Ashes & Snow

Thomas Jukes

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This Canadian born photographer and filmmaker first came to prominence in 1992 attracting worldwide acclaim with his debut exhibition in Switzerland. What followed after 1992 shows the measure of Gregory Colbert as much more than a visionary photographer and filmmaker.

With the art worlds eye now firmly fixed on his undoubted talents, he did not stop to bask in the glow or soak in the praise that was following his debut, he simply disappeared. Completely off the grid. He dedicated the next 10 years of his life to his real joy, to document and convey beautiful and mystical interactions between humans and animals. Gregory Colbert saw the modern view of animals and nature as very ‘human-centric’ focusing on the need to understand, track and document the very physical attributes of the world's animals. Colbert aims with his work Ashes & Snow to try to help us re-discover not only the physical but also the spiritual connection that humans once had with all animals on our planet.

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The human race has begun to drift away from nature and the understanding that we are inherently linked to it. With the knowledge that the further we see ourselves as apart from nature, the closer we get to losing the wonderful creatures that we share the world with. With this loose comes the damage to the balance of our plant, something that will be felt by every human being.

Gregory Colbert uses his skills and knowledge through this exhibition to take us back to our ancient ancestors and their admiration and devotion to nature. To capture with his photographs and films the essence that was laid down in charcoal and ochre over 35,000 years ago on the cave walls of our earliest places of rest and contemplation.

The interactions captured in the exhibition are seemingly magical even mystical to behold. They hold such power over the viewer that to the modern eye we cannot believe that these images are not staged with tame animals. However, Gregory Colbert will attest to the fact that his journey has not been without its dangers and consequences, “I have been tusked by an elephant, almost eaten by a sperm whale, knocked off my feet by a rhinoceros, embraced by a jaguar…”

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Colbert’s imagery is technically beautiful, from the view of a photographer the compositions of the stills are truly wonderful, allowing for the subjects to hold the viewer's attention in perfect balance between the animal and the human, whilst using the negative space around the subject to create a somewhat dreamlike atmosphere. However, Colbert’s work is not simply beautiful because of its pure aesthetic properties. It vividly portrays the artist’s intentions. We see the reverence shown to the animals by their human counterparts but at the same time, we see the animals respect and connection with the human.

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The image of the small boy reading to the elephant evokes many emotions in the viewer. An immediate impact of scale through the positioning of the subjects and the composition chosen for the picture bring up a sense of warning. On the other hand, we can see the relaxed nature of both subjects and begin to understand that both are comfortable in one another’s presence. The intricate and majestic features of the elephant show us the face of a benign and thoughtful creature. It’s wonderfully textured skin is juxtaposed with the smooth features of the young boy, giving the viewer a sense of time and wisdom. The skin is also seemingly mirrored in the shifting patterns of the sand, conveying that the changing of the natural world links all our subjects. The elephant almost seems to be watching the small boy, bringing up visions of fantastical children’s stories much like those in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’.

These stories, however, are based on an element of truth. Taking a look at ancient cultures, which most importantly still exist in our world today. India and Sri Lanka come to mind. In both, we see animals at the intrinsic heart of culture and religion. Showing a relationship with animals that Gregory Colbert is keen to portray in his work. That of a true and meaningful connection and understanding of the importance of these animals not only in our lives, but the lives of our ancestors, and the fact that this relationship is beneficial to both parties. Colbert himself references the Australian Aboriginals spiritual understanding of the importance and depth of native creatures shown in their paintings of these animals. Stating: “they were not interested in merely painting the contours of their bodies. They also focused equally on the animal’s interior dream life”.

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When the exhibition Ashes & Snow opened in the Arsenale in Venice, Italy in 2002 Colbert again stepped into the spotlight of the world and was welcomed back as “a new master’ (Photo Magazine) and praise from all across the world with Vanity Fair naming him in their “Best of the Best”.

Since the first showing, the exhibition restarted its journey with The Nomadic Museum which became the traveling home of the exhibition. First showing in New York in 2005 it has traveled across the globe with an apparent lack of final destination. So far it has attracted an audience of over 10 million people globally, cementing it as the most viewed exhibition by any living artist in history. Gregory Colbert’s work is astounding. The outstanding visuals both still and moving perfectly match the intention and passion of the artist. The subject is one that should be close to ever human, now more than ever, as we see more animals becoming extinct due to our single-minded nature. We need to reconnect to what makes this world so diverse and beautiful; we all need to see more like Gregory Colbert.

“An elephant with his trunk raised is a ladder to the stars. A breaching whale is a ladder to the bottom of the sea. My films are a ladder to my dreams.”

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Gregory Colbert | WEBSITE

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