“Man has colonised the mountains. And I’m here to get away from it [this colonisation]”, says photographer Samuel Hoppe. Produced between 2019 and 2023, his images represent several distinct mountain ranges: the French Alps (mainly the southern part), the Hautes-Pyrénées (on the Spanish border) and the Jotunheimen massif in southern Norway (the highest point in Scandinavia). According to Eric Bouttier, editor of the introductory text to the “Montagne” exhibition, presented by the 360 agency in Paris, Samuel Hoppe offers a “plurality of approaches” that “question, in a more generic way, the mountain as a landscape entity, both a concrete territory with economic and ecological challenges, and an object of cultural representations: the way we perceive it, and the way we live in it”.
Going over hill and dale, Samuel Hoppe, a 51-year-old French photographer, likes “silence, sparsely populated places, mineral landscapes that he crosses as a humble and discreet observer, leaving as few visible traces of his passage as possible”, explains Eric Bouttier. According to Bouttier, the photographer seeks to be as invisible as possible, to “disappear from the world”. To achieve this, he has to remain intensely concentrated in order to remedy the threats posed by the mountains; to remain attuned to his body, too, as it is put to the test by the surroundings.
Beyond the peaks
Samuel Hoppe’s photography is intrinsically linked to his experience of walking. The images in the Montagne series, shot using film photography and medium format, are taken exclusively at altitudes of over 1,600 metres. It is there, in the heart of the heights and on the borders of France and Norway – mainly – that the artist finds his inspiration. “The mountain, as a subject to be represented, poses the challenge of framing and depth: how do you cut into such a mass? What’s there through this material that’s so full of minute detail, and yet acts as a screen? What is there in its extension ?”, asks Eric Bouttier.
Samuel Hoppe answered these questions in an interview with Blind at the 360 urban planning agency, where the photographs for the “Mountain” exhibition are on display. “Black and white emphasises the minerality of the place”, he explained. It also “softens the austerity of the place”. Similarly, “the choice of vertical framing is instructive”. For the photographer, the format concentrates the eye, preventing it from wandering off, bypassing the subject of the photograph to get lost in the distance. The result is a massive image, with few points of reference.
And yet: behind this apparent immobility, Samuel Hoppe’s work shows the movements that run through the mountain. With the cycle of freezing and thawing, “the movement of rock and erosion”, the mountain is never totally static. Far from the rapid movement of water, or those of the wind, the photographer seems curious to understand the mechanisms behind the changes that the mountain undergoes. From one year to the next, a mountain landscape is never totally identical.
As if to make up for the silence he imposes on himself during his self-guided hikes, which can last several days, Samuel Hoppe talks. At length. He talks about the mountains. He talks about his respect for it, leaving as little trace as possible of his passage – apart from the memory he keeps of it. He talks about the animals that live there and that he sometimes frightens away, to his great misfortune. He tells the story of the people up there and their use of the mountain.
Of Men and Mountains
Because not all changes are natural. They are not all linked to the weather. Some are man-made, caused by the way we use the mountains. Samuel Hoppe is particularly interested in the transformations we are bringing about, through tourism and livestock farming in particular, as he looks to explore our relationship with nature and the mountains.
“The winter facilities are used at this time of year. Then comes the low season, when the number of visitors drops to almost zero. And yet the facilities remain”, comments Samuel Hoppe in front of this photograph of a terrace at altitude. “The facilities aren’t even adapted any more: the huge step, designed to compensate the layer of snow, is no longer needed. To get onto this terrace in summer, you have to make an unnatural step.”
Summer farm. Enclosure. Ski lifts. Snow cannon. Wooden pontoon. Safety nets along ski slopes. All wrapped up in fluorescent orange mattresses. So many seasonal items that remain in place all year round. But what are they used for when man is no longer around to use them? Nothing. Nothing, apart from changing the territory of animals that live here, according to Samuel Hoppe.
“Do we really need this new lift to access the other side of the mountain, which is still wild today?” asks Samuel Hoppe. For him, the use of heights should be based on a balance between our real needs and what the mountain is able to endure. All of which raises questions about our relationship with the mountain and with nature.
The “Montagne” exhibition is presented by the 360 agency at 44 rue Gassendi, in Paris, until February 29, 2024. The book NIVAL has been available from Editions Rue du Bouquet since October 2023. 48 €.