Tessa Traeger

Voices of the Vivarais

28 May - 26 June 2010

Purdy Hicks is delighted to announce the forthcoming exhibition, Voices of the Vivarais, by the 'quintessential British photographer’, Tessa Traeger. This will be her first exhibition at Purdy Hicks and is supported by a privately printed limited edition artist’s book with an essay by Mark Haworth-Booth.

There are fifty new silver gelatin prints made especially for the show, in various sizes, from20 x 24 to 12 x 16 ins (50 x 60 to 30 x 40 cm) and five 30 x 42 ins (76 x 107 cm) piezo pigment prints in colour. Also the Gallery has a few of her vintage prints available which were printed on Kentmere Art Classic paper, now no longer made.

For more than half a century, Tessa Traeger has built an international reputation as a master of still life, imbuing her subjects with an intense, personal quality. As Mark Haworth-Booth has written 'Her background and interests contain generous measures of elsewhere. She is inspired by the American photographic tradition and in these photographs by French culture at its most daily and therefore deep… Her images have the sobriety and resonance of proverbs’.

Working over many years, Traeger has photographed a mountainous area of France near Lyon, known as 'The Vivarais’, peopled by communities continuing to practice techniques and traditions related to food and farming. This way of life is now perilously close to extinction.

Long acclaimed for the brilliance and ingenuity of her colour photographs of food, published in Vogue Magazine (1975-1991) Traeger became absorbed by the skills of the farming communities of the Vivarais. The individuals she came to know and admire 'put something of themselves into the food, and a precious human quality was passed on’. Traeger recognised that this way of life, was under threat, from EU directives and cultural changes. Through her work Traeger bears witness to a particular vein of knowledge that is passing into history, and photography is her witness.

A Valediction by Tessa Traeger:

When I first began this project I made a conscious choice to use a method which was in tune with the subject matter. I saw before me a 19th Century world and recorded it with essentially 19th Century photographic equipment: a plate camera and wet negatives. By the time I concluded fifteen years later, the very subject matter was already fading, changed, or lost. And whilst my subject had started to disappear, so too, ironically, had the means I had chosen to record it. My last pictures for the project were taken on a digital camera, in colour, and the wet process with which I had begun had been consigned to the art gallery and the museum.

I was curious to discover why this farming community in the high mountains of the Vivarais had clung to their traditional way of life despite the huge changes taking place around them. I sought out people who had stuck to the old ways and ignored those who had not. I wanted to know what had made them carry on. I decided that the only way to find out was to ask them myself, so after I had got permission to photograph them I would interview them and write down faithfully what they said, hence the title Voices of the Vivarais. I found that they considered their system was a success, and therefore needed no change. They were, and are still, self sufficient and extremely proud of the fact. Their aim is to 'make do’ and mend, if they have to spend money they feel ashamed, and that they have failed. When I asked them how they would have liked to live, if they had their lives all over again, they replied 'The same as before, but with fewer anxieties, such as the crop failing or a calf dying.’ In fact they do not want to change anything at all, but only for fate to be kinder. What they produce is of the highest quality. The cheeses, the bread, the saucissons and hams from their farms and kitchens are clamoured for in the local markets, the big city of Lyon nearby, and Paris.

My hope is that we can learn something from their simple and straightforward view of life...that they have enough to satisfy them, enough and no more, and for me their attitudes are both a lesson and a warning.

Tessa Traeger is one of the outstanding still-life photographers of her generation and is widely acknowledged as having raised the subject of photographic, food still life to the status of art. Trained at Guildford School of Photography and Fine Art, Tessa Traeger has worked at Rossetti Studios in Chelsea, London since the 1960’s. As an artist, she is especially known for her still-life photographs taken on large format cameras many of which were published during her long association with British Vogue. Inspired by some of her illustrious predecessors, Tessa Traeger has sought to balance the demands and developments of both commissioned and personal work. She has exhibited regularly since 1978 in Paris, London and New York as well as participating in many group shows. Her work is represented in the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Bibliothѐque Nationale in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Mark Haworth-Booth served as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1970-2004 and helped to build up its great collection of photography. He is now Visiting Professor of Photography at University of the Arts London. He has curated many exhibitions, the most recent being The Art of Lee Miller. He is now preparing, with Jeu de Paume, Paris and the National Portrait Gallery London, a centenary retrospective of the pioneering photographer Camille Silvy (1834 - 1910), to be shown at the National Portrait Gallery July - October 2010.

Tessa Traeger by Mark Haworth-Booth

Tessa Traeger has had one of the most unusual careers in photography. After studying photography at art school in the 1950’s, she sought out Edwin Smith, the architect and painter who had become Britain’s most brilliant photographer of architecture and the countryside – his classic books include English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954) and a study on a little-known part of rural England, Breckland (1956). Tessa was offered the job of filing Smith’s glass negatives but the position was not really financially viable and instead she started her own London studio.

Her education in the medium received special impetus when she made her first visits to the photography galleries at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the early 1960’s. Tessa recalls the revelation of the print quality of photographs by Edward Steichen (think of his massive, deep-toned pears), of Paul Strand (especially the wiry crofters of the Outer Hebrides, the weathered grain of hands and wood) and of Irving Penn (the petits métiers, his homage to the `little trades’ of Paris and London). Very early in her career, Tessa awakened to the technical refinement and purity of vision of these masters. Like Penn, she has combined a brilliant career in commercial photography, including advertising, portraiture and fashion, with personal projects of her own choosing.

She followed in the footsteps of Elizabeth David as a contributor to Vogue, where she photographed food with outstanding skill and élan from 1975 to 1991. There are other personal projects soon to reach publication and exhibition. However, Tessa’s most intense and prolonged series on life and landscape is the one now published in this book. In hindsight, her preoccupation with ‘la France profonde’ seems inevitable. It fulfils her early admiration for Edwin Smith. It focuses her passionate concerns about food – Tessa has been an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘Slow Food’ movement of Carlo Petrini since it began in 1986 – and about agriculture, rural life, traditional crafts and the life-enhancing skills she sees being carelessly thrown away. Her passionate engagement with the Vivarais makes most other `documentary’ projects of recent times seem tepid, superficial or even wrongheaded. (I am thinking of photographs of European peasants which show them as completely passive).

The sheer length of the project has coincided with large changes in photographic practice. The series began with a view camera, a tripod and large, very fine-grained, Polaroid negatives processed on location. In recent years Tessa has been able to use 35mm and digital cameras. The latitude available with digital photography has allowed her to capture low-light scenes in colour. It was a privilege to accompany this exceptionally knowledgeable, sensitive and resourceful photographer on many of her recent journeys to the Vivarais. One observed how a portrait session might spread over two hours or more, including a running conversation in which Tessa – or, frequently, her friend Paull Boucher - drew out the subject’s daily and deeper concerns. Slow portraiture is the best kind. However, on another occasion, as happens with artists or athletes 'in the zone’, there were pure gifts – as when the Fin Gras cows returned from their pasture on the plateau in perfect early evening sunlight, on cue for their appearance in this book. Such 'luck’ is earned. As Henri Cartier- Bresson, who admired these pictures, once observed of photography: 'You have to milk the cow a long time to get a little butter’.
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Gerbes de Mariages 1995, Silver Gelatin print 61 x 51 cm / 24 x 20 in