Unlike many German photographic artists of his generation, Elger Esser is no “painter of modern life.” In his Combray series, created between 2005 and 2016 using analog black and white photography, Esser has compiled a visual atlas of places in France that appear to have remained untouched by the technological changes wrought elsewhere in the course of industrialization from the mid-19th century onward. His classically composed images of “la France profonde” portray a deeply rural and provincial world where time seems to have stood still, and where man’s presence does not appear to have disturbed the tranquility of the idyllic backwater.
Esser transposed his black and white negatives into heliogravures—a photographic printing process that was widely used in the late 19th century. This elaborate and intricate intaglio technique not only produces high-resolution images of extraordinarily fine tonal definition, but also represents a close connection between artisanal printmaking and photographic reproduction. In Esser’s oeuvre, this combination has produced images of places that seem to radiate the presence of a time gone by, at the apogee of heliogravure.
The ambiguity of his visual compositions fuels the viewer’s own reminiscences. Indeed, Esser taps into this by choosing Combray as the title of the series, in reference to Marcel Proust’s iconic À la recherche du temps perdu and the happy childhood days spent by the first-person narrator in the fictional village of Combray. For Proust, this primordial scene of innocent young contentment can be revisited only through writing—for us, born later, it can also be found in the contemplation of Esser’s images.