JTF (just the facts): A pair of exhibits at separate locations, both showing examples from the same body of work. There are a total of 55 color photographs on view (27 at Milo and 28 at Hermès), framed in brown wood and variously matted (the large and medium prints are unmatted, the small prints are matted). All of the works are inkjet/archival pigment prints, made between 2010-2011. The prints come in three sizes: 57×43 and 40×33 (together in editions of 5+2AP), and 18×15 (in editions of 8+2AP or 2+2AP). A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Dewi Lewis (here). (Installation shots at right – the top two images are at Yossi Milo, the bottom two at Hermès.)
Comments/Context: Charles Fréger has built his photographic career on documenting human subcultures with an almost anthropological rigor. Water polo players, majorettes, sumo wrestlers, Chinese opera singers, French legionnaires, they’ve all been immersed in his close, analytical scrutiny. In his newest project, Fréger wanders the forgotten paths of tribal Europe, covering 19 countries and capturing the mythic beast costumes of pagan festivals and folk rituals. His portraits rediscover an enduring primal connection to animals and seasons, seen through the systematic deadpan gaze of August Sander or the Bechers.
Set against grassy hillsides, rocky mountains, or snowy meadows, Fréger’s subjects stand like menacing statues, seemingly formed from the raw materials of the surrounding natural world. Fur, bones, racks of horns, evergreen boughs, woven straw, and clumps of hair are put together with beads, bells, sack cloth, streamers and other decorations, creating Earthy gods and goddesses born of traditional beliefs. In some cases, the resulting larger than life figures resemble a bear, a deer, or some other vaguely recognizable but stylized part-animal. In others, the bulky creatures seem to represent some aspect of man’s relationship to the land or simply the trees and fields given a quasi-human form. The costumes are indeed wild (as the title of the show implies) and often scary, evoking respect for the rough, often uncontrollable power of the natural world. Together, they form a kind of typology of disappearing culture, as solstice myths and seasonal holidays are crowded out by the pace of modern life. Seen in Fréger’s structured style, the portraits show off both the quirks of geographical regions and the universality of the underlying impulses.
One of the questions that Fréger’s work raises for me is a more general one of how we are to critically judge what we might call “contemporary anthropological” photography, especially when it consistently opts for a straightforward, head-on visual style. Like Fréger, Phyllis Galembo has made similar kinds of pictures of the ritual costumes of Haiti and West Africa, while Katarzyna Majak has tracked down and photographed the traditional female healers of Poland (to name just two that have a seemingly direct link to Fréger’s chosen subject matter here). In a certain way, nearly any kind of human subculture might potentially reveal interesting eccentricities, patterns and truths when examined in such a manner, but I think it’s the in-between ideas and discoveries about ourselves that make the larger bodies of work durably memorable. As such, Fréger’s images are less about frightening masks and furry beasts, and more about an elemental human wildness which refuses to be smoothed over by modernity. Across wide disparities of land and culture, our fundamental connection to the rhythms of the natural world is remarkably strong.
Collector’s POV: The works in these shows are priced in as follows. At Yossi Milo, the 57×43 prints are $10500, the 40×33 prints are $5500, and the 18×15 prints are either $1400 or $1600 and are sold in groups of 4 or more. The works on view at Hermès have no posted prices. Fréger’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.