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Feels like Where the Wild Things Are. Creepy but I kind of love it.

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Charles Fréger, Wilder Mann: The Image of The Savage

For over ten years, Charles Fréger has been on a photographic expedition, capturing portraits of uniquely costumed and uniformed cultures around the world. His diligent practice has ranged from documenting students at the Beijing School of Opera, to a traditional all-boys Maori college. Describing his method during a recent lecture at FIT, “I keep shooting until I can’t go any further, to the last possibility of a project… I consider my way of taking portraits like bringing back a scalp; I go out hunting, and when I return home, I look at the trophy and see that my work is complete.” Yet the purpose of this process exceeds the image alone; Fréger is fascinated by what it takes to gain the respect of and access to a community. “Permission is almost more important than the photo.” Finding the right way to approach a group, and discover what compromises are necessary are instrumental his approach to any project.

Most recently, Fréger has traveled throughout 19 countries over the course of two winters to document the “wilder mann,” or wild men that populate the extant tribal cultures of Europe. Donning costumes to perform fertility rituals and rites of spring, ordinary men transform themselves into strange beasts, akin to Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, were it not for the ubiquity of hard drinking in ceremonial performance. These traditions are always a push and pull, between the expression of wildness, of animality, and the control of those savage forces by man. The bear is a central figure to many of these pagan religions, respected as a deity and feared in shared proximity throughout the early history of Europe. Christianity spelled the demise of both bears literally (Charlemagne ordered massive hunts to eradicate the bear population) and symbolically as gods, however smaller villages disconnected from this crusade were able to maintain traditions more easily.

The moment where you let yourself be wild is wonderful… Though if it happened all the time, it would lose meaning. You can’t just stand up on your desk in the middle of your office and let loose, it would be a mess. More than about being free, it’s about being animal, it’s about recognizing where you are coming from, your organic part, your primitive part. I think having this in a certain territory, in a certain space, in a certain time, make it somehow more powerful, more intense.

Wilder Mann taps into a realm of universal consistency that can be sensed yet not easily explained. Fréger has also photographed similar wild man traditions in Japan, whose origins are completely unique from the ceremonies in Europe. It is important to contrast the universality of these mythological alignments, with the shallow cliches put forward by globalization. Fréger is passionate about discovering individuality and transcendence within outwardly homogenous communities. “You hide yourself behind a mask so you have the right to do things that are not usually acceptable. You can transcend the responsibility of your single identity.”

Wilder Mann has also influenced many others. “It’s not just my project anymore,” said Fréger. Josef Nadj has choreographed a performance currently being performed in Paris, explicitly inspired by the ceremonial and carnivalesque embodied in Fréger’s work, and Italian musician/composer Teho Teardo has created a soundtrack to accompany the beasts of Wilder Mann.

Now in its second printing, Wilder Mann: The Image of The Savage has been re-released by Dewi Lewis Publishing. Selected works from the series will also be exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery, opening tonight and on view through May 18.