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the new life issue 2003
gregory colbert
photography: gregory colbert
also see colbert-gallery

Every one of Gregory Colbert’s photographs captures a moment that happened.

The cynical eye is trained to assume trickery in images such as these, is resistant to the idea that they could represent the actual and the possible, but these images owe nothing to Photoshop, photo manipulation, montage, artificial lighting, or special effects.

He has taken the medium of the instantaneous and turned it into something slow, expansive, epic. You could be looking at a moment that occurred yesterday, or three hundred years ago. The effect is uncanny. You feel as if you are in the presence of a dream, a myth, a fairy tale.

The prints are approximately three feet by ten, on dense, Japanese cloth-like parchment manufactured in a secret medieval process.

When Colbert travels they occupy their own seat next to him on the plane. The collection is the result of an ongoing ten-year long project, of which these pictures form a small sample.

“I’m interested in exploring intemporal wonders, so there is no urgency. Five years, ten, fifteen, it wouldn’t have made a difference, because what was being made was completely outside of time.” The project consisted of 25 expeditions to around the world, to document the interaction between animals and humans, to India to photograph the elephants that are his first love, to Sri Lanka, South Africa, Egypt, and the oceans off the Azores.

“We live in species ghettoes. There used to be a diversity of species in places we lived, whereas now, we have very little interaction with other species. When we’re young there’s not that sense of being isolated from other species. Young children are able to speak with animals, and then they get banished.”

The images are born of Colbert’s unique method, and the time and space he has been allowed by his patrons, what he calls his “guardian elephants”.

“I wanted to use my whole heart, in a whole way, in a whole direction. Some people find that radical thinking, but in other periods of history it was a given.”

I wanted to use my whole heart...

He is a renaissance artist in the true sense of the word, in that his princely patrons allow him to pursue his work unmolested, and they fund him without the intermediary of agents, dealers or gallery owners. “We had no corporate sponsors, no foundations, nothing. All private individuals from around the world, and most of them found me.”

In 1991, the Canadian born Colbert was working as a documentary filmmaker in Paris, when he mounted a small exhibit of photographs in Switzerland and Japan, which attracted the attention of some collectors who wanted to see more. This led to the extraordinary project without deadline or budget, “how can you make a budget for underwater sequences with elephants in the ocean?”

“Since the project started, not one collector has sold a work.”

This rare freedom allows for an unhampered purity of artistry, a sky’s the limit vision that is unlike anything else out there. “We would hang around for months. With whales we could work for six weeks, without even shooting a frame of film... around full moons is a good time. I think it’s the Zulus who say, patience is an egg that hatches great birds. I guess I’m a Zulu at heart. You wait heartfully, and there are days of miracles, and there are days when you’re just thinking about them. But you don’t push it. The elephants will decide, or the whales will decide. I’ll work on elephant time.”

The photographer himself swims with the sperm whales in the pictures you see without the benefit of breathing apparatus. “Bubbles are a sign of distress for a whale, you’ve got to do everything in free dive. It’s almost four and a half tons; you’re like an olive in a martini. The most important thing when working with the world’s largest carnivore is that you not convey any fear. There were a few incidents, but they were the exceptions. These are not artistic stunts. Normally I would not do these things, but if you believe in something, sometimes you have to fight for it.”

The photographs were first unveiled in Venice, Italy at an extraordinary exhibition at the Arsenale. An exhibition requiring spectators to walk a mile from beginning to end. “I had an 88 year old woman come in today, who said, I’m glad I’m still alive because I just saw the most beautiful exhibition I’ve seen in my life.” He doesn’t want to mount the exhibit in the usual museums and galleries, what he calls “generic sausages” but is entertaining “extraordinary, original, creative proposals.”

“There’s a project to work with a Japanese architect to make a nomadic museum out of paper, to put it in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park.

The whole building’s actually recyclable. You can pick it up and put it on the Serengeti during the migration of animals, or you could put it on the Bering sea when it’s frozen, places where animals and humans actually interact. You don’t have to put it in these economic superpower centers”.

His next expedition is to the Antarctic “to send a message to the penguins from elephants” in collaboration with, world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe, dancers, scientists, and his film crew. “We’re taking a 65 meter boat from the St. Petersburg Hydrographic Institute, with a Russian crew of twenty. There’s going to be 48 of us and it’s going to be a wonderful laboratory of wonder.”

“I love the idea of how the arts worked in the Renaissance. You could master many things. The arts were not compartmentalized. If you could make the hairs on peoples’ necks stand up using words or movement, or sculpture, just as long as the hairs stand up. You don’t have to stay in any box.”Each expedition also includes a feature film crew, which will result in a feature length film to be completed by next year.

“It’s a separate strand of images and they’re separate languages. It will be a feature film, not at all a documentary, it’s in the language of dreams, and it’s just set to music and the images.I have to keep going out. My whole life, I’ll keep going. I’ve started with white rhinoceros, and giraffes and I’ll be working with akapis. I feel blessed every day that I’m able to do this work. ”


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