November 10: Veduta

Date #10November 10: There is something about our species that just loves a view, a vista, that which British geographer Jay Appleton calls Prospect which enables us to plan how to exploit the land before us, or Milton would conjure as a yearning to reach beyond ‘the visible diurnal sphere’.

All of us do it; reach for our phone to snap the sunset, but the result disappoints. It’s flat. There’s nothing of that sense of bigness. Isn’t there some form of imaging that we could use to capture this marvellous phenomenon. Surely it isn’t just a matter of ‘you had to be there’?

On this date, the founder of a major virtual reality company, George Swan Nottage, was born, in 1823 (†1885). Also today, two exhibitions open; Dominique Clerc‘s Welcome launches with a vernissage at 6:30pm and continues until 17 December at Galerie Claude Samuel, 69 avenue Daumesnil – 75012 Paris; and the other is Elger Esser: Time Suspended in Spain at the Museo Patio Herreriano museum of contemporary Spanish art at Calle Jorge Guillén, 6. 47003 Valladolid, his first solo exhibition a Spanish museum.

Elger Esser as a child would have admired the 3D images produced by the business that Nottage had founded with his cousin Howard John Kennard (1829-1896) in 1854; the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company. Described as “a descendant of a very humble family, died Lord Mayor of London”, Nottage was elected Alderman of London in 1875, Sherriff in 1877, and Mayor in 1884.

London Stereoscopic Company
The London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street London. Postcard.

When he first opened a shop, ‘The Repository of Art’, his intention was to sell bronzes, but found that  continental paper stereoviews which he placed in the window sold better. The business became ‘The London Stereoscope Company’, then the ‘Stereoscopic Corporation’, before it settled on the name ‘London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company’.

By February 1856, the London Stereoscopic Company (LSC) boasted in the Photographic Journal that it held the “largest collection in Europe, upwards of 10,000” stereo views, such was the mania for this imagery which when placed in a simple holder enchanted the viewer who felt they had set foot at the threshold of the scene in the photographs which seems to unfold into a life-size view. There are things you can see in a stereo view that no other photograph can reproduce.

In this early stereoscope ‘View of Sandringham No.4′ showing a scene of man taking in the ‘Ornamental Water, from Pleasure Grounds’ it becomes clear that the fellow is seated on a slight mound that actually hides the base of the ivy-clad bare tree, that the larger of its lower branches reach to hang just in front of him, and beyond, the grey mass separates to reveal a similar coppiced tree standing on the far bank behind which stand a series of buildings in the hazy distance.

Stereoview of Sandringham, circa 1863
London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (c.1863) Stereoview of Sandringham
Victorian Embankment
London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (c.1861) The Victoria Embankment

In this c.1861 view of the The Victoria Embankment on the Thames the smoke from the paddle steamer in the foreground balloons behind the craft and toward us, and hangs as a semitransparent form in the air.

Elger Esser, who was born in Stuttgart in 1967 and lives and works in Düsseldorf, remembers the feeling from stereo views and postcards from the nineteenth century that have fascinated him since childhood.

Magical-Surfaces-Elger-Esser-Parasol-Unit-Londra-2016
Elger Esser (c.2004-15) Lebanon

His large format pictures with expansive skies and horizons that emerge from laden atmospheres have the feel of historic photographs, reproducing the typically long-exposures made in the 19th century and a contemplative sense of a landscape becalmed. But he varies this style according to the subject matter; some are more matter-of-fact; like the pillbox in Lebanon below revealing the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, under whom Esser studied in Düsseldorf in the 90s.

Elger Esser, Enfeh I, Lebanon, 2005, C-print, Diasec, 142 x 184 x 5 cm, Courtesy of the artist
Elger Esser (2005) Enfeh I, Lebanon, C-print, Diasec, 142 x 184 x 5 cm.

Others encompass the political landscape. Works in The Secret Archive of Livi Benjamin, Palestine, 1948, blue-tinted silver gelatin prints are marked with official-looking stamps and stained so as to appear to date from the foundation of Israel. They acknowledge the long-standing conflicts of the Middle East that date back to Roman times. Nevertheless these are tranquil, unpopulated images that might hold out hope of reconciliation. By Esser’s own definition, in response to questions from Alexander Glover of Studio International;

It is a comment on how to read history, how much photography is a document and proof is a very unstable guarantee. It’s a self-created fake archive, made without judging the Israeli settlement politics, but referring to a loss of culture. Ruins are always testimonies of a big loss.

Elger Esser, Nizzana (The Secret Archive of Livi Benjamin, Palestine, 1948), Israel, 2015, Silver gelatin print, coloured, 29.3 x 37.5 cm, Courtesy of the artist
Elger Esser (2015) Nizzana, from The Secret Archive of Livi Benjamin, Palestine, 1948, tinted silver gelatin print, 29.3 x 37.5 cm.

Dominique Clerc’s Welcome relates also to the Middle East and European fears of migratory invasion in an ambient context of terrorism, and hate speech promulgating the idea of ​​monolithic national identity requiring fortification and the closure of not only physical barriers but of language and religion, ironically to the point of becoming uninhabitable. His ironic title for the series illuminates a current zeitgeist.

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Each image does seem to contain a welcome, but like graffiti scrawled on a wall, it is ambiguous. The gateway turns out to be a sentry box, and the sentry is gagged. Our way to the bar is barred, barricaded and sandbagged under a portentous sky. Children must pick their way over the beach defences to build their sandcastles. This is a show apt to Spain which is facing an onslaught of North African refugees and asylum seekers.

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It only becomes gradually apparent to the viewer that while these are plausible, they are not factual, documentary  images. Strangely, so used are we to digital manipulation, that in this knowledge we readily accept it as a new form; not quite photography but at the same time something more, a fiction in which objective and subjective intermingle. As they did in the advent of the stereograph, photographers, their image-making and their audience adapt to new technologies.

Clerc’s and Esser’s are still the same broad view – verduta – that we experience in the nineteenth century stereograph and postcard, but in taking them in we, an audience wise to the new techniques and stratagems, distortions and layering, can appreciate the subtle way they incorporate contemporary social intercourse in a double channel that permits the debate of ideas.

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