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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Ester Vonplon:Ice Will Tear Us Apart

One of the most exciting things about photography is the different ways of telling stories that are emerging, the way that different ideas, emotions and senses are overlapping. And it's this overlap of images, ideas and senses that form the heart of a series of talks and screenings taking place in Bristol on November 7th (organised by Max Houghton of London College of Communication and myself).

Ester Vonplon will be there presenting and talking about her Glacier work. Susan Derges will talk about her water-based photograms, Jem Southam and Paul Gaffney will be looking at mind, landscape and walking, Angus Carlyle will talk about sound and landscape and how the one changes the other, and Max Houghton will talk about language and landscape, and how that affects our vision, experience and senses. There may be an addition here or there as well.

It's in Bristol, Saturday November 7th

Tickets are available here.

One of the people on the list who, in the UK at least, is less well-known, is Ester Vonplon. She's a Swiss photographer who made a book about the melting glaciers of Switzerland.

One of the interesting things about photobooks is when you get books that are great, but also go beyond the book form. Olivia Arthur's Stranger does that in a cinematic way, Ivars Gravlejs' Early Works does it by tying in to universal ideas of school and education, and Hidden Islam does it because it has such massive  political relevance.

With all these books, you get the feeling that there is more to the work than just the book. The book is not an end in itself, but is a key to something else that is bigger than the book.

That's also the feeling I get with Ester Vonplon's Gletscherfahrt. Ester Vonplon is a photographer who shows a deromanticised vision of Switzerland and Gletscherfahrt is a project where romance is tossed out of the window. It's an elegy of a book where the textures and touch of the landscape comes across in pictures that have a gut-churning poignancy.

The book shows Vonplon's pictures of glaciers in Switzerland. These are retreating glaciers, melting glaciers. To protect them from further shrinkage, they have been wrapped in giant white reflective sheets. That's what Vonplon photographs. But she photographs them dirty. This is snow that is filled with sediment, grit, particulates and ash. Everything is a bit smoke-stained and grubby. There is no purely driven snow here. And it's all shrouded in these godforsaken bits of cloth that start of pristine but gradually rip and decay grey into the melting ice of the glacier. It's disease and decay and mortality. The ice has torn them apart.

And that's just the pictures. The book comes with a record and the record plays a score that was specially composed for the work. You can play the record and look at the pictures and you instantly get the idea of what has been made and why it has been made.

But there is also a slideshow (and if there isn't yet. I'm guessing be some kind of installation). And that's where the music-picture overlap really strikes you in the belly. It's a composition filled with ripping, dripping, flowing sounds of mortality, a composition that combines the music of Stephan Eicher with the location recordings of Vonplon. She records the sound of melting glacier water (Gletschermilch or 'glacier milk' is the touching German word for it).

It is something so beautiful and yet so sad. It's chilling. But Vonplon has captured that in pictures and sound in a way that really needs no explanation. It's there in the pictures and the music and it's heartbreaking.

That combination of pictures and sound is just one way of extending the photograph beyond the purely visual. It works beautifully. But with landscape there are people working with landscape, with psychology, with meditation, with film and sound in ways that go beyond the visual to provide insights into what it really feels like to be in a place and of a place.

And that's what the November event will look at, how we can beneath the surface of the landscape, how sound and words and music and self connect into the places where we walk, where we live, where we breathe... and last, and most definitely least, where we photograph.

If you're lucky enough to be in Arles, See the slideshow at the Night of the Year.

See more of Ester Vonplon's work here. 

Buy the book here.

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