Topographies with a Memory. Andréas Lang’s Landscape Photography

Hans-Michael Koetzle, essay for the catalogue “Eclipse”, Munich 2008

This time, the term is correct. His pictures are ‘mythical’, in the true sense of the word. His work, however accessible it may appear, covers vast stretches of time, space and the imagination, linking up with the great myths, fairy tales and legends of a mainly European civilisation. The source of his inspiration is history, also and especially where it bears the marks of tragedy, fate or crime. This may well be a theme of present-day painting. Photography travels other roads. At the transition stage from analog to digital, the medium’s main preoccupation is itself. Reflection on the medium or photo recycling are the great themes. You cite, create collages, compile, and the computer is there to assist you. If you will, a self-contained system. In not just one, but in many ways, the works of Berlin denizen Andréas Lang lie athwart these trends, the fashions of a photographic culture that also has long since become a big global market. With everyone else looking for colour, Lang works mainly in black and white. With him, formats that take up a whole wall are rather the exception. Usually he relies on more intimate picture sizes, knowing that, ideally, photographs need to be held in the hand and read close-up. For him, the spiritual content of his creations is more important than the popular ritual of framing. And as far as most of his black and white prints are concerned, they owe their existence, not to the interplay of data and inks, but still to a ‘mysterious’ chemical process which – a fine paradox of “painting with light” – has to take place more or less in the dark: this, too, is a kind of ‘eclipse’.

As late as the end of the 20th century, the answer to the question about the nature of photography was still to be found in a clearly defined ritual. You went to your photo dealer and bought a film. You loaded your camera and went out “hunting”. You sought, you saw and you shot your pictures: latent pictures, usually developed in the lab. Photography was, and still is, a technical process. But – traditionally – it also had to do with categories that went beyond exposure times and aperture settings. Taking photographs also meant always being on the move, leaving home, travelling. Taking photographs meant being guided by one’s curiosity and making discoveries. It meant being economical, because film was expensive. One of the photographer’s cardinal virtues was patience, and the first inspection of the photos of motifs one had taken oneself and someone else had then developed and enlarged, regularly held – and this was also part of the photographic ritual – some delayed surprises in store. “Collecting photographs means collecting the world”, as Susan Sontag once put it.*1 The idea of compiling an inventory was just as much a characteristic of photography as was the certain knowledge of its incorruptibility or objectivity. The latter, as we well know, is a myth. And yet there is no analog picture without its referent in reality. In many respects the digital era marks a turning point. The photograph mutates “into a panel painting separable from its original location and subject to repeated modification over the course of time, with one new layer following the next”.*2 In other words, a kind of painting using techniques in which postproduction becomes more important than the moment the photograph was taken. Pictures are created that are the product of a process of “never-ending reworking without a true original”. “Photoshop” has replaced the “decisive moment”; the transfer has replaced the archiving or inventorying of our world. Above and beyond all discussion about the ‘durability’ of data, in everyday globalised practice digital pictures are created as quickly as they are deleted: digital imaging a cheap divertimento that leaves no traces. Without being aware of it, we are creating a future without a past.

Contemplation in Pictures

The past is a concept central to Andréas Lang’s work. One might also say history. Or recollection. Quite deliberately, he seeks out places that harbour memories – not always visible, sign-posted or evident. And yet they are places of history, topographies that contain history even when masquerading as nature. Lang tracks them down with his camera. Not, however, in any sense of documentation. It is the spirit of a place that Lang explores, recording the – in actual fact – unphotographable, transforming mood into tangible pictures, which – thoroughly in the spirit of a Romantic concept of art – may also reflect one’s own state of mind. What we actually encounter in Andréas Lang is more of a quiet, thoughtful contemporary, for whom literature, philosophy or history are more likely to offer orientation than the much-vaunted trends of postmodern photography. Lang sees the problems of our world against the background of a past that is anything but glorious. For him, taking photographs is a kind of contemplation in pictures. Lang asks questions and if his answers, mutated into photography, turn out to be cryptic in the extreme, this is also part of a concept that gradually began to take shape in the middle of the nineties.

Before that, Lang was, to use an emotive term, a seeker. Born in the Palatinate he tried his hand as a drummer in a Punk band, after which he contemplated studying photo design in Darmstadt and finally ended up as an assistant to international professional photographers such as Dieter Blum in Esslingen or Michael Leis and Werner Janda in Munich. Lang becomes acquainted with the big, beautiful world of fashion photography that holds out the promise of fame and money. And for a while at least he falls under the spell of an industry in which professionals such as Richard Avedon, Jeanloup Sieff or Irving Penn have shown that it is possible to create something akin to a personal (artistic) oeuvre beyond the confines of the commissioned photograph. Lang moves to Paris. For ten years he lives and works in the French capital, where the world’s elite of fashion designers, stylists and photographers gather, and where art directors have not exactly been on the lookout for a young talent from the south of Germany. Lang works on his portfolio. He “peddles his wares from door to door” as he himself formulates it in retrospect, and does in fact make it repeatedly into international magazines. But he also realises “how hard it is”. The fact that Vogue publishes one of his fashion photographs to illustrate an article about depression might have been a sign. To be a success here, says Lang, you have to love this world, this business, this mere illusion of fashion. For Andréas Lang it will retain its fascination. But he will never fall in love with it.

A trip to Australia in 1995 surely marks a turning-point. Bruce Chatwin becomes Lang’s source of inspiration; and nature a new fascination, not as an ecosystem or as agricultural land, or an object of speculation, or a source of raw materials, but as a place of myths and fairytales, visions and legends. Lang lives out in the open, sleeps in the wild, experiences dusk, night and dawn as “something indescribable” and begins to reposition himself in artistic terms. Back in Paris, he gives up fashion. Lang makes a foray into the territory of the photographic essay, recording with his camera the activities of a “Cirque Tzigane” camping near the Place Clichy. The result is a small book. But all this is little more than an interim stage before he starts on his true subject.

Approaching Romanticism

Lang is writing his name into the history of a great genre. Admittedly, the landscape in photography has always been somewhat overshadowed by other fields of application that have brilliantly satisfied people’s curiosity in the case of photojournalism, their vanity in the case of the portrait, or voyeurism in the case of the nude. But the landscape has a remarkable tradition as well, even if some critics claim that the static character of nature basically conflicts with the dynamic of photography, which aims at movement and change. From the very beginning, the latter was involved in taking possession of the landscape in pictorial form – as in America’s West. Ansel Adams praised the heroic side of ‘virgin’ nature, whereas, under the title of ‘New Topographics’, the counter-movement, with its critical interpretation of the landscape, made the use and consumption of nature its photographic motif. With artists like Walter Niedermayr, this concept (now in colour) finds its continuation into a postmodern present, regularly putting items such as urbanisation, desertification, overexploitation, destruction on the agenda of young artists. On the one hand, there is the landscape, nature as a ‘case’, as an expression of man’s unbridled appropriation of the world, and, on the other, the popular ‘art’ of a Yann Arthus Bertrand who sends an international public into raptures with his pleasing aerial photographs and their promise of an ‘intact world’ – on postcards and calendars and in books.

Andréas Lang has never been inspired, formed or guided by any of these positions. From the mid-nineties onwards, his artistic work has drawn on other sources, including an in-depth encounter with Buddhism as well as continually occupying himself anew with the history of Christian Europe and the lines of religious, spiritual and political tradition it has pursued. Also film, the cinema of a Jean Cocteau with his sinister, fairytale world of images, seems to have influenced Lang, and his visit to the location of ‘La Belle et la bête’ near Paris in the nineties is more than a tribute paid to the master. Of pivotal importance to his work is the encounter with Caspar David Friedrich, whose panel painting in the spirit of Romanticism Lang discovered for himself during a stay in Berlin. A simple tour of the museum turned into nothing less than a key experience. The fact that the literature, philosophy and painting of the Romantic period have mainly German connotations was till then more of a reason for artists not to concern themselves with that epoch, a spiritual tendency, which – against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars – was much more political and far less transfigured than the cliché would have us believe. Of course, Romanticism was an alternative concept to the Enlightenment, to the self-confident expression of bourgeois reason that seeks to control and comprehend everything. And yet isn’t there something left unexplained, something that culminates, for instance, in the great existential questions of mankind?

The coming-to-terms with German Romanticism, the Romantic schools of Berlin, as well as those of Heidelberg or the Rhine, becomes the first great theme in which the artist finds himself and his personality reflected and in which, moreover, he develops his very own pictorial language. What first strikes us about the masterly composition of Andréas Lang’s black and white photographs is the sparse use of light. In terms of photographic technique, one might speak of “low key”. But it is not just a matter of technique. What we are dealing with here is a concept schooled on Caspar David Friedrich, in which, through darkness, nature is allowed to retain some of its mystery – nature that is, of course, anything other than “innocent”, but is, on the contrary – and in “old Europe” especially – steeped in history. Taking photographs Lang treads historical ground, never ceasing to emphasise that he has actually been there, that he has seen, felt and taken his picture – no minor matter in an age when downloading motifs from the Internet has become everyday practice in editorial offices. In his approach to Romanticism, Lang has not only rediscovered his own Heimat, he has also found his great theme: the historicity of European topography, of which, for example, the battlefields of Verdun are as much a part as are the scenes of German crimes in Poland. And Lang is concerned, not with illustrating the status quo, but in sensitively capturing the atmosphere of a landscape that possibly only reveals itself in “quiet communion”. So Lang travels alone, confining his equipment to bare essentials – medium-format or 35 mm camera with a 28 or 35 mm lens – and, apart from the occasional use of infrared film, doing without any technical tricks or gadgets. Authenticity of feeling is how one might define Lang’s attitude, a position that also characterises his latest cycle entitled ‘Eclipse’.

Conflict of Religions

Where does Europe end? In Portugal, or, after all, in New York, the most western outpost of European thinking? On the Bosporus or, after all, in the Holy Land, without whose Jewish-Christian tradition European civilisation would be quite simply unthinkable. Admittedly, the Crusades of the 11th century were not the first link between medieval Europe and the Near East. But the idea of “Holy Wars” has had a lasting impact on peoples’ thinking and the fact that international terrorism today legitimises itself by means of a ‘Jihad’ announced via satellite only illustrates the explosiveness of this “model”, even in our times. Presaging the First Crusade (1095) celestial portents, comets, a solar eclipse are supposed to have announced the end of the world. And it was a solar eclipse predicted for 2006 that prompted Andréas Lang to continue his photographic reconnaissance of locations immersed in history, treading the same paths as the early Christians and Crusaders. But ‘eclipse’ not only stands for an astronomical phenomenon. It also stands for the half-light of the Middle Ages which, for Lang, once again finds its counterpart in a pictorial language that emphasises the dark. In 2006 and 2007, the photographer’s travels took him to the Near East, to Turkey, to Syria, Israel and Palestine, following in the footsteps of the Crusaders, recording their traces manifested in stone: again, not in the sense of illustration or documentation but as an attempt to visualise something of the (irrational) spirit of the time. In Lang’s black and white photograph the Crac des Chevaliers looks like an extraterrestrial spaceship that has just landed, and to the Muslims at the time, the first Crusaders must indeed have appeared like iron-clad creatures from another planet. Let us spare ourselves a list of the atrocities committed on both sides. What is more important is the spiritual horizon against which imperial ideas arise and spread. At first glance Lang seems mainly to confirm our idea of the “Dark Ages”. In continuing his cycle, however, by taking photographs of landscapes in the Israel of today or of the everyday life of the Palestinians, he underscores the subject’s topicality. And this time he uses colour as a signal of his desire to take issue with a present that is anything but peaceful. The centuries of religious and cultural conflict – where will it all lead? There is one absurd picture of a signpost punctuated with a question mark. Do we know? We do not.

*1 Susan Sontag: Über Fotografie, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 9.
*2 Peter V. Brinkemper: Digitalisierung und Intermedialität. Paradoxien der Photographie im digitalen Zeitalter, in: Christian Gapp/Michael Ebert/H.-M. Jostmeier (eds.): Digitales Bild. Bildung des Digitalen, Köln/Nürnberg 2003, p. 27.