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Past and present

Review

Elger Esser: Vedutas and Landscapes 1996-2000 Schirmer / Mosel, 2001. 132pp. £49.95. (Available from Zwemmers 020 7240 4157)

The German photographer Elger Esser, whose first book this is, says: 'I grew up with the postcards of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and the world of images in my head today draws much from this vein. These postcards often have something supra-temporal to them, because some have acquired a patina over time, because others show something that is no longer to be seen today. I have always felt a strong affinity to the tranquillity they exude and their colours.'

Being typically 180cm x 240cm or thereabouts in size, Esser's photographs are at an opposite extreme to the postcard's miniaturisation but, nonetheless, have just the qualities that this statement suggests.

At Albi in France, Esser set up his camera on the bank of a river and looked across to a band of buildings in the middle-distance, stretched taut like a frieze between water and sky - his habitual approach to portraying a town (see picture). A long exposure has calmed the racing current, turning the choppiness below the weir to a placid whitish blur, and the sky is colourless, almost bleached, as if the photograph has started to fade.A pale sepia cast to the image reinforces this sense of distance in time: it could have lain forgotten for years at the bottom of a drawer, yet was only taken in 1996.

Albi seems to be held in a trance, as do the other sites in this book. In this sense, Esser's photographs could not be more different from those seen last year in a show at Oxford-s Museum of Modern Art, 'Open City' (AJ 31.5.01). Subtitled 'Fifty Years of Street Photography', it plunged viewers into the midst of post-Second World War cities - populous, chaotic, immediate. Many of its images were taken on the run; Esser's, by contrast, are contemplative.

Appearing at a time when the tall buildings debate has redirected attention to city skylines, Esser's views have echoes of those old engravings where a city was depicted from a distance, with its signature profile of towers and spires and roofs. In an essay called 'The Magic of Places', which accompanies the photographs, Rupert Pfab brings art history to bear in seeking such precursors.

Pfab makes plausible links to Vermeer's View of Delft and the paintings of Canaletto - a connection which Esser confirms in an included interview. 'One of the first vedutas I took in Lyon in 1996 was an act of photographically capturing a Canaletto that somehow surfaced in my pictorial memories and which I recognised in the view I had of the Saône, ' he says. But Esser's scenes are emptier than most Canalettos, shorn of superfluous incident.

It is a surprise to learn that Esser was a pupil of Bernd Becher who, with his wife Hilla, has spent nearly 40 years documenting industrial buildings in a sober, formulaic and 'objective' way. Esser talks of his interest in capturing 'poetry and mood', of his wish 'to champion a form of beauty which is no longer particularly in focus today'; not ambitions which, ostensibly, the Bechers share.Yet, just as the Bechers pursue every inflection of a particular building type, perhaps Esser too is making an inventory - an album of variations on the theme of place. Whatever feelings he has invested in these townscapes, they might pass as a dispassionate record.

There are landscapes and seascapes too in the book, and, while some of the latter - in a long Romantic tradition - are a little close to photographic cliché in their atmospheric harmonies of sea and sky, they are beautiful nonetheless. But it is the tranced towns to which you return, with their uncanny fusion of the present and the past. They can fill you with nostalgia for sights you have never seen.

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