DestinAsian - - FEATURES - Pho­to­graphs by Frédéric Lagrange

Seven­teen years in the mak­ing, a new pho­tog­ra­phy book cap­tures the el­e­men­tal beauty of Mon­go­lia and its peo­ple.

uN­DU­LAT­ING GRASS­LANDS, ma­jes­tic moun­tains, bound­less blue skies, an over­whelm­ingly friendly pop­u­la­tion of no­madic steppe-dwelling herders— it’s lit­tle won­der New York–based pho­tog­ra­pher Frédéric Lagrange be­came smit­ten with Mon­go­lia, a vast, land­locked na­tion that he has vis­ited more than a dozen times over the last 17 years. He first heard of the coun­try from his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther Louis, a for­mer French soldier who had been in­terned at a POW camp in Ger­many dur­ing World War II. As a child in Ver­sailles, Frédéric was cap­ti­vated to hear of Louis’ re­lease in 1944 by a de­tach­ment of Mon­gol troop­ers un­der Soviet com­mand—fierce, oth­er­worldly men who swept into camp and scat­tered the Ger­man sol­diers be­fore them. “That left an in­deli­ble pic­ture in my mind of Mon­go­lia and its peo­ple,” he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to his long-over­due first book of pho­tog­ra­phy,

Mon­go­lia, which has just been re­leased by Bologna-based pub­lisher Dami­ani. “Af­ter all, I owe my grand­fa­ther’s life to them—and, in turn, my own.”

Frédéric was in his early thir­ties by the time he fi­nally made it to Mon­go­lia, hav­ing saved enough money from his job as a photo as­sis­tant in New York to fly to Bei­jing and then make his way by rail to Ulaan­baatar. The year was 2001—lit­tle more than a decade since the for­mer Soviet repub­lic had re­gained its au­ton­omy. He stayed for four weeks and trav­eled as far as Üüreg Nuur, a saline lake in the

Al­tai Moun­tains of western Mon­go­lia. There, he be­friended a fam­ily of no­mads at a sea­sonal en­camp­ment, join­ing them on their mar­mot hunts and help­ing to keep their herd of cat­tle safe from ma­raud­ing wolves. It was the be­gin­ning not only of his life­long love af­fair with the coun­try, but also of his ca­reer as a pho­tog­ra­pher in his own right.

Since then, Frédéric’s work has fea­tured reg­u­larly in some of the world’s most pres­ti­gious mag­a­zines (in­clud­ing, humbly, this one). More to the point, he has re­vis­ited Mon­go­lia 13 more times on month-long ex­cur­sions that took in all four sea­sons and ev­ery cor­ner of this im­mense and enig­matic land. Travel was by car, by old Rus­sian-built Tupolev planes, by horse­back, and by camel. Con­di­tions were of­ten tough; Frédéric re­calls bliz­zards, sand­storms, sub­zero tem­per­a­tures that would cause his Pen­tax 6x7 cam­era to jam, and a dan­ger­ous crack in an iced-over lake he was travers­ing. But he also en­coun­tered “some of the warm­est and most hos­pitable peo­ple I’ve met,” and ev­ery camp and vil­lage he vis­ited put him up in the spare ger, or tent, they kept for trav­el­ers.

“My great­est as­set through­out this long-term pro­ject were Mon­go­lian guides like my dear friend Enkhdul Jum­daan. They helped me un­der­stand lo­cal sys­tems, tra­di­tions, and ec­cen­tric­i­ties,” he tells Des­ti­nAsian. “I also learned early on to adapt my­self to the Mon­go­lian rhythm. The peo­ple could be quite un­pre­dictable and some­times down­right frus­trat­ing, so I did min­i­mal plan­ning. But I al­ways made a point of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the lo­cal cus­toms, which is cru­cial to estab­lish­ing trust. When­ever I ar­rived at a camp, I’d be of­fered su­utei tsai— a salty tea made with cow’s milk—and home­made cheese or meats. In re­turn, I would of­fer sugar and salt or cig­a­rettes and candy, pa­per, and pens for the chil­dren. I al­ways made sure to have a gift of some sort.”

Mon­go­lia is the cul­mi­na­tion of these ex­pe­ri­ences—a 252-page large-for­mat book filled with im­ages that por­tray the coun­try with a vivid­ness rarely seen be­fore. Shot en­tirely on neg­a­tive film, the pic­tures con­vey lu­mi­nous land­scapes as var­ied as desert, steppe, and taiga for­est, off­set by in­ti­mate por­trai­ture that cap­tures the small­est de­tails, from the fis­sured wrin­kles on the face of a lo­cal ranger to the flushed cheeks of a swad­dled baby. As the award-win­ning es­say­ist and travel writer Pico Iyer says in his for­ward to the book, “Frédéric knows ev­ery inch of the land, it seems, but, more im­por­tant, he knows its peo­ple in­side-out. He has learned to see things with their eyes, and felt them with his heart … I look at the weath­ered, in­domitable faces in Frédéric’s vi­sion—the ex­alt­ing land­scapes—and I’m re­minded not only of a trip that lodged in­side my mem­ory, as few jour­neys do, but of a world that I knew in some part of my­self be­fore I ever set foot in Mon­go­lia.”

Above: A herder at Tolbo Lake.Op­po­site: A bird framed in the smoke hole of ager— the tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian tent— be­ing as­sem­bled in the vil­lage of Sagil, near the Rus­sian bor­der.

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