‘Morgenland’ sounds like a bleak crime drama you’ve yet to watch on Netflix, but in reality it’s an old German term for the Middle East; it means ‘morning land’, a world saturated in light. Photographer Elger Esser has spent more than ten years travelling this part of the world, from Lebanon to Israel and along the Nile to Luxor and Aswan. In his first UK solo exhibition, he presents enormous photographs of the landscapes he captured along the way.
Esser doesn’t chase the aftermath of conflict. Instead, he finds quiet riverbanks dotted by dahabiyas and still horizons layered with ancient ruins. They are a ‘Morgenland’ revival. Taken on an 8x10 Land camera, the photographs are developed using classic darkroom techniques and scaled up like the dramatic paintings of eighteenth-century Romantics. The landscapes are blanketed in misty white and golden lights, like a hot breath against a window on a cold afternoon. You have to get close, and narrow your eyes to identify the detail. They are deserted, and Esser uses every photographic method in his arsenal to draw you in. ‘Enfeh I’, one of the strongest images in the show, turns a stark view of ruins into a painterly scene that glistens like the surface of a lake. It’s all about beauty.
Upstairs, the mystique of Morgenland disappears with ‘Lebanese Day Book’, an odd arrangement of small printed travel photos presented on a black shelf, opposite dull flower paintings. A window into the process? Possibly. But it only serves to break the spell. The beginning is Romantic, but that’s not always enough to fall in love.