Paolo Pellegrin’s photographic search for the sublime

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At 2:30 A.M., on January 10th, Paolo Pellegrin, the Italian photographer and winner of ten World Press Photo Awards, loaded his equipment onto the back of a Toyota truck on the edge of the Namib Desert. The sky was a void save for millions of stars. Using a headlamp, Pellegrin rummaged in his pocket. He pulled out a small plastic vial of medicine, broke off the cap, and dripped a drop into each eye. “I almost never forget that,” he told me. There are days when he doesn’t take pictures, but there aren’t days when he can afford to skip a dose.

Zippered bag, trunk closed, Pellegrin climbed into the passenger seat and gently closed his door. The driver, a guide named Anthony, turned on the Toyota. But he only switched on the light when we were out of sight of the ranger station at the entrance to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The darkness was a gift – not just for Pellegrin’s photographic lens, but for sneaking into the heart of the park at night. Windows down, eyes strained, Anthony slowly made his way toward the dunes, visible only through the absence of stars beyond.

“To find stillness you need stillness,” Pellegrin had remarked, and as we drove in the dark nobody spoke. An hour later, Anthony parked in the sand. Pellegrin gave me a flash and a tripod and we set off on foot into the dunes. Here was no heaven; a dense fog covered it. Particles cascaded ahead of us, refracting the headlights—tiny droplets, visible but not quite felt. A brown hyena was nearby, sensed but not yet seen.

After a half mile hike we reached the edge of 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 taproots that went a hundred feet into the sand in search of water when the river disappeared. Then, six or seven hundred years ago, there was no water to be had. The trees died, but the roots were so deep and the air so dry that they remained mummified on a bed of firm white clay in a pool of bright orange dunes.

Pellegrin hesitated a moment at the edge of the clay. “It’s not a silent silence — it’s very meaningful,” he said. He crawled into the center of the pan to study the shape of the trees. Rugged, broken, towering, ancient – “a sacred little graveyard for all time,” he said.

How do you photograph this sacred darkness? He didn’t know yet, even though he’d wrestled with some version of the problem for more than twenty years. Without his eye drops, Pellegrin’s optic nerve would deteriorate under pressure in his eyes; the blackness obscuring his peripheral vision would encroach further. Ever since Pellegrin did his best, he’s been quietly battling glaucoma. But for now the challenge was the opposite. It was after 4 A.M.; he had less than ninety minutes until first light.

Pellegrin and I are friends. We met on behalf of this magazine in Chad almost five years ago, when I was twenty-six and he fifty-three. Since then we have worked together several times, once we shared a cabin on an expedition ship for ten days at sea. We ate dinner in Rome and Lisbon and I played catch with his eight and 12 year old daughters in a park in Lausanne. Last fall, he appointed me his “second photo assistant” to accompany him on a shoot on the Ferrari factory floor in Maranello, Italy. For two days I held an LED lamp while he took portraits of mechanics and craftsmen in fireproof overalls. It was an arts and crafts master class, and he barked the names of the Dutch masters whose paintings he wanted to reflect. An application of “Rembrandt!” was intended to cast the light diagonally down and across the face, so that one side was illuminated and the other lay in muted shadow, hidden by the bridge of the nose, except for a streak of soft white light above the eye.

Pellegrin is 1.80 meters tall “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 had been curled over his ears for most of his life. He is a voracious reader, obsessed with philosophy and death; often his most sincere arguments are expressed with a touch of playful, self-deprecating irony. Although he is fluent in English, he resorts to Italian words when there is no exact equivalent. At home he tinkers with jigsaw puzzles and Rubik’s Cubes; A few years ago, a Russian oligarch taught him to construct memory palaces, placing individual thoughts in an imaginary, three-dimensional space to recall at will.

Pellegrin is also an avid chess player and sometime last year he talked me into downloading a chess app onto my phone. We play each other almost every day now. Some games last for days, but I’ve never beaten him. Once, when I was very close by, he sent me a link to a humanities anthology which said: “In the fields of mathematics and philosophy there is what is called the ‘infinite monkey theorem’ which states that a monkey is indiscriminate Keys pressed on a typewriter with infinite time will eventually write the finished works of William Shakespeare.”

The Ferrari job was the first time we’d seen each other because of the pandemic in two years, and during that time Pellegrin had been commissioned by the Gallerie d’Italia in Turin to produce a new work. The museum didn’t exist yet; it starts this week with Pellegrin’s show. The original concept was to focus on climate change – slow, relentless, difficult to depict – but Pellegrin had grown weary of the idea. “It’s done,” he told me.

Nevertheless, the idea of ​​documenting extremities 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 people NASA Pilots and scientists and found that the size, the emptiness and the infinite captured his mind. The planet’s indifference to its own habitability was appalling. It forced the realization that one is “helpless before the forces of nature, dependent, left to chance, vanishing nothing before mighty powers,” as one of Pellegrin’s favorite philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote in The World as Will and Representation. in 1818. Since his Antarctic voyage, Pellegrin has hiked through the burning embers of forest fires, swum crystal clear waters in front of glaciers, scaled the steaming rims of volcanoes and trudged through desolate coastal swamps. He’s sweated through forests and jungles, destroying two cameras while photographing winter storms on a beach in Iceland as huge, freezing waves pounded the rocks at his feet. “It really is a privilege to be so close and feel and smell something so powerful, so raw – even be touched by it – and still get away with it,” Pellegrin told me.

On January 2nd Pellegrin called me from Geneva with an invitation to accompany him to Namibia where he would be photographing the desert for his upcoming show. As with any project, he was full of anticipation and doubt. “Yes, of course it’s about landscapes and nature, but I have to transform them,” he said. “It has to be something else or it doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to do or say. You kind of have to go beyond that – especially when it’s very beautiful.” He warned that until he solves that problem, he may be in a bad mood. “I really don’t go there to take nice photos,” he insisted. “I’m looking for, well – I’m not sure what.” He paused and exhaled slowly, and then the idea struck him. “I seek the sublime.”

Pellegrin and I started in Frankfurt and landed in the power of the Namibian desert sun. It was midsummer in the southern hemisphere and we were speeding toward the Kalahari. Anthony rolled down the windows. There was no air conditioning; Instead of amenities, we had a reinforced floor, a spare fuel tank, and off-road suspension and tires. Road signs warn of crossing antelope and warthogs.

Growing up in Damaraland, a rocky desert area in the north of the country, Anthony greeted Pellegrin with a “Buongiorno” at the airport. He had started learning Italian in 2019, just before the pandemic struck and tourism revenue vanished. Since then, he had absorbed everything he could by streaming Italian TV series. His wife is pregnant, he said, and he intends to name his son Gennaro, after the brash teenage gangster in Gomorrah.

After a few hours of driving, we reached a point where the red sands of the Kalahari covered the horizon. We stopped at a lodge. Inside there were animal skins for sale, and the entrance was flanked by small wooden statues of local Bushmen in loincloths, holding bows and arrows – a harrowing sight in any context, compounded by the fact that a few local Bushmen were on staff was. In the courtyard, an old man in a blue polo shirt and crumpled bathing suit tried to persuade a captive kudu — a large species of antelope with corkscrew horns — to stand next to him for a selfie.

Pellegrin sat at the bar and ordered a springbok sandwich. “What the hell am I doing here?” he said. A few yards from our table was another captive antelope, an oryx; The lodge had PVC pipes fitted over their horns to keep them from impaling guests. An hour before sunset, we set off with a local guide into the Kalahari dunes, colored red by iron oxide. The dunes start in South Africa and extend beyond the Okavango Delta into Botswana, he explained – but the patterns of the dunes change little. There were weavers and their nests, a few dozen wildebeest, four distant giraffes. I spotted a white rhino and the guide noted it was a nine year old male. How did he know? The lodge had bought the rhino; A clerk told me the animals cost about thirty thousand dollars each. The tour ended on a flat dune where lodge staff had set up a plastic table with a white tablecloth, gin, tonic, ice cream and white wine to toast the sunset.

Pellegrin grabbed a water. “What the hell am I doing here?” he said again. The ease of traveling as a tourist seemed incompatible with the state of exertion and extremity that Pellegrin saw as inherent in creating good work. There were all the conditions to see Namibian wildlife but none to submit to the elements that would immerse him in a state of aesthetic contemplation.

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