|SIMON DENISON IMAGE & TEXT|
ISBN 978-1-90794-630-1 Hb
This book is a puzzle, so let’s start with some facts. It contains 59 small black-and-white images of natural objects and phenomena, each one isolated from its surroundings and centrally framed. Some objects are photographed in situ in the wild, others in the studio. There is no introduction, and there are no image captions. The only text in the book is a short, enigmatic extract from Kosmos by the early 19th century naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.
Without captions, one is forced to play the game, what is it in the photograph? Sometimes the game seems easy: a jackdaw, a whirlpool, mistletoe in a tree, an elephant’s eye, an offshore rock, a dead bee, a shooting star. Frequently the task is much harder: one object could be a pale fruit, a nut, a stone, an egg; another could be a dropped cactus fruit, a low shrub, a bristling animal. Here we have either a cave in rock or a cavity in rotten wood. In another image, a polygonal flat surface is covered in snow. In yet another, a dark oval line of some dried substance seems to be dissolving in water. What can any of this mean? Turning to the text for assistance, we find von Humboldt ending his great description of the ‘cosmos’ by stating that although natural phenomena can be reasonably well described, ordered and understood, the human mind is something else altogether. ‘A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit but does not pass it.’ Not much help there then.
Is Mårten Lange presenting the natural world as a cabinet of curiosities? Natural history collections do the same, but their exhibits are always labelled. As a reader with a curious mind, I would like to know why that particular leaf has curled itself into a loop, whether that hollow in the ground is a large crater or a tiny paw-print, and which waterfall we are being shown. Perhaps we are being asked to imagine ourselves into the mind of von Humboldt himself in 1799, the first European scientist to set foot in the terra incognita of inland Ecuador and northern Peru, surrounded by undocumented mysteries. Yet he had the advantage of being able to determine scale and context. He could pick an object up, weigh it, measure it, smell it, tap it, stamp it underfoot. We are offered only the flat, fragmentary mysteries of photographs.
Lange has been quoted elsewhere describing his fascination with the nature of photography itself: it sees everything and understands nothing, it describes (to some extent) but cannot identify. The ‘other language’ of the title, he says, indicates the language of photography as much as (more vaguely) the ‘language’ of the natural world. Are we having our noses rubbed in the limitations of photography? Are we being invited to admire these images only as pure form? It makes one wonder how different the book would have been if it had contained captions. In the end, I think, captions wouldn’t help. Our initial curiosities might be satisfied, but a more documentary approach would only raise a new set of questions about coherence, sequencing, meaning. A roundish pumpkin is printed next to a roundish puddle reflecting sunlight. A towering and blazing bonfire is printed next to what looks like a termite mound. Beyond loose formal similarities, there are no significant connections between these objects, I suspect, other than their coexistence on Earth.
And so we are thrown back on what we have, a puzzle. Readers more knowledgeable than I am will recognise more objects and locations than I can, but the puzzle would remain for all but the omniscient. Moving back from the unknown to the known, we realise how little we (most of us) know even about common things; how infinitely much there is to know. For example, I may recognise, be able to label, ‘mistletoe in a tree’, but why does it have that form, size, location? What is its ecological function? Why indeed, even, its ancient cultural significance? I know the answers to none of these questions. The fact that photography could not possibly supply this information is not, in the end, interesting or important. A caption might have satisfied the reader with a trivial nugget. Here, we are brought face to face with our thirst for knowledge; the limitations of what we know; and our inability to comprehend more than a tiny fraction of all
Von Humboldt was (in the days when these terms did not yet exist) a botanist, mineralogist, meteorologist, map-maker, mountaineer, artist, Romantic. The equipment he took to the Andes included a eudiometer to measure the qualities of air and a cyanometer to measure the blueness of the sky. He believed in the interconnectedness of all organic and inorganic material. He died in 1859, and was later described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘the last man who knew everything’. He believed that the aesthetics of nature could only be understood through reason. Lange’s photographs perhaps suggest otherwise: that the images that stay longest in the mind are those that prompt more and ever more questions, and that the distance between the known and the unknown is the measure of the sublime.