Spectres of Sights*
Axel Hütte’s early photographs taken in London in the
1980s – sober images in black and white –reflect the sphere of influence of his
teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher. In many cases, however, the objective
depiction of buildings is already subtly disrupted by unexpected framing. Thus
the view down a street on the Peabody
Estate does not fully explain the facades to the left and the right nor the
situation in the distance. Something similar happens in the view of a building
between another two: the eye jumps to and fro between the foreground and the
background and then sideways to the edge of the corner of a house. In Great Suffolk Road roads and entrances, an
underpass, railway bridges, and parts of buildings create a spatially
disorienting effect. In other photographs a section of a wall, a fence, or a
building blocks the view of the surroundings. At the basement level of an
apartment block the eye comes up against a line of garage doors and is lost in
no-man’s land. In the entrance areas to other buildings the rigorous symmetry –
or bewildering asymmetry – of the pictorial structure sends the viewer’s gaze
into a spin. All these images are bereft of people; there are barely even any
cars. Records of objects and their interpretation become entangled, sometimes
almost imperceptibly, in the forms imposed on them by the photographer.
Following that early work focusing on streets and buildings Hütte has spent the decades concentrating on landscapes of all kinds, albeit sometimes other motivs turn up – increasingly so in recent years. The districts and places in his photographs are on every continent; there is little evidence of his own immediate surroundings. A nocturnal view of the MedienHafen in Düsseldorf or a misty stretch of the Rhine further upstream are exceptions to the rule. The majority of his work arises from the traditionally close connection between photography and travel. Since the late nineteenth century photography has crucially aided and disseminated the practical documentation and exploration of geography. As a consequence of the all-pervasive presence of photography – in everything from tourists’ snapshots to picture spreads in magazines to myriads of Google images – the landscape has become part of the global, visual consumer culture. But even if everyone constantly has a stake in the ‘whole globe’ – ‘disenchanting’ it – in images of distant lands there is still sometimes a remnant of the fascination of the exotic. At the same time the designation of anything as ‘exotic’ has become suspect as the product of a Western, colonialist, romantic view of the world. Thus any artist who chooses to work with images of landscapes from across the world is entering dangerous territory. So how does Hütte respond to the almost complete conquest of this pictorial space by popular culture? Given that his landscapes seem at first sight to conform to a basically conventional way of looking at the world, it is perhaps easier to home in on their particular nature if one asks what is not seen in them.
In Hütte’s landscapes and cityscapes there are
no people and no animals. It might be possible to make out a tiny, overlooked
figure somewhere, but there is no hint here of any interaction between people
and their surroundings in these views. Nor is there a proxy beholder viewing
nature like the figure that dominates Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (ca.
1818). In fact a figure of that sort is no longer needed since everyone these
days knows about perspective from the viewfinder in a camera. And Hütte’s
series Portrait III (2001–09) is not
the exception it might appear to be. The female figures at the lower edges,
either alone or in pairs, are part of an almost phantasmagorical scenario in
the sense that nothing is seen directly but rather as a reflection on gently
rippling water with myriad reflections. As far as this is possible in
photography, these are not people in a landscape but dreamed figures in fictive
The built environment is not entirely absent, but it is confined to the margins – literally, with sections of individual buildings merely serving to frame the view into a landscape and, metaphorically, in the darkness of cities at night that appear solely to consist of dots and zones of artificial light. There is also virtually no sign of human activity as such: no agriculture, no roads, no factories, no trades. As for the truss bridges that intercept views into the distance, more will follow in due course. In short, history and human civilization are largely absent in these images, whereas nature – in the form of physical geography, describing the geological make-up of the surface of the Earth and its flora – is necessarily present in these landscape photographs, but is not the focus as such or pictured in any great detail. There is no specifically geological or botanical intention in any of these views of the landscape. And, aside from the basic difference between continents, the climate does not play any particular part in these photographs. The weather and the seasons are only incidental, and – with the exception of the clear distinction between night and day – there is little differentiation between times of day. If anything it seems that technical photographic considerations are primarily responsible for the selection of lighting conditions. Forests, mountains, and the as it were non-places of nocturnal cityscapes are the dominant themes. There are barely any open plains or large stretches of water. The absence of many elements that can be used to address nature and the landscape and render the latter visible in pictures is a first indication of the carefully experimental aesthetic that underpins Hütte’s photographs.
Furthermore, in these images the landscape, as
a pictorial topos, is disrupted and thwarted in various ways. In Hütte’s early
landscapes there is often some kind of architectural frame in the foreground.
However, it is mostly one-sided and as such creates an asymmetrical balance in
the composition – added to which only small sections of any architecture are
visible, truncated segments of a larger context that remains hidden. Although
these ‘hooks’ are in sharp focus, unlike the generally indistinct depth of the
pictorial space, with some details – of masonry, for instance – being
clearly recognizable, they still appear to be relatively abstract frames. They
neither provide any particular cultural clues concerning the landscape nor do
they satisfy any curiosity they raise in their own right. This partial framing
is one of the elements that transport these images into a strange limbo
somewhere between actual landscape description and the simple act of just
looking. Another form of optical ‘frustration’ is seen in the photographs where
mist has a major part to play. (5) In certain images of forests or riverbanks
or mountain panoramas mist seems to be an almost romantic, mood-enhancing
factor; in others it becomes a dominant Nowhere. The viewer’s gaze nervously veers
between wanting to see and not being able to see. The wide open,
undifferentiated expanse of the sky can have a similar role – for instance in the
photographs of Antarctica where a thin strip of pack ice at the lower edge is
overarched by a barely modulated, monochrome plane. In one small section of the
image there is a specific, multi-part structure, in the rest of the image there
is just a dark void that offers no resistance to the eye and has scant
descriptive potential. In some images, where a section of forest vegetation is
reflected in water, the landscape becomes a visual conundrum of sorts. Slight
undulations and opacities are optically unsettling and obstruct the eye’s
attempt to focus. The close-up of a landscape is on the point of dissolving
here, of dissipating altogether. The effect of a fata morgana is achieved by
the partial reversal of the usual relationship of above and below; gravity is
subtly called into question. At first sight one suspects some form of
mirroring, but on closer examination it proves hard, in various respects, to
decipher the precise relationships of representation and space. And in these
images, too, the motif and the structure pose problems for the viewer’s
perceptions due to the absence of any wider context. Instead a form of
surrealism, rooted in reality, sets in. A comparably distinct, even brutal
method of blocking and distracting the gaze is at work in the bridge pictures.
The grid patterns of truss bridges, running parallel to the picture plane,
dominate the image. They both reveal and distort fragments of the landscape
behind them. Do these photographs still count as examples of landscape
photography (as an artistic genre) or are these objective illustrations of
large-scale technology? These bridge grids plus inklings of landscapes are
similarly lacking in place and context. Even a potential focus on the
relationship of the natural world and the impact of civilisation comes to
nothing. Instead there is a visual intractability that is paradoxically kept in
suspense by radical reduction to a rational form.
In contrast to the landscape photographs, in
Hütte’s images of cities and mega-cities it seems that civilisation is the
theme. However, given the sheer size of cities such as Beijing, New York, Kuala
Lumpur, Detroit, and Tokyo these are not traditional cityscapes with an
overview of notable landmarks. These are medium distance shots taken from a raised
vantage point. Cities in the distance appear, at most, as their own reflected
light in darkness, as a glimmer or a glow on the horizon. In general these
pictures are more about artificial lights than built structures. The night
reduces the conglomerate city and its complex interrelationships to dots and
patches and reflections of light, which only vaguely refer back to the material
objects that they emanate from. Like dull skeletons the buildings recede into
the background of their own luminescent emissions. The city as a hub of life
and human action retreats to the ubiquitous artificial light that bears witness
to civilisation. It remains conceptually connected to it but also acquires a
different, surreal reality. The idea of a Symphony
of a Metropolis that sought to capture the complexity of daily life in a
city in the 1920s is reduced in Hütte’s nocturnal photographs to an almost
abstract composition. And the implicit dematerialisation in these images suits
a time when the world is largely viewed from a digital distance, in essence
aesthetically. And due to the light pollution of these technoid nights there is
barely a star in sight. There is no connection here – as in so many historic
cityscapes by night – between earthly activities and a cosmic context. As in
some landscape photography the image is about an undirected act of looking
– which becomes the subject – rather than any concrete description of a
city by night.
While the colour spectrum of the world already darkens and recedes in the night photographs, Hütte has recently gone significantly further. Interiors only sporadically appeared in his earlier work, but now in a group of pictures taken inside historic buildings a form of photographic manipulation has become the basis for even more penetrating scrutiny of (pictorial) reality. A radical alienation of what the eye perceives is achieved here by reversing colours. The viewer is not unsettled by the objects pictured in these photographs because of the motif, an unusual detail, or a particular perspective. Now the viewer is disconcerted by a photographic technique, the chemical nature of the process, the decisive deviation from what we are used to. Whereas a negative is normally only a stage on the way to the finished photographic product, now it becomes a picture in its own right. There is nothing missing from the motif – apart from the colours it has in reality. Yet they are not simply absent, as in a black-and-white photograph, or added later on by hand. If anything it is as if the colours have been plunged into their own shadows. And although the linear structures of these spaces are relatively easy to read, the negative counterparts of the original colours are much harder to decode. The delineation of spaces and decorations in the historic interiors where Hütte has tried out these methods provide anchors for any comparisons with reality, but the altered colours make the spaces appear confusingly unreal. They become paradoxical ghostly realms, eerie doppelgangers of themselves. One might even talk of the undead, given that some places – historic interiors in particular – once had a ‘life’ of their own. In a real scene colours are natural and accepted, yet it is hard to remember them precisely and describe them accurately. However, if they become their own physical opposite in a photograph, then ‘the world no longer makes sense’. Those who are familiar with the laws of optics may perhaps be able to readily transpose those colours back into reality, but even then the process of perception would still require a considerable feat of theoretical (re-)construction, as it were an analytical process involving the eye and the mind, an experiment involving the image, the intellect, and reality. That – not only the exoticism of these splendid historic rooms – is what these cool, semi-cerebral, ghostly interiors primarily seem to be about. Meanwhile the metal plates that these images are printed on add to their experimentally induced intangibility.
Most of Hütte’s photographs are middle-distance images of landscapes. In many cases they depict a section of a larger natural scenario with an ‘allover’ of a characteristic yet baffling abundance of vegetation. When the camera occasionally closes in on the vegetation it captures quasi-homogenous surfaces of small and tiniest plants. The effect is predominantly abstract. However, on closer examination the actual anchoring of the image in the natural world comes to light since the ultimately romantic imprint of the landscape gaze regards nature as the paramount category. In photographs of this kind the act of seeing is redirected to itself as an instrument of perception. The isolation of individual natural phenomena (by means of photographic techniques) not only exposes certain details for further examination. The reduction to largely homogenous structures also points to the chance and arbitrariness that determine every perception. However, in an (artistic) image these are not seen as redundant information nor as a deficit, but instead create the room needed for visual perception, interpretation, imagination. While the geometric definition of limits turns the spatial landscape in these interiors into a stage for exercises in perception, in Hütte’s Flowers the removal of plants from their natural context goes a step further. Since these are all evidently cut flowers their connection to nature as a whole has literally been severed. In terms of genres in art, they have moved from landscape to still life, from the natural world to an interior. Here, too – as in the interiors – colours have been reversed. It is a little like looking at a bistable figure, only in that kind of an optical illusion there are two different motifs (rabbit/duck, for instance), whereas in this case the brain superimposes positive and negative images of the same object on each other. There is no saying for sure which aspect is discerned by our ‘continuous seeing’ and which ‘dawns’ on us (Ludwig Wittgenstein). In the Flowers the reversed colours, the sight of the flowers in their complementary colours, considerably increases the imponderables. Thanks to the constant access there now is to images of nature from all the Earth’s continents and oceans even the most fantastic colours and shapes of flora and fauna no longer come as a surprise. Our own immediate experience of the natural world we live in is no longer our only benchmark. We also have the image-enhancing digital manipulation used in the media and in our own smartphones. Accordingly, while the colours of the flower heads, leaves, and stems in Flowers may initially seem a little unusual, they do not appear fundamentally impossible. Couldn’t these simply be luminous plants? Or artificial flowers? Or night shots with special lighting?
The black, wholly matt background isolates the flowers. In the history of floral still lifes since the Baroque era dark backgrounds have been commonplace because of the artistically desirable contrast with the glowing colours of the flower heads. In Hütte’s photographs it is first and foremost a non-mimetic backdrop, a flat Nowhere, a homogenous foil – were it not for the paler, smoky trails that appear to play around the flowers in some places or even issue from them. These are of course the now pale, negative shadows of flowers, standing out against the background. Even if one is perfectly aware of the actual nature of the original motif, in these images the shadows often look more like mysterious emissions and give the flowers a ghostly aura. The fleeting nature of these visual echoes connects not least with the selection and the arrangement of the flowers. Usually there are just two fine stems with flower heads only in the top section of the image. The graphic structures of these forms have something fragile about them, something almost anaemic, that contrasts with the sharply translucent colours of petals and leaves. The flowers rise up of their own accord from the lower edge of the image; they have no footholds and as such only minimal spatial stability. They have little in common with the carefully assembled bouquets in traditional still lifes. If anything they are more reminiscent of individual botanical specimens placed on paper that, dried and pressed, are preserved in a herbarium as scientific samples. However, that impression is countered by the seductive power of the cold glow of these blooms and leaves and by the crisply drawn outlines of their diverse forms. That is already apparent in the prints on roughly A1-sized metal plates and greatly intensified in the prints on paper – a good two metres tall – where these botanical apparitions already break any remaining links with reality by virtue of their size alone and look more like impactful figures on a theatre stage. Particularly in the large-format images a black Nowhere, fragile constructions, anaemic-acrid colours, buoyant-aggressive forms, and pallid emissions enter into an alliance that is as appealing as it is ambiguous, sowing doubt in the beholder’s eye.
However surreal the Flowers may appear and however much the plants in these pictures may look like ghosts of themselves, it is too simplistic merely to ascribe these images to an anti-world that is everything from alluringly dark to iridescently metallic. And a metaphor such as fleurs du mal (Charles Baudelaire) would too emphatically yet vaguely restrict them to all that is fantastic and dangerous. The production method that results in colour reversal is in fact a technical operation, a controlled experiment with customary patterns of perception. And even if it produces and exploits the effects described here, its coolly calculating nature remains in evidence. This technique is not about creating a perfect illusion, nor about overwhelming the viewer’s eye with the fascination of an utterly different world. And in that sense it is as if there were something missing in these pictures, too. In the landscape photographs that might be certain aspects of the real world and its contexts; in the flowers it might be the coherence of an imagined supernatural world. It is not just that petals and leaves could, at a stretch, be compared with nature and that in some cases individual characteristics are precisely accentuated as in a scientific illustration. The fact is that as the viewer contemplates these images the reversal technique (that cannot be forgotten) already kindles fundamental doubt in his or her perceptions because the only aspect of the flowers – albeit an important one – that is affected is their colouration. Other aspects of reality as depicted in the photographs are not tampered with. The positions of these specimens in space, and hence gravity, remain as untouched as the natural connections between different parts of the plants. Their organic structures are intact, and the manner of their presentation is not unrealistic as such. However, if one aspect of their appearance as a whole switches into a different register and brings something so extravagantly new into play, then the intentional artificiality of this operation comes to the fore. It is common knowledge that any image can be altered, improved, and manipulated. When the relevant app in someone’s smartphone optimises or alienates selfies, the ensuing artificiality of the image is not a form of deviation, it is just another norm. And against that backdrop a photograph that aspires to be cutting-edge art has all the more reason to reflect on the artificiality of the image. The Flowers thus tread a fine line between exalted and dubious beauty on one hand and latent reflection on their own pictorial method on the other. They entice the viewer with almost morbid allures that not least recall the history of the floral still life with its dialectics of lush natural beauty and subliminal transience. Yet behind that foil of aesthetic impact there is also always an (equally aesthetic) invitation to reflect on one’s own perceptions. The very question ‘how does that work?’ opens the door to a critique of seeing and interpreting. Inquiring into the pictorial method (and hence into one’s own act of seeing) is not only an act of emancipation from the aesthetic persuasion and seduction of the picture, it is also a ‘practical application’ of the latter. In the Flowers this consists not least in understanding the wider reality of image manipulation today and in an enlightened awareness of how to deal with the latter. Digitally generated images have moved on from the originally analogue, documentary paradigm of photography or, to be more precise, they have opened up new ways of representing media-dominated reality.
Hütte’s Flowers confirm the dual character of his images, which was already present in his landscape photographs, albeit less conspicuously. In both cases a supposedly romantic pictorial repertoire is interrogated from a contemporary perspective. What stands out in this is Hütte’s acceptance of the beauty and metaphors that are intrinsic to the motifs even as he infiltrates them with analytical and/or experimental signals. Only the latter do not take the form of revealing contradictions, but come across as natural and necessary aspects of any considered image production and contemplation. Sometimes a mildly melancholic tone may play into the dual character of these images: ‘spectres of sights I have seen are still wakeful in my mind’. That is perhaps not so surprising for someone looking at the landscape, nature, ecology, and the universe, where – for all the myriad images and advanced devices that are available today, ‘two eyes are too little to absorb all of that in such a short space of time’ (Carl Ritter). Yet in this abundance even ‘spectres’, deliberately allowed onto the stage of the image as in Hütte’s case, can become tools, instruments for observational reflection on what is seen.
* ‘The spectres of sights I have seen are still wakeful in my mind and afford me no rest.’ (Johann Georg Forster, 1791).
(Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott)