The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Candlelit Sorcery: The Shadow Art Of Metal Photographer Ester Segarra
Louise Brown , July 15th, 2018 10:10

Collected works by rock music photographer Ester Segarra casts some light on the dark

all images courtesy Ester Segarra

It's a scorching hot Sunday and the black clad goths, misfits and heavy metal curious are lurking by the towering gates of Abney Park Cemetery in North London. One of the Magnificent Seven, this 31-acre arboretum and graveyard, houses both the dead and Stoke Newington's well-heeled dog walkers. Thirty strangers corralled by an eccentric pied piper is not an unusual occurrence within these quarters; the visitors here have seen many strange visions within it's twisting, overgrown avenues, most of them at the mercy of photographer Ester Segarra. Swedish masked musicians dressed in head-to-toe Papal gowns accompanied by six sinister monks, or death metal degenerates covered in blood, or a leering, hirsute mob have been bought to this place many times over fifteen years; the cemetery's winding verdant pathways and marble mausoleums having served as a favourite backdrop for Segarra's now infamous photography.

Today she has summoned friends, journalists and well-wishers to watch the birth of her latest project, a 200-page-plus tome of selected works under the banner Ars Umbra, meaning shadow art. She has arranged first for Jason Buck, bard and guide, to weave her guests throughout the graves, telling them the tale of a young Japanese girl with dreams beyond her control, leading us to the crypt in the middle of the cemetery where we learn that she could call upon a demon, a baku, who would come eat her dreams. Behind us is a grand memorial, the site of one of Ester's most famous photos, one of the first to be taken of the band Ghost, where we are invited to take scrolls of paper, write upon them the things we wish to banish, and burn them in a cleansing ritual. Once seated on the steps of the shrine, we are told a second story. Of another girl who dared to dream beyond her control. A girl who left Barcelona for London with no money, just a camera and a plan, and who refused to give in until her dreams were realised. That dream is contained within Ars Umbra.

There is a black canvas, and it can absorb light. How much light depends on its artist, and that is how Segarra starts to paint her pictures. She studied photography at school in Barcelona, but pressures to conform lead her to abandon this passion; a phase that thankfully did not last long. A fascination with morbid darkness forced Segarra back behind a lens and a move to London was fortuitous enough to grant her a chance to make photography a career. It's that predilection for the macabre that opens Ars Umbra. She starts not with an introduction of how she began, but instead with a memorial to musicians she admires but who have shuffled off this mortal coil; Lemmy, Dio and eventually close friend Selim Lemouchi of The Devil's Blood. From there pages turn and photos of Selim morph into poignant, personal photos of Selim and his friends from the Swedish band, Watain. The next page shows a photo of the same spot, a castle in Watain's hometown of Uppsala, taken at a different time, this time in daylight, the castle's cannons pointed threateningly at the city's ominous cathedral spire, the bands' backs to the camera, looking for all the world like they are about to storm the battlefields. And from there you get a sense of the story Segarra is trying to tell.

This is not a coffee table photo book like you would expect from such an established and celebrated photographer. With its ritualistic soundtrack commissioned by the author and composed by percussionist Uno Bruniusson (which comes on etched 12” vinyl with the ambitious and limited boxset version), this is not simply a selection of works thrown together by an editor, nor a career retrospective, but a biography of a developing artist that starts at the end and works backwards.

The philosophy scholar Patricia MacCormack, another friend and co-conspirator of Segarra's, contributes an essay about light and dark, good and evil, illuminating truths and the limitless chaos of photographic art, perfectly describing Segarra's own attitude to creating art with flashing bulbs, setting suns, wayward subjects and ever-vanishing budgets. And over the next 200 pages we are taken on a journey through her work, whether that be those first ever photos of irreverent ghouls Ghost, in a church whose clergy were none the wiser to whom they had allowed through their doors, to breathing vibrancy into fading rock stars with flattering candlelit sorcery.

Each page tells a story and each photo is cleverly matched with its opposing subject. We do not miss the subtle humour when she places that glacial glare of Varg Vikernes next to that of the menacing Eugene Robinson of Oxbow. Nor when she shows us a photograph of the morose Electric Wizard next to the outlandish Circulus. A particular favourite is a knowing nod to her use of popular culture as an inspiration, both death metallers Carcass in Tokyo and Norwegian black metal jesters Abbath in London riffing on that famous Abbey Road crossroads shot by Iain Macmillan. Or when, by clever editing, she makes it look like Cathedral – shot in Highgate Woods in London – and The Tower – shot in a park in Sweden – look like they are one and the same photo, poking fun at her own overuse of nature – and of bands lurking around forests – in her work.

Since the photos are not chronological Ars Umbra forces you to read the sparing text. She deliberately did not want to give too much information, allowing the photos to tell the tale, but it is interesting to see which are her early works, and which show her development. There is no obvious amateurism, no one spread that you can pinpoint as being naïve in its execution. Photos that seem so simple – a glum looking doom band shot against the backdrop of one of London's sphinxes – are taken within months of the cover of an album by Swiss band Schammasch, which saw acrobat Sasha Khron levitating nude against a silver background – a remarkable feat of both athletic skill from the model, and lighting and post-production from the artist. But she will be first to admit that her most intricate looking work may not be the most challenging.

Choosing not to narrate anything in the book until the very end, she invited the musicians to recall their memories of the shoot. And in doing so allow the reader some third-hand insight into her work. We learn this way of the near-impossibility to get the the perfect shot of a flaming bow and arrow in a rainy, cold East London woodland, or how an urban explorer showed her the way to an underground tunnel that was so charged with negative energy the band she was photographing never felt quite right again. Or how one of her most striking photos of Attila Csihar was taken at 6am in Mayhem's guitarist's kitchen. Or how a groundsman called off a helicopter search party when finding her still lurking, lens in hand, in a long-locked graveyard.

In a world where a band photograph is something to scroll past on a phone screen, to see Segarra's body of work displayed as it should be, on large 12-inch-by-12-inch pages (the book is designed to fit in your record collection as without music it simply cannot exist), printed onto carefully sourced heavy matte paper, laid out by designers who have honoured her art, is a joy. Here we see every illumination she has chosen to allow onto the frame, capturing light in the dark. If you are a fan of Darkthrone, or Watain, or Jarboe, or Adam Ant, or Angel Witch, or Napalm Death, or Amebix, or any of the hundred artists featured in Ars Umbra then this book is a must-have. But for those with a fascination for photography as an artform Ars Umbra allows an insight into a hard-working, never-faltering career of a girl who dared to dream.

Ars Umbra is available from Season Of Mist