Anne-Marie Garcia / Curator of Photography at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris
1816. Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, Le Gras Estate, France. After eight days of stealthily waiting at his window, Nicéphore Niépce obtains the first heliographic image drawn by sunlight. He relates: “I put the camera in the room where I was working. In front of the bird cage, with the window wide open, I carried out the experiment following the process that you know, my dear friend; and on the white paper I saw the entire part of the cage which could be seen from the window and a faint image of the windowpanes, which were less lit than the objects outside.”Ten years later, on a pewter plate coated with bitumen, he created his View from the Window at Le Gras, the oldest preserved photo known today.
1836. Wiltshire, Lacock Abbey, Great Britain. William Henry Fox Talbot, the future inventor of the calotype, hangs small dark optical chambers onto the windows of the family home. He expects his “mousetraps”—as Mrs. Talbot amusingly calls them—to operate and photograph areas of a park. He hopes to create “copies of views” that simply record—with an instinctive, immediate, and passive capture— exterior views delimited by the window’s rectangular frame.
2009–2013. South Korea. Ahae at his post by the window of his studio. His perseverance is similar. He stays by his camera, releasing its shutter every ten seconds. Following in the tradition of Niépce and Talbot, he is going back to the very beginnings of the photographic act and photography’s fundamental essence—“the perspective window” and “the instinctive attraction to the natural.” Techniques have changed, aided by the arrival of short exposures and other photographic technologies, but the approach, gesture, subject, and even the dedication are the same. Such a return to the source is exceptional in the history of photography. Another photographer, Joseph Sudek, seems to have preceded Ahae in this approach. For ten years he photographed the garden outside his studio’s window in Prague from the same angle. But using his signature and distinctive mark, Sudek kept the window closed so that the glass’s filter (a metaphor for the sensitive sheet glass) is present in each picture (The Window of My Studio series, 1944–1953). Ahae never closes his window. In doing so, no trace of man’s presence or the photographer’s authority has an influence on the microcosm that is offered to him. It also prevents anything from eroding the immanence of his subject: nature.
This irrepressible attraction of reality through the window of photography’s origins is not trivial. It leads Ahae to maintain a photographic stance that puts him in perfect harmony with the very first photographers.
To begin with, the dizzying number of times he replicates the birth of photography is significant, with more than three thousand shots per day. Ahae watches, patiently waits, then shoots. No movement, event, or change escapes his vigilance. He accumulatively and systematically collects them. Completely independent and from the same location, he undeniably repeats what the entire body of nineteenth-century photographers did on a universal scale and with what everyone expected from them with bated breath: to record the existing world to its fullest, and to achieve the most visual encyclopedia possible. They photographed everything: faces, objects, works of art, monuments, building sites, natural catastrophes, disasters of war, events, human beings, and live models. They captured, archived, documented, and bore witness. Driven by the same desire for completeness and fueled by a continual, daily stream of images, Ahae develops his own encyclopedia of the microcosm he loves. He draws a living anthology from it that, second after second, relates the intimate and invisible history of his corner of nature. An anthology, because one printed image hides the thousands of others archived. While nature moves and lives, his shutter fragments its linear course like Zeno of Elea’s arrow or the chronophotographs of Eadweard J. Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, or Albert Londe.
Photography possesses a very special relationship with reality, and many debates arose concerning its artistic legitimacy during the nineteenth century. It mechanically executes what the artist’s hand creates. Essentially—and this is the real significance of Talbot’s “mousetraps”—photography is the image that best mimics reality. And it is precisely this mimetic power and primal efficiency that interests Ahae. He bluntly puts them to work in his exploration of nature’s unsuspected undercurrents. He pushes himself with an unprecedented rate of shooting, handling about forty different lenses. He works at close range without a tripod. So as not to betray the photographed subject, his shots are “naked,” without artifice or light effects. Ahae ultimately cultivates physical and technical achievement, heir to the unstoppable photographers of the nineteenth century. His tenacity and prowess equal that of nature’s other adventurers, who, like him, set out to encounter unexplored places: the Bisson brothers on Mont Blanc in 1860, with their mountains of glass plates, gelatin emulsions, and dark rooms, or the American photographers who followed the expansion of the American West, such as Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and Eadweard J.Muybridge, who loaded their mobile laboratories and “mammoth plates” onto the backs of mules.
The means have changed, but the desire to create new images of a nature just as virgin, primitive, wild, and pure requires the same technical approach and physical challenge. Whether they climb alpine glaciers, stumble along the ravines of the Yosemite Valley, or calmly position themselves next to a private garden, nature photographers—just as heroically—pursue the same quest for the inaccessible, the never seen, or the impossible to see, from behind their lenses.
Capturing pristine nature without modifying it, Ahae is a photographer of origins, both in terms of his method and his choice of subject. Tirelessly photographing nature restored to its “natural state,” he returns to the artistic genesis in which the very first photographers took part. His images are enriched with the same strength of conviction as Nature Study by Gustave Le Gray, Paul Berthier, Alfred Briquet, Eugène Cuvelier, Charles Famin, Henri Langerock, and Henri Achille Quinet—photographers who, from 1850 to 1860, emerged from their studios to find themselves in the forest of Fontainebleau. Depicted by Rousseau and the romantics in its original splendor, nature left behind the historical landscape to become the artist’s outdoor workshop. In concert with artists who painted from life, photographers began to photograph its details—stumps, bushes, ponds, trees, trunks, groves, edges, and rocks. Their photographs as well as those of Ahae are animated with the same excitement and resonate with the same music. Close to their subjects, the images recreate their living splendor as faithfully as possible. Open windows become reflective mirrors: their aesthetic power—which critics of realism rejected with regards to the photographic medium—results from this mimetic relationship. They are stunning and alive, infused with their models’ beauty and life. They tremble, vibrate, quiver, twinkle with light, and undulate. Their contagious beauty awakens an acuity—similar to that of their author—within the viewer. But if, like Ahae, photographers before the advent of the snapshot managed to render (throughout the seasons and during various times of the day) the rustling of leaves; crackling light; moving shadows; lapping water; the atmosphere’s instability; the inconstancy of undergrowth; and the depth of paths, (in short, to capture unbeknownst to nature all its thrilling beauty) exposure times, the weight and bulk of photographic materials, and the inability to go unnoticed prevented them from advancing. it was impossible for them to capture an animal’s movement; the metamorphosis of clouds; the darkness of night; or the colors of day. . . But Ahae achieves the impossible. With their technical mastery, his photographs heighten the revolution marking nature’s evolution as an artistic subject. They achieve what neither the calotype nor the collodion processes could. At times, a fortuitous confusion blurs the technical limitations and images themselves, as illustrated when his photographs are streaked with the frantic flight of a bird or a leaping deer. In others, by superposing two negatives to better resemble reality, raging waves of le Gray’s seascapes radiate under incredible billowing clouds.
“Contagious beauty”. . . On April 13, 1861, the artists of the Barbizon School obtained a decree that saved 1,100 hectares of Fontainebleau forest from deforestation and industrial exploitation. In the United States, photographic campaigns led to the creation of national parks. The first was created in 1864 in the Yosemite Valley; a few decades later Ansel Adams photographed it with meticulous care.
For two years, Ahae has been exhibiting a selection of his photographs to a wider audience. Without a doubt, his pictures are designed to stir the emotions of those who look at them. Thanks to their innate beauty and that of their subject, they may prove to be contagious, something that would please their creator, a businessman whose unremittant concern is respect for our planet. In the meantime, we are all free to experience pure nature vibrating within us and to continue—if we so wish—the quest for memories that were started here and that will intensify emotion. . . reflections in the water reminiscent of Talbot; the carving out of a plant à la Karl Blossfeldt; or the impalpable poetry of a blurred, paint-like effect.
1. Letter to his brother dated May 5, 1816, quoted by Michel Frizot, Histoire de voir, Paris, CNP, 1989, p.10.
2. Michel Frizot, ibid.