by Michel RENDA
La Salle. It is a remote little hamlet on the southern slopes of Montagne Noire, not far from the village of Olargues, in the Hérault "département". A ten kilometer long forest track runs among holm oaks, boxwood., chestnut trees, broom and heather and leads to a few stone houses, some of which have been refurbished with taste other are abandoned ruins.
When you drive on that track for the very first time, it seems endless, and you get that overwhelming and moving feeling of going nowhere. The view on the Val d'Enfer, the Jaur valley, the Caroux and Espinouse mountains is exceptional.
Till up to the fifties, about ten families used to live there, growing chestnuts and vineyards, raising goats and poultry. There was a cellar and its wine press, a bread oven, et above all a school that looked as if it had been left just after a break. Books, notebooks, blackboard and pens were still there.
That is how the Béziers cave club found this charming place in the 70's. After the Rautély cave was discovered just below the village, the club decided to make this place a base camp for the explorations. They settled in a little rented house, with basic facilities so that the cleaning up at the end of the weekend would not be much of a hassle.
That clubhouse, much envied by many clubs, soon became a place for friendly meetings. Many cavers from everywhere gathered there and that gave the impulse for the club development and the beginning of great discoveries.
I joined the club in 1975, and 1976 came the "Pieds Nickelés", including Jean-Philippe, Paul and Pierre who discovered the PN 77 with its underground river in the following year.
Then many discoveries followed : Aven 100, les Sources de la Douch, la Grotte de l’Asperge in 1992, among others. They are all situated within a few hundred meters from the refuge, which make their exploration easy. They are all richly decorated with aragonite and calcite formations and they were immediately protected. As a result, they are still nowadays in their original state.
As they became more and more famous, the house became a meeting point for many photographers from all over the world. People got acquainted and made friends, and every year, caving camps were organized. There were extraordinary meetings where people shared their experiences, and of course unforgettable meals and parties.
Kevin Downey, Urs Widmer and I often considered turning this house set in such a heavenly surrounding into a meeting place open to cave photographers from all nationalities.
Then I meet Daniel Chailloux who taught me all about 3D photography and then Antonio Danieli, Italian cave photographer and that started a fantastic adventure and an amazing story. It lent credibility and fame to La Salle which became the name of the photographers association called "La Salle International Team Photo 3D". And La Salle is where its first general meeting took place.
I got to know many other people, I took part to many expeditions abroad, and found myself part of a great family. But most of its members had never met, even if they knew each other by name.
My wife Marie and I got the idea of bringing together all these people. They had to meet somehow one day. We were obsessed by this and one day, our friends Philippe Crochet and Annie Guiraud called us.
"Michel, we think that we could organize an international meeting of cave photographers together. What about it? And I replied : "Are you kidding?I was thinking exactly the same thing and I was about to call you!"
It remained for us to find a place. It did not take long to make up our minds. The caves around La Salle and Olargues were the ideal places to invite our guests.
That is how La Salle became the setting of a marvellous adventure for the four of us. The First International Meeting of Cave Photographers was born!
The First International meeting of cave photographers
When and how did it all start? Obviously, the idea of holding an international meeting of cave photographers did not spring up out of the blue, ready prepared and complete. It derived from an idea that we wanted to develop based on exchanging ideas, something we experienced regularly whenever we travelled or when foreign cavers visited us. Sharing. Sharing photographic techniques, caving trips, good times, meals, discussions, holidays; we wanted to create and bring together a group driven by the same passions.
In 2002 we attended our first photo meeting, when our and cave photographer friend Frantz Lindenmayer invited us to Höpho in Germany.The event he had been running for years. We spent the weekend with Franz and about twenty German photographers and their families. Everyone showed their pictures and slide show, and talked about caving trips. There were no competitions, this was simply a meeting where photographers, amateurs and beginners and proficient cavers alike talked and talked. We were really impressed and thought that such an event should one day be organized in our native France.
In 2009, we attended the week-long International Congress of Speleology in Kerrville, TX. It was a huge event but perfectly organized. One of the highlights was a morning devoted to technical talks on photography by well-known photographers such as Footleg, Urs Widmer, Peter and Ann Bosted, Chris Howes, etc. Some of them were already friends , while others we knew only through their books or published pictures. We admired Chris 's talent and achievement, and were very impressed to get to talk to him..... We eventually got to know each other and became friends. Later in Mammoth Cave we shared caving trips with photographers from other countries. It was good to meet everyone as such opportunities seemed scarse.
We were also inspired by the informal caver gathering in La Salle, near Olargues. La Salle is the headquarters of the Spéléo Club de Béziers where, every summer, many German cavers arrive to spend a week or two. Most of them have now joined the club. The hut is tiny and its facilities are very basic, but the atmosphere is great and people from other countries join in for a few days. All of them share unforgettable moments : caving, mapping, digging, aperitifs, barbecues , endless discussions at night bolstered by bottles of wine, camping in the woods bathing in the rivers...
So, it only remained for us to make the most of all these experiences and the idea of arranging an international meeting took shape. We realized that we had everything we needed: nice caves, a typical little village ideally situated nearby, a wonderful climate and last but not least, good food, and wine galore...
We had an incredible phone call with fellow photographer Michel Renda one evening in spring 2010 : "Michel, we think that , together, we could organize an international meeting of cave photographers, what about it? And Michel replied : "Are you kidding ? I was thinking exactly the same thing and I was about to call you!". We immediately agreed a few basic principles : there would be no competition, and every day would be spent on caving trips, with workshops and talks in the evenings. Later, we obtained the support of Olargues village council which allowed us to use the community hall and thus we decided to add an exhibition and a gala evening so that local people could also benefit and see what we had been doing. Thanks to the council, we could also book the Campotel, a sort of bunkhouse; the building was a bit worn out but cheap and it proved to be an ideal base.
This left over one year of hard work for the five of us, having drawn Marie, Michel's wife and Daniel Chailloux into the team. Our hopes were high and sometimes we doubted the outcome would be worth it, but finally it became a dream come true. But we must not forget that the success of that first meeting is largely due to all the brilliant people who trusted us , came from far to attend and wished to share their knowledge and their passion.
Were we actors and are therefore now witnesses of an event that will go down in "history"? Was it the go-ahead for a new level of cooperation and of the coming together of cave photographers in a worldwide scale? Was this a unique event that goes down in the history of cave photography that was set so high that it could find a successor? Or will it go on? First proposals and ideas already were conceived, Sardinia, Cantabria, Yorkshire - all perfectly suitable areas that are so attractive that it would be worth a trip halfway around the world - but that is not everything. There must be also capable, dedicated and enthusiastic organizers and volunteers in addition to suitable premises and a lot of skills and luck in the running of the event.
That was the case this time. With Philippe Crochet the whole event had a brilliant focal point, with Annie Guiraud, his partner, the congenial complement. They got the idea, after 2002, when they came from Montpellier to our German HÖPHOs for a weekend at the Römersteinhaus on the Swabian Alb. They liked very much the relaxed atmosphere and preferred the general principle of cooperation in contrast to the otherwise so much highlighted competition in our societies, which dominates the cave photography competitions in France and everywhere else.
Meanwhile, photographer Michel Renda and his wife Marie, used to travelling and meeting cavers from all over the world as well, had had the same idea. The basic principle is to bring cave photographers from around the world together for a few days so that they could get to know each other and exchange what they know and do. The thing was, to find an attractive region, which has enough appeal to justify even to travel halfway around the world. With the Haut-Languedoc they found an area that was very suitable, because there are a lot of caves, which are extremely attractive, but normally difficult or not at all accessible for normal cavers. For this event an exception was made, the iron gates opened, sometimes for only a single tour, sometimes for several trips. The range of possible caving trips was huge: from relatively easy trips to ones for the very slim und very experienced SRT specialists, always guided by at least one leader for a group from 4 to 10 people.
It is also important to win as many partners as possible for the event. Daniel Chailloux completed the organizers team and other people, like Paul Redon, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Bernard Hof, Christophe Tcherter provided help. They all really "tore a leg," as one participant commented, correctly, to allow the event to be such a big success.
The first moments were probably the hardest. As you try to initiate something completely new you must be brave because you have no idea whether there will be any resonance or not. You have to have to talk to people, negotiate, develop something - and then maybe only 5 people from the near vicinity will sign up. Two years before the planned meeting Philip and Annie had already begun to send out the first invitations and were waiting for a reply.
And then the surprise: 39 people from around the world came forward and expressed an interest (in fact there were in the end nearly 80 people who took part - some only for one or two days). The conditions were really ideal and inexpensive. It cost just 60 euros, if you inscribed from Sunday evening through to Sunday morning breakfast and dinner were also offered free of charge! The ones who wanted to stay in the camp hotel where the event mainly took place had to pay the accommodation fees extra, but you could also stay, for example at the campsite or in a boarding house. Such a unique price was only possible because different sponsors could be found. For example, dinners for the entire group were sponsored by the mayor of Olargues or the Regional Natural Park du Haut Languedoc.
The highlight was, when Philippe declared the principle of "free beer" and "free wine" for the Olargues meeting.. He paid out of his pocket for about 500 liters of beer, which flowed from the barrels there and Jean-Philippe Ferrara sponsored the red, rosé and white wine, which was inexhaustibly available. Such a thing strongly influenced the atmosphere of "sharing" a wonderful experience.
Officially, the meeting lasted from Monday 15 until Saturday 20 August 2011. Those who stopped in to see the reception was registered first, and then you got your name tag. There were three categories: photographer, assistant, organizer. Incredibly many countries were represented: France, of course, but not dominant, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, a very large German group, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Great Britain, Romania, and then the ones from other continents: Canada, USA and Japan! Yes, even from Tokyo came two young Japanese who flew in and enriched camp life.
Particularly important was the inclusion in the large list of field trip requests. The very special tours were immediately fully booked, but there was a very vast range of alternatives. For many participants the choice was too vast and he / she had a rest for a day or two , which was quite understandable, because many of the caves were very challenging and exhausting.
The social highlight was the daily dinner . We were in a southern country, and there is very rarely something to eat before 8 p.m..It was the same here, too. Once the plan fell completely out of hand, because the chef was the leader of one of the hardest caving trips of this day. The party came back safe but very late. It was already 10 p.m., when the first hungry persons could eat the sea food cooked in olive oil with garlic and pastis. If you didn’t want to wait so long, you could go to the small pizzeria in town, which was operated by an amber haired artist.
The dinners were great. The range was from mixed hot and cold plates to a paella evening, an couscous evening and and, and ... There was everything. The wine and the beer flowed, the weather gods sent down only on Sunday evening a few showers, otherwise we always sat at long tables outside under the starry sky and were living a life of Riley. Of course one was not sitting alone at the paper-covered tables, but in a crowd of like-minded beings. "Breaking the Ice", which went pretty fast, you came to know the other cavers quickly on the cave tours during the day. There were even some very prominent ones among us: Jean-Marie Chauvet, who discovered the Chauvet cave, Michel Siffre, with long stays in caves, in cooperation with NASA, has become well-known, or Laurence Tanguille, the current President of the French Speleological Federation FFS.
After that there was still some time before going to bed and there were even photos shown. Stephen Lang began on Monday evening session with a series of images from Sardinia, thus setting the very highest level immediately . With the 6x6 format of his photos, he is like me in the absolute minority. Today there seems to be almost only digital photography. Satoshi Goto from Tokyo went on and showed us Japanese karst and caves. That was certainly new territory for us all. In the end there was still a time slot until midnight, which I filled with a trip around the world with 6x6 photos from the underworld. We were exhausted, we’d had a long day behind us filled with cave trips, and there was only a short night in front of us. We had to get up at 7 clock, because at 7.30 clock there was breakfast, at 8:30 we would be heading for the next cave .
So it went on day after day through the week and everyone had different experiences. In the evening we met again, ate together and then looked at slides, for example Philippe Crochet dream shows of diaporamas of the world of caves. There were, fortunately, this time with English subtitles, so that even as a non-Frenchman you were able to understand a little bit more. (There were further slide shows, among others, Dave Bunnell of naked feminine beauty in a sea cave in the United States, Chris Howe's remarks on the history of cave photography . And other people showed us pictures from their home country or from expeditions (Roberto Garcia, Peter Gedei, Kasia Biernacka et Marcin Gala, Alex Bengel, Vittorio Crobu, Ovidiu Guja, Gaspard Magarinos).
Languages: It was well planned, of course, a little tedious, but important for a smooth flow. There was always an evening briefing where the latest information was presented in four languages: French, English, Italian, in German
One can divide the various ways of photography. A rough classification is possible in terms of the number of participants. There was the loner who shot his pictures alone. Some had the full equipment with them, and they were able to put into practice even the most complicated ideas without outside help. Then there were the typical couples, usually the wife or girlfriend and the photographer. This person is usually very well trained and does everything at once, what is required of her. "You are the boss." This classic sentence was actually spoken amidst splendid straws. And then there is the perfect cave photography team, 4 to 5 people who obey to every word and never grumble whatever the photographers wants from them. The Slovenes and the Spaniards are of this type.
On the technical side, there was also something to discover. How do "they" do that? If you look behind the "secrets" of the "tricksters", you often see very straightforward things. There are now tripods, standing on one foot and very good for the back flash. This explains many of the special effects on contemporary cave photographs that might otherwise not be explained. And one short piece of plastic sewer pipe creates wonderful concentrated flash variations on photographs of Philippe Crochet .
After 5 days full of cave tours the plan for Saturday was completely different: In the morning there was a general meeting of the interested photographers, which lasted several hours. Everybody could present something, his great and his small ideas, his tricks of the trade. The lecture of Urs Widmer was especially impressive. He had a long-term experience in dealing with the cave photos which he used for his Speleo Projects calendars. The before-and-after-Photoshop-comparisons were simply fantastic.
For the afternoon every photographer was invited to have his picture taken by Philippe and to present two pictures which had been taken during the days in Olargues which should be shown at the Gala in the evening. Every photographer had to explain during the gala with few words before the whole audience, why he had selected just these pictures. These details show extremely good, how everything was carefully prepared. Such a great success really does not fall from the sky, as we say in Germany. Bernd Kliebhan wanted to take a film of the whole event with the least lighting equipment during the week and to produce a high-quality product. Step by step he worked his way through the material and it took him many hours, he even found suitable music, and, in the end, he then presented again a small masterpiece, which one can still see now still on the Internet.
The "Gymnase" filled up to the edge at dusk. In the end there were only standing places for the ones who came too late. Along the walls was an exhibition with excellent cave photographs.
The mayor delivered a speech, honoured Urs Widmer for his achievements, the guests from Japan also got guest presents from him. Well deserved thanks were given to the organizers publicly, then the show began. In alphabetical order we were introduced, the photographers, what an honour! Everything was exciting. To see all the colleagues and friends hugely enlarged and very well photographed, almost better to look at than in reality, some of them at least. Another surprise was to see the two selected photographs of each photographer. More than thirty persons had taken thousands of new photographs. Which one had they chosen? Hundreds of possibilities – and only two selected. Some were absolutely perfect.
There were a lot of different things to see: Some had gone into very difficult caves and had actually brought out extremely good photos, others had been in very well sealed caves, and brought out something that was not that exciting. The Grotte de l’Ascension had been obviously the favorite among the photographers, because there was no other cave so often presented as this one. After the slide show Bernd Kliebhan presented his video of the cave photographers meeting, which was very much applauded afterwards . He knows all the tricks of the trade, knows how to develop and incorporate characters like the "Spaniards", "Michael", which shows people how they want something, then to fail, often proceed anyway, go on, fail, again and get at some point often what they had wanted. The most exciting scenes show 95% blackness and a little light, but the effect is only through the sound! The audience already spoke the Spanish words, as the scene, as usual, repeated. The word "shit" also fell once and it has therefore dug even a little bit deeper into the memory of non-German speaking persons. A Spaniard, Carlos Sanchez showed his version of a film about the photographers meeting and showed completely different sides of the meeting, because most of the scenes played only in the Camp Hotel.
During the second part of the evening 3-D projections of the La Salle Group were shown. Top cave photographers have joined from all over the world under this brand mark to capture on the highest level the beauties of the earth's subsurface in perfect images and present the results in the overwhelming stereo photographic technique.
La Salle is actually the name of a hamlet with a few houses in the area, almost hidden under the skyrocketing vegetation on the near mountains. The Cave Club of Beziers takes care of the premises, there is a kind of clubhouse, which provides a roof over your head for researchers / photographers.
You put white stereo glasses on your nose and when your eyesight adapts, then grandiose visual impressions emerge at once in your brain. Suddenly I saw pictures from home, from ice caves, the Eiskogelhöhle or the Eiskapelle at the Königssee. Then came an incredible 3-D-slide show with colourful crystals from the mines in Alsace, unbelievable! Yes. And more ....
After such an overabundance of beauty only asceticism helps. No more caves, no more cave pictures, only flowers, clouds, looking over the Mediterranean sea, looking at the stars.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”