Art & Photography

Elger Esser: Morgenland

The German artist offers a new perspective on the Near East with a romantic series of photographs taken during his extended travels

The overwhelming effect of Elger Esser’s photographs is one of stillness. Nature and the landscape tradition are the backbone of the Düsseldorf-based artist’s work and just beneath the surface of his large-format photographs is a sense of the sublime. For more than ten years, Esser has travelled between Lebanon, Egypt and Israel and, in his first solo exhibition in the UK, he presents painterly photographs of shorelines, traditional feluccas and dahabiya sailing boats, all scaled up to monumental effect. 

‘Morgenland’ is an old German term for the Middle East, meaning ‘morning land’, and the hazy, white-hot light that saturates Esser’s images explains the artist’s chosen title. Captured using an 8 x 10 camera, these luminous and decidedly unpeopled landscapes see glassy waters, still horizons and ancient ruins presented as heroic images. 

Esser’s intuitive eye for beauty is immediate but a subtle political edge still runs through the Morgenland series. The photographs quietly resist the pitfalls of cultural colonialism by subverting media depictions of the Near East as a zone of endless conflict. Instead, they offer something more sensitive, more neutral. 

As Edward Said wrote in his 1978 landmark, Orientalism: “The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.”

Elger Esser: Morgenland is on show at Parasol Unit in London until 12 May