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Herbert Ascherman: –Foret de Fontainebleau


The Forest of Fontainebleau (or Forêt de Bière, the “forest of heather”) lies an easily accessible sixty kilometers southeast of Paris. 

Widely promoted by Parisian Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the leading painter of the Barbizon school in the mid-nineteenth century, the forest of Fontainebleau famously attracted and inspired artist and photographers alike. Used both as a retreat and source of inspiration, Fontainebleau appeared as the subject matter in innumerable paintings and photographs that were visions of the elegance and simplicity of the Forest. Artists sought to emphasize the importance of Nature, rather than subjugate her to the background of an animated scene.

Due largely to the entrepreneurial efforts of Claude François Denecourt who ‘discovered’ the forest in 1832 at the age of 44, and subsequently dedicated the remains years of his life to its preservation and promotion, the Forest at Fontainebleau, village of Barbizon (for which the painter’s school was named) and the surrounding areas became a mecca for an estimated 700 painters and photographers throughout the mid-19th century. To further attract and interest visiting artistes, Denecourt remarkably named over 600 trees, 700 rocks, and numerous landmarks and points of view. Names were often borrowed from mythology, contemporary and classic history and literature, which provided an opportunity for Denecourt to entertain visitors with stories, myths and legends, most of which he personally invented. Many of the caves, grottoes and ‘ancient’ structures were built under his aegis and locally licensed to food, beverage or souvenir purveyors. His efforts were directed at attracting visitors who would then purchase his traveller’s guide : L’indicateur de Fontainebleau : itinéraire descriptif du palais, de la forêt et des environs, (literally Fontainebleau places to visit, a guide and description of the chateau, forest and surrounding environs) which was published in eleven editions from 1839 until his death in 1875 

Denecourt’s efforts were crowned with success with the arrival of the railway from Paris in 1849, allowing one-day easy access for anyone with a free afternoon and a couple francs for carriage fare. Called the Sylvain de la Foret de Fontainebleau (literally the Forest Spirit of F), Denecourt’s efforts resulted in 1861 with Fontainebleau becoming the world’s first nature preserve (11 years preceding the world’s second preserve, Yellowstone).

Widely lauded as one of the early pioneers of modern hiking, Denecourt personally carved 1100 kilometers of forest walking trails and about 300 kilometers of footpaths (called sentiers in French), through the forest. Ancient photographic practitioners hauled their large and ungainly cameras along these wilderness paths to capture their version of the natural scene. More recently, my images reference the work of the 19th century photographers Baldus, Le Grey, Couvier, Le Secq, and Mestral among others. Printing in Platinum, a process patented in 1883, I seek to reproduce the vision and methodology of those early photographic pioneers. 

The scenes here presented appear exactly as they did to those who first captured these images more than 160 years ago. I know. I found their tripod marks. 

My eternal thanks to France’s leading photographic artist Paul Maurer and his magnificent wife Francoise for 26 years of love and friendship. Paul and Francoise have been my entry into the secrets of hidden France. 

Technically, I use Paul’s antique Deardorff and his 150 and 240 lenses of uncertain lineage and ancient vintage. An extra suitcase with a dozen 8 x 10 film holders and my Gitzo carbon fiber tripod is always part of my luggage. Hand carrying several boxes of Ilford 400 HP5 through customs has thankfully never resulted in X-ray damage. Once home, the film is developed in PMK, proofed on Ilford Multigrade and hand printed in palladium/platinum. 

I am 65 years old, have been photographing for 50 years, and am from Cleveland, Ohio, USA, I photograph exclusively in black and white, and whenever possible with an 8 x 10 view camera. I print the large format negatives in Platinum, and smaller 2 1/4 and 35mm in silver gelatin. Since quitting the formal business of portrait photography in 2009, I have been working on a documentary portrait project in the Indian state of Kerala, large format portraiture of Native Americans on the Northern Plains of the US , and large format landscape studies in the Foret de Fontainebleau. I also shoot nude and figurative work wherever I travel, as I have for over forty years.

Herbert Ascherman

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