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  • January 5, 2015

Shooting Chauvet: Photographing the World’s Oldest Cave Art

Stephen Alvarez photographed the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc for the story “The Origins of Art” that appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. Here, he chronicles his experience shooting some of the world’s oldest cave art, under extremely challenging circumstances.

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At our core, people are visual communicators. Nothing has ever confirmed my faith in that like seeing the ancient art in the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in Ardèche, France.

Standing in front of a 35,000-year-old painting, every possible thing separates me from that painter. We share no language, no culture. The lives of those first European hunter-gatherers are so far removed from mine that they are unimaginable. An abyss of time yawns between us, yet the images on the wall transcend time, erase barriers, and let those artists speak as clearly as if we were in the same room. The connection with the ancient artists is visceral. It is a magic that no other form of communication can manage. Entering Chauvet is like entering a time machine.

Stephen Alvarez photographs ancient art in Chauvet cave by kneeling on a narrow metal walkway. He was only allowed inside the cave for a total of six hours.
Stephen Alvarez photographs ancient art in Chauvet cave by kneeling on a narrow metal walkway. He was only allowed inside the cave for a total of six hours.

Twenty-two thousand years ago, the entrance that overlooked the Ardèche Gorge collapsed, sealing the cave. Nothing entered and nothing changed until 1994 when three cavers shimmied through a tiny crack and rediscovered the chambers and their art. Except for a metal walkway installed to protect the cave floor, and a heavily monitored submarine door to keep out the curious, it remains exactly as it was in Paleolithic times.

Preparing to photograph in Chauvet, I thought carefully about what my role should be. I am the only non-scientific photographer to shoot Chauvet this decade. It’s closed to all but a handful of researchers. That knowledge gave me a tremendous sense of responsibility. It also left me with a strong feeling of connection to those Paleolithic artists. I wanted to photograph the paintings in a way that let the original artists’ voice come through while also preserving the sense of what it is like to stand in front of that art.

The Horse Panel in Chauvet Cave. Discovered in 1994, the Horse Panel and the other stunning drawings provide “an extraordinary testimony to man’s first steps in the adventure of art,” says France’s Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin.
The Horse Panel in Chauvet Cave. Discovered in 1994, the Horse Panel and the other stunning drawings provide “an extraordinary testimony to man’s first steps in the adventure of art,” says France’s Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin.

Some of the power of the paintings is derived from where they are, deep inside the cave, surrounded by darkness. The artists used irregularities in the cave wall in a highly sophisticated way, and I tried to accentuate that fact. Curtains of rock reveal processions of animals, and as lights move—as surely flickering firelight would have—the animals come and go. Reindeer, horses, lions, bulls, and rhinos move through that shadow world.

Choosing to put those paintings underground might say something about the artwork’s importance to its creators. Even today caves are dangerous places—there are holes in the floor, tight squeezes, and no light. It’s easy to get disoriented and not know which way is out. If your light goes out you are stuck. Most impressively, at the time the painters were working in Chauvet they were not alone underground. Chauvet is littered with the bones of 12-foot-tall, 1,100-pound cave bears. These huge creatures are comparable in size with modern grizzlies. The artists never knew what was lurking in the darkness.

The idea for this story, “The Origins of Art,” started in 2010 when I saw the replica of another famous cave—Lascaux, in southern France. I was floored by the sophistication of the art reproduced there. It made me think that we have been people—in the sense of how our brains are wired—a lot longer than I’d imagined. That begged more questions: “When did we become people?” “When did our brains start to work in a modern way?” “What’s the first evidence of modern thought—of creativity, of symbolism?” Those questions became “The Origins of Art.”

Picture of: Chauvet Cave
A 26,000-year-old finger-traced mud glyph horse in Chauvet Cave

My editor, Kurt Mutchler, and I started lists of places we thought were important and would make good photographs; archaeological sites on the southern coast of Africa, the great cave paintings of Europe. Chauvet was high on that list so we petitioned the French Ministry of Culture for access. It took two years of asking. In the end I was granted access for a total of six hours.

I’ve spent much of my career photographing underground so I knew what to expect. I brought LED cinema lights to light the art—they emit no heat or ultraviolet radiation that would damage the paintings. They also set up quickly—important since we were limited to three trips, of two hours each. Two hours from entering the submarine door to when we exited. It wasn’t much time.

The first trip was a blur—it was so overwhelming being there. Accompanied by the curator, and a conservator, we took a tour of all the art. I shot a lot of photos in those first two hours but all I really accomplished was recording what was on the walls. It wasn’t until the second and third trips that I felt I was able to make photographs that said something about the relation of the art and the cave.

Picture of: Chauvet Cave
The Four Horses Panel in Chauvet Cave. Scientist Jean Clottes believes the images were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today—as a powerful shared experience.

On the second day I arrived with a plan. We went straight to the Horse Panel. While my assistant, Robbie Shone, set up lights, the conservator and I went to the lower section of the cave and scouted the Lion Panel to see if I could shoot a panorama. The plan worked well. By the time we emerged, Rob had the lights in place in front of the horses and I got to work.

Being underground is temporally distorting. There is no moving sun, no clocks on the wall, no bird songs or traffic noise. And I was acutely aware of my two-hour time limit. I asked the conservator to call out time every ten minutes once I started shooting so I would know how long I had left to compose. 1 hour, 30 minutes; 1 hour, 20 minutes; 1 hour, 10 minutes—time ticked by in seemingly irregular intervals.

Picture of: Chauvet Cave
The Lion Panel—a panorama composed of eight images. Later Paleolithic art mostly depicted herbivores, but Chauvet’s artists often featured fierce predators. Click image for larger view.

The third day we repeated the process with the Lion Panel. I’d worked out where on the narrow metal walkway Rob would stand, and where I would put my tripod and lights. Again, the conservator called time as I shot the frames that we would later stitch together into a panorama. The whole time I was amazed by the clarity of the paintings.

The paintings in Chauvet are 20,000 years older than the first Paleolithic cave art discovered, the bulls of Altamira. It’s extremely sophisticated and it upends our ideas about the development of human society.

And although the artists’ message is lost, it clearly was something profound enough to take tremendous risks to say. That is the beauty of visual art. It is durable. It transcends time in a way that language cannot. How many of us can understand Sanskrit? Sumerian? On the time line of human history those languages were spoken practically yesterday, yet they are lost to all but a few scholars. Visual art survives the gulf of time. As a photographer, that knowledge thrills me.

View more of Alvarez’s images from the story “The Origins of Art.”

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Photographer Stephen Alvarez produces global stories about exploration, adventure, and culture. View more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.

There are 39 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Daryl Breese
    January 19, 2016

    Chauvet art now translated on youtube

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    September 28, 2015

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  3. Dan
    March 22, 2015

    Thank you for persevering through the difficult (but necessary) red-tape to be allowed to photograph this amazing ancient art. How beautiful to glimpse into the minds of a people separated from us by tens of thousands of years. Truly inspiring.

  4. Nalini
    February 5, 2015

    art begins before this time? these amazing art work clearly shows our human brain started with art before any other evolution.. surely you are representing the ancient artist.. Great..

  5. Larry Tjiputra
    February 4, 2015

    Stunning!

  6. frank ciccarelli
    February 2, 2015

    Michael Reinhardt: definitely not child’s play ..

  7. cynthia
    January 30, 2015

    These pictures are so awesome!!!!

  8. Michael Reinhardt
    January 29, 2015

    I’m curious how high on the walls are most of the drawings has anybody else thought that maybe this was childs play.Just wondering?

    • Sir Knight Daryl Breese UNESCO
      January 29, 2015

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JkMuZ4cYcA This will get your the art translations. My rather dry but informative connections all the way back to our current day Holy Books. Michael- this was not child’s play- but Heaven’s play….

  9. SK Daryl Breese
    January 27, 2015

    Nice pictures Stephen, but these earliest known Shamanic messages are translated- many came down through history and still live in the Holy Books today. We did the simple art translations, and used “God’s Steed- Key to World Peace” 2011 Breese/D’Aoust for the reference. First Pegasus; Centaurs; Angels; Chariot of Fire; Creation Story; Flood Epic; Signs and more from this axis mundi- the Cornerstone of Civilization, which will now become the Keystone for World Peace. Free on youtube! Best regards!

  10. Gaston de la Garza
    January 26, 2015

    Great ancient art……. great modern pictures! Thanks for the gift!

  11. Karan
    January 22, 2015

    I am moved beyond all words or thoughts at the simplicity and beauty of this art.

  12. W. David Lewis
    January 22, 2015

    There is no equal to this stunning art in light of the time and the artists. No grunting stone-age brute did this. It is the work of sensitive human persons with a ‘spiritual’ depth.
    Does NGS plan to permit the skilled photographer ‘compose’ some of the sections into prints available to members. Thank you for great work.

  13. ljm
    January 18, 2015

    I wonder if any art critics or specialists were able to visit this. I would like to see an artistic analysis. I have some art skills and knowledge as a former K-12 Art teacher. Appears that it was drawn with charcoal. Very nice use of line and shading, and the creators seem to have an understanding of the physical form and movement of the animals. An interesting mix of realism and abstraction. Well shot images and intriguing article. Though applied to the cave walls so long ago, I can appreciate the images and understand some of the process, even if I cannot really know the creators and their intentions. Makes me wonder…

  14. andy cox
    January 12, 2015

    I am in awe at the use of shading in such an early piece of art!

  15. Joyce
    January 12, 2015

    When I learned of these cave paintings I was told to imagine the early people whirling flaming branches around as if the animals were moving across the wall first one panel, then the next, then the next to the beat of drums representing the sounds of hooves as they echoed in the cave. Perhaps individuals made sounds like whistling birds or neighing horses for a more theatrical religious experience created to inspire hunters who had to face the dangers of making the kill for food. In fact it was quite dangerous being in the cave at all if one lost his way, or the flames went out and there was no light, not to mention the cave bears. I am a great fan of Jean Auel’s books beginning with “Clan of the Cave Bear.”

  16. Bill Killingsworth
    January 12, 2015

    I would love to see these panels filmed in the flickering light of torches or a wood fire.

  17. Louis B. Ferguson
    January 11, 2015

    Having been on location about 8 years ago, I always wondered about the fate of these people who were so advanced in rendering wolumes relative to those of Lascaux who painted in two dimensions very crude drawings some 10,000 years later. Congratulations for this professional job.

  18. barbara
    January 11, 2015

    Jean Auel wrote a novel about getting into this cave and writing a silly novel about it. But Chauvet was owned privately so her book was the first (I think) that described what was inside. Now, the French government owns the cave so no more reading huge novels from Jean Auel about this amazing place

  19. john susmaras
    January 11, 2015

    So many questions arise . Was cave art restricted to talented ‘artists’ or was it a form of graffiti ? This certainly begs for an even more fundamental answer . When did creativity begin ? Well done NG .

  20. axel
    January 10, 2015

    amazing those paintings!!

  21. Darren
    January 8, 2015

    Those works are great. They are so ancient that I can help but thinking about life, as well as human history. An individual’s life is brief, so chrish everyday

  22. Mona
    January 7, 2015

    Thank you . . .for your vocation as a photographer, passion and perseverance for this project which enabled you to share this beautiful art with me in my tiny apartment on the other side of the world. Truly a gift.

  23. Oscar Njuguna
    January 7, 2015

    Fabulous… your pictures truly tell the story the way the artists would have wanted to come out. In awe your work.

  24. Antonio Da Costa
    January 7, 2015

    Art in its simplest form and in a language understood and admired.

  25. donny
    January 7, 2015

    a path thru time

  26. llewellyn Rinald
    January 6, 2015

    As an artist -I am so very impressed by the sensitivity of these artists -they were caring and intelligent-great movement too!

  27. Alfredo A. Chacón
    January 6, 2015

    Dear Mr. Alvarez, you have done and excellent work of historical documentation and foremost photographic, leaving us once more stunned by the figurative expressionism and artistic skills of those primitive communities which even today looks so advanced to us by the details they decided so aptly reflect in its eternal world canvases on cave walls that continue to amaze today the sphere of culture, arts and knowledge in general. The purity of rapid lines and figurative designs, moves us to think about the tools they designed and created, the materials they used to mix such colors they handle so well, to leave so important and transcendent images for posterity, showing the wildlife that surrounded them and some animal species they will surely managed to domesticate; are artistic works in general showing their culture and their ability to handle forms, reflecting the oldest technique of chiaroscuro who they ran at will, bursts of heads as well defined horses and fauna that move us to want to know on what materials such culture outlined their first drawings, how they relayed his artistic culture to their descendants -as a habit-, and how they perfected their manual skills. Certainly they did so well, and their Art Gallery of Chauvet, is proof of that.

  28. Sari Pietilä
    January 6, 2015

    Those paintings are amazing and touching! Thank you very much for sharing them. It would be nice to order some of these beautiful pictures as posters.

  29. chidonzicworld
    January 6, 2015

    Very nice, thanks man. Beautiful.

  30. Barbara
    January 6, 2015

    Extraordinary photographs. Thrilling and deeply moving art. Since it is unlikely that I will ever enter Chauvet, I thank you for this.

  31. Joe
    January 5, 2015

    This is wonderful, I’m so happy it’s been documented so well. I think it should be sealed up no for good to preserve it.

  32. matthew callahan
    January 5, 2015

    please let us know how to obtain these images commercially. they’re spectacular

  33. Judy Swink
    January 5, 2015

    Amazing, that through art the message can always be read, it is timeless, it can be read without speech. The human connection to earths animals is timeless. We see, we understand, we connect, all without a word spoken.

  34. Loan
    January 5, 2015

    For those interested, Chauvet may not house the oldest cave paintings in the world. Those might belong to the caves of Nerja, made by our extinct Neanderthal cousins in southern Spain. I haven’t come across any updates about dating, which was supposed to begin in 2013. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21458-first-neanderthal-cave-paintings-discovered-in-spain.html

  35. Michael Patrick O’Neill
    January 5, 2015

    Spectacular images and story. Congratulations!

  36. Anne Persoon
    January 5, 2015

    Stunning,so nice you can show us this,thank you !

  37. Lia Trocano
    January 5, 2015

    Thank you! I’ve loved this since it was first discovered and have had a picture of it in my home since.

  38. Katy
    January 5, 2015

    Hi! I was wondering what kind of camera/lenses you used for this underground shoot?

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