To cross a desert, to walk carefully around an archeological site, to fly at night, to measure oneself with the geological aspects of a landscape, discover a funeral chamber and the atmosphere that haunts it, to breathe the hot dust and the cold of a starry night, all that is adventure.
One might say it was a child's game if the precision which forces respect were not present. Here is a craft that takes years to master before aquiring the skill to measure, photograph and build so many memories.
In the photographer's pouch, a large ocher bag of rough linen, compasses, both geographic and geometrical, rulers, pencils, a plumb-line, 20 meters of white cord, a brush, a swiss knife, a hat: all that is necessary to take photographies.
Beside the photographer (or at least accompanying him depending on the spot), a native, standing rather far off because he knows the foreigner absorbed in his task; an archeologist, also silent and alone who is several centuries away; a seasoned pilot, tough old grumbler who smokes evil-smelling cigarettes and who does night flights because they're well paid, and who can't fathom what the photographer, sitting next to him and deciphering maps so well, is seeking to discover.
Then there are those times back in Paris when one must mingle with the crowd, take up one's daily tasks, answer the telephone, and print, print in the dark to bring out the black to which he is so attached in his photographies, print those lights which he no longer tries to make reality correspond to because he knows too well that his light is never Light but something else which is has its own beauty.
One day a cultural attache who had lodged him sent him a postcard showing a dune and a dromedary and on which was written "Light of the Desert." He had smiled at the use of the singular and at so much naivete, had used it as a bookmark and finally had lost it.
Another time, while working for a scientific organization on an archeological dig, he felt he understood that all the traces photographed, all the lines that restitute the design of the ruins form secret messages that must be understood, not to call up a civilization, but for the beauty they leave on his pictures. He saw the ancient port appear, the southernmost fortification of the city, the cemetery, an ancient marketplace, the scribal quarter, the outlaying farms, roads. He knew that archeologists don't look at photographies but read them, evaluate them, classify them, crisscross them with marks in order to place their numbers. He liked to listen to them as they made a site come alive, but he remained attached to the landscapes which the geometry of the ruins designed.
At Fara, at Hassuna, at the excavations of Byblos, at Kish, he felt a precise expression: as if time had not passed. His concentration, the photography, the ruins all gave him the heady and disquieting taste of eternity. Never in the cemetery of Djemdet Nasr, in that of Obeid, or over a tomb at Kheit Quasim did the idea of death occur to him. The skeletons, or what was left of them, were tranquil and later in his black and white prints he let them rest in peace.
He kept a notebook and wrote: "Do the 5 th tomb again. Study the field; cliff, hill. Show the plain (calm). Begin charts, finish tombs. Return to the mound on the terasse East by East in the morning for the light. Have 3 films ready, or 4? Ask Etienne T. for samples."
Another day he tried to get his bearings. "To reach the collective tomb, start at the Northern well, follow the dry gulch for 100 meters. On the left skirt the outer side of the low wall, 20 meters lower under the slabs."
Once in a desert in wartime, he met another photographer whose specialty was current events. "I've covered them all he said. Afghanistan, Sudan, China, Moldaiva and Syldaiva, Erythea, the Jordan West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Tchad, Arabia, no nation, no war during which my eye was absent." The photographer didn't know what to say in response to such a slogan and to so many certitudes. He asked himself "But I, what have I accomplished?"
His photographies show human beings only after they have been dead so long that they form a bouquet of bones.
While travelling he doesn't dream. The nights are often difficult, the heat, the cold, the mosquitos or the noise of a radio, the weariness of eye and spirit, the tension required during the day make for light sleep.
It's in Paris that he dreams, that he accepts the images he has lived and which he associates with his photographies. Sometimes he even dreams in photography: nothing moves, the images are stills, only a cloud floats by discreetly blown by the wind, or a fleeting light or a passing shadow. In the morning he remembers his dreams as if it were a portfolio.
At Nefra, a labyrinthine hypogee, he rapidly found himself at home. He knew how to guide one without hesitation to chambers called "Offerings", "Invocations", "Augurs" or "Investiture". He had studied the lights of the place to such an extent that the reigning obscurity no longer bothered him. Little by little he deciphered the architect's intention: to bring a delicate light from the exterior into the funeral chamber, echo by echo. He photographed the site following the path that was meant to bring to the dead a sun as discreet as a nightlight in the room of a child who is afraid of the dark.
It was also at Nefra that he realized monumental architecture is not necessarily a symbol of power, but the need of a simplicity open to all movement. Here, he felt as if the space had been especially conceived for him as a photographer. Indeed, the archeologists were often around him, watching him take his shots, as if they could obtain an enlightenment from the encounter of the site and the frame of the photography. Several times there were six or seven of them crowded behind the camera, flattened against a wall, trying to understand: they call that photography's little offering to archeology. In the evening, around the table, the camera became a person that one discusses, a sort of developer of regards.
At Nefra he was sung by a scorpion and for three days he lay motionless and feverish. At the height of the venom's action, he was delirious and had hallucinations, saw himself naked as a hittite priest destroying his cameras in one anteroom after another. In the funeral chamber a princess was waiting for him, and they made love without touching the ground while the light filtered through the grains of sand and halogenated silver spreads a discrete hibiscus scent.
In Paris during a work session.
In the Institute's offices, two satellite images, a series of aerial photographies, an archeological survey and a box of prints are spread on a large dark colored wooden desk. The archeologists look at the photographed objects to draw conclusions. At the end of the day they look at the photographies to construct images.
He likes departures, he likes voyages, the noise of the airplane's motors, the setting sun, being far away. The runway is empty and that solitude awakens his perception of the land and the sky.
And it is that which he wishes to photograph: deserted landscapes because they are an acknowledgment to the earth. His work in archeology makes the same statement; the cities, the peoples buried in the sands of time: a lesson in humility.
He savors all the colors of a landscape including the blackness of the sky. A woman has written about his photographies: "The very quality of the air is perceptible. The black and white print plays its role here to perfection: One is astonished that such darkness of a star lit night can radiate such intense azure!"
Frédéric Lambert, Archéologies du désert. Pons gallery, Paris 1990.