by James Estrin
Charles Fréger was fascinated by what the human race lost over the millenniums when it evolved from hunter-gather to farmer and, eventually, urban dweller. After learning that there were Europeans who continued ancient pagan rites of celebrating the winter solstice and the beginning of spring, he set out to examine what traditions faded as people became more civilized.
In 2010, Mr. Fréger began to photograph the few small farming communities, in mountainous areas, that still follow the customs that for the most part were precursors to Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. He found that many dressed like animals.
“When I saw the costumes and spent time with these people,” he said, “I realized that I have always felt like a bear.”
“These traditions come from Neolithic times — from shamanism — and they have never stopped,” said Mr. Fréger, 38. “For a few nights you can behave like a goat, drink a lot and forget about being civilized. You can be a wild animal for three days and then you go back to controlling your wildness.”
About 10,000 years ago, humans began domesticating wild animals for both food and companionship. Over the course of centuries, animal species were bred for traits that made them docile and more useful to their masters. But as humans changed and fenced in animals, they were also domesticating themselves. The skills needed to survive in the wild were different than those needed to succeed in more complex social arrangements.
Mr Fréger was intrigued by the transformations of human being to beast that he witnessed in 18 European countries. They were, he said, celebrations of fertility, life and death and symbolized the complicated relationship between mankind and nature.
His sculptural portraits are featured in the April issue of National Geographic and are collected in his book “Wilder Mann,” published in four languages including an English edition from Dewi Lewis. The work will also be exhibited simultaneously at the Yossi Milo Gallery, from April 11 to May 18, and at the Gallery at Hermès on Madison Avenue.
As strange and exotic as the costumes and traditions might seem, Mr. Fréger said, they felt somewhat natural for him. His father was a farmer, in the center of France, as were his grandfather and great-grandfather. Mr. Fréger grew up milking cows and studied agriculture in college intending to join the family farm.
“I learned to be a farmer before I went to art school,” he said. “I was not so different from the people I photographed.”
He chose photography over raising animals. Though his recent ancestors, as far as he knows, did not wear primitive costumes of wild animals, Mr. Fréger said, he has never felt domesticated.
See the complete slideshow here. It’s a good amount of wild.
New York Times / Lens / Published: March 18, 2013