Elger Esser, Saeculum Aureum @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the entry, back center and back left gallery spaces. All of the works are direct prints, on aludibond with shellac, made in 2013. Physical sizes range from 37×46 to 80×104, and all of the works are unique. The exhibit also includes 3 videos, running on small screens. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Elger Esser’s newest photographs settle us down in the overgrown garden of Ninfa (south of Rome), where babbling brooks wind through lush parkland dotted with artfully decaying stone walls. They capture painterly thickets of flowers and greenery, blooming irises near edges of still ponds, and shimmering poplars and cypresses that tower overhead, all bathed in a secretive summery warmth, like special places reserved only for us.

Over the years, Esser’s unique, some might say contrarian, approach to contemporary photography has coalesced into a kind of rhythm, where projects full of long view landscapes of rivers and waterways alternate with more intimate pictures of Grand Tour gardens and forgotten European lands. It’s a methodical approach, one that combines a wholesale reconsideration of 19th century photography with the conceptual strictness he absorbed in Dusseldorf from the Bechers.

This Ninfa project follows in the footsteps of similar efforts in Combray and Giverny in the past decade, but continues to extend his visual vocabulary. Long exposure night views build on those he made in Monet’s garden, turning stands of trees into dark silhouettes lingering in shades of purple and dark blue, with bright moons becoming ethereal bars of light hovering in the sky. He’s also experimented here with dappled, interrupted compositions, where tangles of roses or blurred leafiness provide a screen that breaks up the frame and adds mystery.

The challenge with Esser’s conscious channeling of memory is that there is often a lingering sense of having seen these images before; his newness is extremely thoughtful and nuanced, but might easily slip by if we’re not particularly attentive. Over the years, he’s mastered a new kind of timeless serenity, one that feels calming and personal, simultaneously overtly referencing the past but grounding us in the present. The best of the pictures on view here have an enveloping quality that connects us to something universal and elemental, an interchange with the land that feels natural and comfortable, with a dash of unabashed beauty to catch our eye.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced between €28000 and €60000, with the videos at €5000 each. Esser’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets for both photography and contemporary art, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $120000.

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One comment

  1. Chris /

    I’m curious about the “unique” part of this. I’m surprised you didn’t follow up on what it means to make unique photographic prints. It not only invites a comparison to painting but says something interesting about market forces as well. It also begs a philosophical question about the artists intent. Does it affect the decision making process when making an image? I’ve thought about doing this myself since it would free one from the whole editioning question….of course there are prints that by the very nature of their creation are unique but it’s different if there’s a easily reproducible negative involved. That’s a disciplined artistic choice.

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