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Les Sommets Inhabitables

Teo Becher

What is it about the landscape that captivates us so? What is it about being in solitude and wandering amongst the great mountain giants, the serene lakes seemingly made of mirror glass, the rumbling thunderous waves on those icy cold grey days, the wonder and mystery found between the tall forest trees?

Featured today is a series of photographs by Teo Becher who travelled to explore one place: the Maurienne Valley in Savoie, France.

As Becher — who is from France but currently lives in Brussels, Belgium — explains, the Maurienne Valley is halfway between the uninhabitable and the exploited; winter sports resorts that take over the summits there aren’t the gigantic size of those in the neighboring valley of La Tarentaise. In Maurienne, the wide valley where the l’Arc stream slowly runs was a perfect fit for the development of large aluminium industries powered by hydroelectricity. It’s also one of the only valleys crossed by a highway; space is mastered there.

Becher’s photographs show a strange and intriguing place, one that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It’s a jarring feeling to look at the series of photographs which shows strange and beautiful colours and uncanny scenes, resulting in a place that appears somewhat mythical.

Read on for the full interview with Becher:

I’ve just arrived back in Brussels from a four-month trip that has led me through Moscow, California and Quito, Ecuador. The destinations in this trip were put together according to the people I wanted to see — I joined my girlfriend in Moscow where she was studying, then I met some Belgian friends in California where we road-tripped for a month and finally I went with Solal Israel, photographer, and Fanny Labbé, illustrator, to Quito in Ecuador for an artist residency.

The residency space is a small gallery called El Chawpi situated in Quito, and it was my first residency. The biggest benefit for me was the ability to work outside of my hometown, surrounded by towering and inspiring mountains and volcanoes in a mix of cultures between the natives and the Spanish influences.

What’s your story?

I’d always been attracted to visual arts but, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to do. At first I tried to draw traditionally, then later I tried with a computer but it was not very good.

Later, as a teenager, I went through some old cameras belonging to my father. (he used to take our family photographs, some of which are quite good) and discovered photography thanks to him. I started with analogue and couldn’t stop afterwards.

What kind of art are you interested in?

This is always a hard question to answer. I’m mostly into landscape photography but the type that has a strong link to people — like Alec Soth’s work for example.

I seem to be more and more attracted to photography of the “everyday”, like Todd Hido’s or Guido Guidi’s. But it’s a changing feeling and I don’t want to close myself off to other art so I try not to separate my interests too much.

For me photography is about loneliness and wandering around, and this is part of the reason why I’ve always been attracted to nature and big spaces. There is a refreshing freedom in being alone. Sometimes I can only find ‘answers’ — or rather which path to follow — when I can be alone, when I experience solitude for a few days. I wander around in the valley, sleep in my van and think, think, think.

Lastly, I am intrigued by the imagination and the stories we make up. I try to suggest more than trying to show. A lot is happening outside the frame.

Let’s talk about ‘Les Sommets Inhabitables’.

At the very beginning my motivation for this project was very simple: to photograph the mountain.

I wanted to pay my respects to the mountain and also experience it. As the work progressed, some ideas that I wanted to work on came up and the work oriented itself towards questions about the habitat: how people interact with it, the landscape as we represent it… These are questions I haven’t found answers to and don’t know if I will, and for which I’m still doing research.

I was also interest by how other cultures interact with the landscape — like in Native American cultures or Chinese cultures. It’s really interesting to question such a thing which has been deeply rooted in our culture for thousands of years.

Are there any moments you had while making the work which stick out?

There was a moment when I had to take a step back and reconnect the work with my own perception of it. It was a very frustrating and difficult time.

When I started this project in the Alps I tried to stay distant, to document almost like a journalist. But the problem was that I didn’t know how to do that so I felt frustrated and hated what I made. I took less photographs and after some time, I realised that in forcing the work to be a documentary, it was too cold, too distant. And here comes the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given: don’t think, just photograph. From here, the work went forward in a way that was more connected to myself and my feelings. That allowed me take it where I wanted it to be.

What are you up to next?

I’m currently working on a project about Brussels. This is totally new for me as not so long ago I just couldn’t photograph in a city; I really needed nature and more so to be away from the place I live in. But it is so interesting. I haven’t released anything of it yet as I still need some time to work on it. Let’s just say that I’ve followed the piece of advice mentioned earlier and I love it.

What’s on your recommended reading/watching/listening list?

I’m not a big reader but I can definitely advise this article in which Gregory Halpern speaks on ethics in documentary work. It was really mind blowing for me, also because I read it precisely during that moment of doubt I mentioned before.

Also, the writings of French philosopher Philipe Descola opened my mind in regards to questions of nature and representation. (If you are a French speaker, I would advise this podcast!)

As for watching, I hugely enjoy American films. Some Belgian films are great too but for photographers I would advise Somewhere to Disappear, a documentary about Alec Soth’s way of working.

And for music, a very good friend of mine is making great music that you can listen to while working inside as much as while wandering around taking pictures.

The funny thing is he called his EP the same name as one of my older projects Landscape Studies — which led to Les Sommets Inhabitables — without even knowing it. It has to mean something, right?

Finally, tell us about a piece of work that has influenced you.

One book that has most influenced the way I currently work is Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX. The book is wonderful, the paper and printing is beautiful, the cover is intriguing and the images really resonate with me.

In Tuk Time and Les Sommets Inhabitables I had to do a lot of thinking as both projects are about something that has been photographed a lot: the Arctic and the mountains.

In Tuk Time, on which I worked with my girlfriend Roxane Gabet, we had to be very accurate in regards to the history of photography and everything that has been done on the Arctic, but also in regards to the people living there that have been used to seeing white and European people writing and saying things about them without asking for their opinion. That’s why we are still working on it and on a way to include them into the project.

In Les Sommets Inhabitables the difficulty resides more within the photography itself as the mountains are a subject that has been photographed over and over again. So it’s about showing something new — I would even say “thinking” new.

Also, I’ve mostly always been working away from the place I live in. I’ve always needed to get away of my everyday to photograph, and I wanted to try something new. I started photographing Brussels — like Gregory Halpern photographed Los Angeles where he lived at the time. I discovered his book at a moment of doubt about this new project and it was just what I needed.

It showed me that one could also work without thinking in a day and night, black and white kind of way like I did — in a more direct, calm, almost relaxing way. And to this, I also applied a great piece of advice I received from Belgian photographer Vincent Delbrouck when I was a student: “photograph what you want — it could be trees, cars or houses — it doesn’t matter, just photograph.” And so I did.

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