Elger Esser, Eigenzeit

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2009 by Schirmer/Mosel (here). 180 pages, with 73 color and black and white images. Includes essays by Simone Schimpf, Cees Nooteboom, Alexander Pühringer, Friedrich Wolfram Heubach, Peter Herzog, and Hubertus von Amelunxen, as well as a short biography, exhibition list, and bibliography. In English, German, and Dutch. (Cover shot at right, via Amazon.)

The works in the catalog have been divided into six groups, along with additional images by both Esser and other artists reproduced amongst the essays:

Landscapes, 1996-2009 (8 images)
Wrecks, 2006-2009 (9)
Views, 2004-2006 (6)
Vedutas, 1996-2009 (6)
Combray, 2007-2009 (7)
Palimpsests, 2007 (5)

Comments/Context: Having carefully reviewed this catatlog from the recent retrospective show of Elger Esser’s work at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, I’d like to think that I have finally begun to understand a photographer who has puzzled me for years. Part of my problem as a viewer of Esser’s work seems to have stemmed from some preconceived and now obviously incorrect notions about what the work of a Becher student from Düsseldorf was “supposed” to look like and how landscape photography could or should incorporate conceptual methodologies. When placed in the context to Gursky, Ruff, and Struth, I could never seem to see how Esser fit, or really even come to grips with what he was trying to accomplish.

This book gathers together a representative sample of his work from the past two decades, and so provides a mix of images from different projects, all placed together in the larger framework of his aesthetic approach. While I had always recognized the allusions to the conventions of Romantic painting and 19th century photography in his monumental washed out yellow seascapes and cityscapes, I had never really seen the connection between these works and his recent blown-up seaside postcards of shipwrecks and crashing waves or his seemingly unremarkable black and white village scenes executed in perfect heliogravure.

I can now see that Esser’s works all revolve around an exploration of time and memory, always with a touch of melancholy for what has been lost along the way. Some of the works echo Proust, and look for contemplative moments of timelessness; others follow the thin thread of a forgotten narrative, only to be left with the essence of the moment, not its details. In all of Esser’s works, he has rigorously recaptured approaches to picture-making (both compositional and technical) that look backward, and then updated, synthesized, and executed them using today’s photographic tools. As such, their conceptualism is a bit more concealed, requiring some additional patience and quiet consideration to discern the patterns and relationships; this is one case where a bit of education about the artist’s intent goes a long way toward enhancing the viewer’s overall understanding of what hangs on the wall.

While I still enjoy Esser’s yellow riverfront cityscapes and open seaside vistas most, this catalog has provided both a much needed roadmap of where Esser has gone since and a lucid explanation of how these newer works reflect on the foundational themes he has been wrestling with for years.

Collector’s POV: Elger Esser is represented in New York by Sonnabend Gallery (here) and in Paris/Salzburg by Galerie Thaddeus Ropac (here). Esser’s work has generally been available at auction in recent years, typically ranging between $25000 and $75000 (with a few outliers).

Transit Hub:

  • Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, 2009 (here)

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