The Origins of Art: Photographing Ancient Murals with Stephen Alvarez

National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez has published more than a dozen feature stories for National Geographic magazine, the latest of which documented the origins of art. For the assignment, he photographed the Paleolithic cave art of southwest France, including the stunning murals of the Chauvet Cave, an experience he identifies as transformative. On an upcoming departure of National Geographic’s Rhône River Cruise: Sailing the South of France, Stephen will visit the Chauvet reproduction for the first time—a moment he’ll share with our travelers.

What is your connection to France? What makes the country a great subject for photographers?

I think all photographers love France—the light has a quality that I have not found anywhere else. Also, I was lucky enough to live briefly in Paris with my family while I worked on a National Geographic story. I’ve been in love with the country since then.

What makes southern France unique, relative to the rest of the country?

France has an incredible depth of culture; people have lived there continuously for tens of thousands of years. The country is more like a cluster of small countries with variations in language, food, and culture. In southern France, the landscape is different from the north, people are friendly, and the food is fabulous.

What are you most looking forward to as the National Geographic photographer on this trip?

The Chauvet Cave reproduction. I watched it being built while on assignment and am looking forward to seeing it completed. The power of seeing art that is more than 30,000 years old is indescribable. I’m one of a small handful of non-scientific photographers to have visited the real cave, and I swear I walked into that cave one person and walked out of it a different one.

What’s been your most impactful National Geographic assignment both professionally and personally?

My last story for National Geographic magazine was on the origins of art. In it I saw the great cave paintings of Europe. At the end of the story, I decided to start a nonprofit called the Ancient Art Archive to share and preserve humanity’s oldest stories. I want everyone to feel the power of our first stories. I really think that they can help draw people together.

What would you tell a traveler who’s trying to decide whether to join you on a National Geographic expedition?

I like helping other people make photos almost as much as I like making photos myself. It’s true—I really do. I also like helping people see the world through the perspective that we cultivate at National Geographic.

Join National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez in exploring the stunning reproduction of the Chauvet Cave on a National Geographic river cruise along the Rhône.