The photographic quest for the sublime by Paolo Pellegrin


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At 2:30 a.m. A.M., on January 10, Paolo Pellegrin, the Italian photographer and winner of ten World Press Photo awards, was loading his gear into the back of a Toyota truck on the edge of the Namib Desert. The sky was a void except for millions of stars. Using a headlamp, Pellegrin rummaged through his bag. He took out a small plastic bottle of medicine, broke the cap, and put a drop in each eye. “I almost never forget that,” he told me. There are days he doesn’t take pictures, but there are no days he can afford to miss a dose.

Zip bag, trunk closed, Pellegrin climbed into the passenger seat and gently closed his door. The driver, a guide named Anthony, started the Toyota. But he didn’t turn on the lights until we were well out of sight of the ranger station at the entrance to Namib-Naukluft National Park. The darkness was a gift, not only for Pellegrin’s photographic lens, but also for sneaking through the heart of the park at night. Windows rolled down, eyes straining, Anthony walked slowly towards the dunes, which were visible only by the absence of stars behind them.

“To find silence, you need silence,” Pellegrin had observed, and as we drove through the darkness, no one spoke. An hour later, Anthony parks in the sand. Pellegrin handed me a flash and a tripod, and we set off on foot through the dunes. Here, there was no sky; a thick fog obscured it. Individual particles cascaded past us, refracting the light from the headlights – tiny droplets, seen but not quite felt. Nearby was a brown hyena, detected but not yet seen.

After a half mile hike we reached the edge of the Deadvlei Pan. Here, a thousand years ago, a river meandered from the Naukluft Mountains, through the desert, to the Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles to the west. A grove of trees developed tap roots, pushing a hundred feet into the sand to seek water as the river disappeared. Then, six or seven hundred years ago, there was no more water to reach. The trees died, but the roots were so deep and the air so dry that they stood, mummified, on a layer of solid white clay in a pool of bright orange dunes.

Pellegrin hesitated for a moment at the edge of the beaten earth. “It’s not a silent silence, it’s very meaningful,” he said. He slipped to the middle of the pan to study the shape of the trees. Jagged, broken, imposing, ancient – “a little graveyard sacred forever”, he said.

How to photograph this sacred darkness? He didn’t know it yet, even though he had been struggling with some version of the problem for over twenty years. Without his eye drops, Pellegrin’s optic nerve would deteriorate from the pressure inside his eyes; the darkness that obstructs his peripheral vision would continue to encroach. Since Pellegrin has done his best, he has been quietly battling glaucoma. But, for now, the challenge was the opposite. It was after 4 A.M.; it was less than ninety minutes before dawn.

Pellegrin and I are friends. We met on a mission for this magazine, in Chad, almost five years ago, when I was twenty-six and he was fifty-three. Since then we have worked together on several occasions, including once sharing a cabin on an expedition ship for ten days at sea. We dined in Rome and Lisbon, and I played with his daughters aged eight and twelve. years in a park in Lausanne. Last fall, he appointed me as his “second photo assistant”, so that I could accompany him to a shoot on the floor of the Ferrari factory, in Maranello, Italy. For two days, I held an LED light as he took portraits of mechanics and craftsmen in fireproof overalls. It was a master class in craftsmanship, and he barked out the names of the Dutch masters whose paintings he sought to mirror. A commission from “Rembrandt!” intended to throw light diagonally down and across the face, so that one side is illuminated and the other in muted shadow, hidden by the bridge of the nose, except for a trail of soft white light through the eye.

Pellegrin is six-foot-two “on a good day”, he says, and as a young man he trained in tennis and martial arts. But “with the full onset of maturity”, as he puts it, he focuses more on “the agility of the mind”. Last year he cut short his graying hair, which for most of his life had curled in front of his ears. He is a voracious reader, obsessed with philosophy and death; often his most sincere arguments are expressed with a tinge of playful irony and self-mockery. Although he is fluent in English, he reverts to Italian words when there is no precise equivalent. At home, he tinkers with puzzles and Rubik’s Cubes; a few years ago, a Russian oligarch taught him how to build memory palaces, placing individual thoughts in a three-dimensional imaginary space, to be retrieved at will.

Pellegrin is also an avid chess player, and at some point last year he persuaded me to download a chess app to my phone. We now play against each other almost every day. Some matches last for days, but I’ve never beaten him. Once, when I approached, he sent me a link to a humanities anthology, which noted that “there exists in the fields of mathematics and philosophy what is called the ‘infinite monkey theorem ‘, stating that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter with infinite time will eventually write the finished works of William Shakespeare.

Ferrari’s work was the first time we had seen each other in two years, due to the pandemic, and meanwhile Pellegrin had been commissioned by Turin’s Gallerie d’Italia to produce a new body of work. The museum did not yet exist; it kicks off this week, with Pellegrin’s show. The original concept was to focus on climate change – slow, relentless, hard to describe – but Pellegrin had grown tired of the idea. “It’s done,” he told me.

Still, the idea of ​​documenting the extremity in nature appealed to him. Pellegrin has devoted most of his career to photographing war and the human condition. But in 2017, he spent a month flying over Antarctica, with a group of Nasa pilots and scientists, and discovered that scale, emptiness and infinity invaded his mind. The planet’s indifference to its own habitability was terrifying. It forced to recognize that one is “powerless before the power of nature, dependent, left to chance, a nothing that vanishes before enormous powers”, as one of the philosophers wrote Pellegrin’s favorite, Arthur Schopenhauer, in “The World as Will”. and Representation,” in 1818. Since his voyage to Antarctica, Pellegrin has walked among the searing embers of forest fires, floated on glassy waters past glaciers, scaled the smoldering edges of volcanoes, and traversed dreary coastal marshes. He sweated through forests and jungles and destroyed two cameras while photographing winter storms on a beach in Iceland, as huge freezing waves crashed against the rocks at his feet. “It’s such a privilege, really, to be so close to something so powerful, so raw, and to feel it and feel it – even to be touched by it – and come out of it. anyway,” Pellegrin told me.

On January 2, Pellegrin called me from Geneva with an invitation to accompany him to Namibia, where he would photograph the desert for his next show. As with every project, it was filled with anticipation and doubt. “Yes, of course it’s about landscapes and nature, but I have to transform it,” he said. “It has to become something else, otherwise it doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to do or say. In a sense, you have to go beyond, especially when it’s very beautiful. He warned that he might be in a bad mood until he fixes this issue. “I really don’t go there to take pretty pictures,” he insisted. “I’m looking for, well – I don’t know what, exactly.” He stopped and exhaled slowly, then the idea occurred to him. “I seek the sublime.

Pellegrin and I took off from Frankfurt and landed under the force of the Namibian desert sun. It was the height of summer in the southern hemisphere and we were heading for the Kalahari. Anthony rolled down the windows. There was no air conditioning; instead of conveniences, we had a reinforced floor, spare fuel tank and off-road suspension and tires. Road signs warned of the crossing of antelopes and warthogs.

Anthony grew up in Damaraland, a rocky desert area in the north of the country, and welcomed Pellegrin with a “Buongiornoat the airport. He had started learning Italian in 2019, just before the pandemic hit and tourism income evaporated. Since then, he had absorbed what he could by broadcasting series Italian television shows.His wife was pregnant, he said, and he intended to name his son Gennaro, for the brash teenage gangster from “Gomorrah”.

After a few hours on the road, we reached a point where the horizon was capped by the red sands of the Kalahari. We stopped at a lodge. There were animal skins for sale inside, and the entrance was flanked by small wooden statues of native bushmen in loincloths, holding bows and arrows – a shocking sight in any context, amplified by the fact that there were some local bushmen among the staff. In the yard, an old man in a blue polo shirt and wrinkled swimming trunks was trying to get a captive kudu – a species of large antelope, with corkscrew horns – to stand with him to a selfie.

Pellegrin sat down at the bar and ordered a springbok sandwich. “What the hell am I doing here?” he said. A few steps from our table there was another captive antelope, an oryx; the lodge had PVC pipes fitted to his horns, lest he impale guests. An hour before sunset, we set off with a local guide into the Kalahari dunes, stained red with iron oxide. The dunes start in South Africa and extend beyond the Okavango Delta in Botswana, he explained, but the patterns of the dunes hardly change. There were weavers and their nests, a few dozen wildebeest, four giraffes in the distance. I spotted a white rhino and the guide noted that it was a nine year old male. How did he know? The lodge had bought the rhinoceros; an employee told me that the animals cost about thirty thousand dollars each. The tour ended at the top of a shallow dune, where the lodge staff had set up a plastic table with a white tablecloth, gin, tonic, ice and white wine for a bedtime toast of the sun.

Pellegrin caught a water. “What the hell am I doing here?” he said again. The sweetness of traveling as a tourist seemed irreconcilable with the state of effort and extremity that Pellegrin considered inherent in the creation of good work. There were all the conditions for viewing Namibian wildlife, but none for a submission to the elements that would leave him in a state of aesthetic contemplation.

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