Category Archives: Africa

Beat Presser and the Conquest of Dreams

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In Werner Herzog’s 2004 journal, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, photographer Beat Presser is described as a “long-time Herzog collaborator.” In view of the length of Herzog’s career and the sheer amount of films and documentaries he has produced it’s a significant statement. Spread across the books 300+ pages, in and amongst descriptions of the projects infamous day-to-day problems, including the frustrations of working with Klaus Kinski and grappling with almost every perceivable catastrophe one could imagine, Beat Presser crops up regularly. It’s clear he was an integral member of the Fitzcarraldo production team as well as the ensuing Herzog films he was associated with.

As with Peter Beard, the subject of a previous post, Beat Presser is a photographer less well known in the UK than he should be and like Beard once you become aware of him it’s surprising how often you see his images and hear his name mentioned. Born in Switzerland in 1952 he trained as a photographer and film cameraman in Basel, Paris, and New York and in the mid-seventies became editor of the magazines Palm Beach News and The Village Cry. In 1981 he began his collaboration with Herzog hooking up with him on three major films, two of which I include amongst my favourites of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, both starring the famous German actor and hothead Klaus Kinski. The author of more than ten photography monographs on diverse subjects he remains highly active as an international photographer producing and exhibiting almost constantly.

Via a long series of coincidences and events I first met Beat Presser in Cambodia during 2008 having been given the opportunity to work with him on photographic workshops for local students, which formed part of the educational program supporting his touring Oasis of Silence exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. We quickly became good friends though our shared love of photography and adventure, activities central to our independent beings, and have remained in regular contact. It’s true say he is a constant source of inspiration to me through my unfolding knowledge of his prior work and travels and also his continued striking out in search of new horizons. Approaching 60 years of age, he seems to be speeding up and it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of his various projects and activities.

He is perhaps best known for his work on Fitzcarraldo, acting as both assistant cameraman and still photographer, producing striking images of Herzog, Kinski, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, and Matsiguenka and Campa Indians that have become some of the most iconic in the history of cinema. In view of the projects grand scale the production unit and budget on Fitzcarraldo was only a fraction of what they should have been which occasionally shows in the films low key lighting. Not so with his images though which he consistently gets absolutely bang on. And what about THE seminal image at the start of this post? Few photographers would have had the courage to position the  aggressive  and egocentric Kinski in miniature to the bottom right of the frame.

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But there’s much more to Beat Presser than his Herzog work, which within the context of his career equates to a small proportion of his output. The majority of his personal photography is grounded in travel and his experiences of heterogeneous culture and elemental nature. His Oasis of Silence project for example was produced in monasteries in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, and Korea where he travelled extensively over four years capturing the essence of Theravada Buddhism with his trusty Leica lenses. His ALPenTRAUM work (arguably his best book) is a documentation of the wild winter mountain landscapes of Switzerland. His most recent endeavour is an exploration of Dhow history and culture in East Africa, which involved six months sailing one of the ancient ships along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania.

Much of Beat Presser’s work is bound up in chance in so much that though he carefully chooses the places he travels to and carries with him outline ideas of the possibilities available to him (often as a result of extensive prior research) when he is insitu he lets fate/karma run their course embracing the opportunities that present themselves and developing them to the full, normally over extended timeframes. This is a method of working I mostly adopt myself (albeit less ambitiously) and is the primary method of almost all the great travel photographers and writers. Whilst his work is broad and varied he mostly considers himself a travel photographer, which I find refreshingly unpretentious in view of the cynical connotations often associated with the term.

The photobook is central to his output where through sophisticated design techniques, often in collaboration with his wife Vera Pechel who is herself a highly regarded book designer, he produces thematic monographs often shot over many years. He’s on book eleven and counting which is a fair return when one considers how much time he invests in obtaining the actual images.

I like Beat Presser. I like his books, I like his photos, I like his method of working, and I even like him as a person. I hope that through this post you’ve discovered something about a photographer you may previously have known little of but who has had the kind of rich and successful career all but the best photographers can really only dream of.

You can view Beat Presser’s website here, which is a combination of commercial and personal material. You can see his dedicated Klaus Kinski website here.

All images © Beat Presser.

The End of the Game

The tragic paradox of white man’s encroachment: the deeper he went into Africa the faster life flowed from it.”
Peter Beard, The End of the Game

Flattended Intro

Despite being one of 20th century photography’s most interesting characters and producing The End of The Game, one of its most intriguing photobooks, I expect the majority of people reading this post have never heard of Peter Beard. The notable exception of course are probably the readers with an interest in East African wildlife conservation where he is well known and I think fair to say pretty much celebrated. My own knowledge of him doesn’t come via the photography arena – it comes from my involvement with the animal charity Save the Rhino International where I volunteered for a few years. Once you know of Beard it’s surprising how often he crops up, most recently as part of the 2010 London Elephant Parade which was discussed in a separate post.

Coming from a long line of blue-blooded wealth, Beard first travelled to East Africa in the 1950’s supposedly after reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. On the back of his experiences there, which included a friendship with Blixen herself, the fate of East African wildlife and cultures and all of the complexities around them became his passion. But there’s more to him than that – Beard was a prominent socialite whose milieu in New York high society included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Onassis. He also had a close friendship with Francis Bacon whom he photographed and was the subject in some of his paintings (see Bacon’s Beard portrait, left).

The focus of The End of the Game is the damage done by big-game hunting and the incursion of the railways to wildlife and indigenous cultures in 20th century Kenya. The book commences by looking at the life of the elite band of white Kenyans who’d travelled from Europe in the late-1800s with a desire to profit and “impose order on the interior.” This eventually led to the construction of the ‘Lunatic Line’ –  a train system from Mombasa to Uganda, which served to open up these countries to further exploration and exploitation and which lit the touch paper for the bio-cultural extermination that would follow. Much of this happened before Beard’s time of course, but through his friendship with Blixen he was welcomed into Kenya by survivors of these elite, thereby accessing their records and anecdotes.

The construction of this ‘Lunatic’ railway is one of the most interesting and relatively unknown chapters in African colonial expansion. 562 miles long, it was built almost entirely by Indians brought in by the British who couldn’t compel the native Africans to be involved. Beard includes historical images of the line’s construction in the book including copies of diary entries by railway engineers, foreman, and colonial functionaries who record in remarkable detail the horrors of their endeavours, most notably tales of Indian workers being picked off almost at will by the man eating lions.

This ‘advance of civilisation’ inevitably called for the wild game – a central symbol of African culture – to be eliminated with all the concomitant effects on the local population who were dependent upon it for their own survival. One page of a hunter’s notebook records the remarkable killing of 996 rhinos during a single expedition. It is argued by Beard that, overall, the big game hunters in themselves had a marginal effect of wildlife but that they set the scene for its subsequent commercialisation that goes a long way to help understand the origins of some of Kenya’s present day problems.

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First published in 1965 it has since been reissued three more times, most recently in 2008 with a new foreword by Paul Theroux. After the 1977 edition appeared it included 40 pages of aerial photos of elephant carcasses and bones documenting the tragic elephant die-off of the 1970s on the back of disastrous conservation policies. The emotional impact of these images is immense, concluding the overall apocalyptic feel to the book which starts somewhat romantically with tales of adventure, daring, and geographical exploration and concludes with scenes of absolute mayhem. The volume contains about 300 images, the majority of which are Beards own, including some real stunners which are even more remarkable when one considers the technical limitations of the day. The design still seems innovative despite nearing 50 years old and the page layouts include all kinds of sketches, delicate drawings and symbols of Africa, hand written texts on many of the images, and beautiful typography and prose. The book is a life-form in itself, with the prints still exhibited and sold in private galleries where Beard develops his ideas further through the application of paint, poetry, drawings, etc.

In short, nothing short of a classic that can be returned to time and time again (ultimately the measure of any good photobook). I hope one day to experience the pleasure of seeing his prints up close.



All images © Peter Beard.

UPDATE: I thought I’d add this video of Beard tracking elephants on foot in the Massai Mara, with interesting consequences!