of the picture, such as air, clouds and water – that translates into a reduced colour palette reminiscent of antique engravings and maps.
Elger Esser, Etang du Bateguier III, 2020, 26.5 x 33 x 4 cm
A salted water pond located on the Sainte-Marguerite island, off the tip of Cannes, the Étang du Batéguier is home to luxuriant flora dominated by pines and holly oaks. Under Esser’s lens the pond reflects the perfectly still vegetation like a mirror, turning the water into sky, in a mesmerising quietness. This image within the image alludes to the limitation of the photographic medium while reminding us that Esser’s approach is closer to a painter’s than to realistic documentation.
Elger Esser, Etang du Bateguier III, 2020, 26.5 x 33 x 4 cm
“It is the state of mind produced by a certain representation with which the reflective judgment is occupied, and not the object, that is to be called sublime.”- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement
Elger Esser, Villerville II, 2019, 300 x 400 x 5 cm
Esser’s exploration of the French coasts does not only rely on a deep knowledge of the country; it reveals a clear appreciation for history and an analytical approach infused with poetry. Based on fundamental elements such as water, stone and air in timeless scenery, his landscapes convey Kant’s concept of the sublime, an awesome feeling induced by greatness that is not inherent to the observed object but originates in our judgement – the depiction of that same object. What appears to be sublime is not as such appealing. Beyond centuries of cultural tradition finding sublimity in wild landscapes, this feeling of greatness is first generated by elements of an unfathomable magnitude which Esser brilliantly captures in his photographs. Several works featuring only sky and sea – both fascinating and terrifying in their vastness – are especially dramatic, e.g. ‘Soleil‘ (sun) and ‘Vague’ (wave). The gaze gets lost in an immense space seemingly empty but actually filled with wind, salt and water drops – letting us experience only from a distance the ballet of elements which Esser recorded on a particular day.
Elger Esser, Soleil, 2019, 61 x 81 x 4 cm
“My mind is German, my art is Italian, and my landscapes are the views of a German with a roman light travelling through France.”- Elger Esser
Elger Esser’s photographs are part of numerous public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf; and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, amongst others. They have also been exhibited in many institutions, most recently at the Musée de la Mer, Cannes (2021); the Fondation Fernet-Branca, Saint-Louis (2019); the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, London (2017); the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe (2016); and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa, FL (2014).
Credits: installation views and all photographs by Elger Esser © Elger Esser. Video by Michael Kurcfeld, photos © Elger Esser, courtesy of Paris Photo.