PROF. DR. PAUL GOOD
Professor Paul Good worked as a philosopher at
the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf for 25 years and
wrote a series of books about art philosophy.
1 The first photographs from the middle of last century, which I well remember, of landscapes and people were perhaps 4x4 or 4x6 centimeters small, pretty little black and white images, passed around and admired by all, and certainly could never live up to the title of art photography. To this day, the memoria value of this time long-gone has never left me. Whether it has something to do with the initial confrontation with photographs, I’ll never know. But throughout the decades, photography has remained for me an intimate form, no matter the subject matter. It creates a personal perception about a section of the “world,” which triggers a kind of small-form fantasy in the viewer. Language in miniature form - sayings, aphorisms, poems - possesses a particular kind of poetic power. Fantasy is given place however you like. Today I’d like to philosophically formulate the following: only Fantasy has power to interpret the world adequate. Intimacy and fantasy account for the poetic.
And now, since the first decade of the 21st century, I find myself confronted by large format in the art of photography, which has definitely taken leave from the intimacy of a smaller world. I’ve been shown that photography can, in fact, different. And I have no choice but to ask myself: What kind of world are these large formats presenting me? What does the notion of a photographed image have to gain when it is spread monumentally before me? Where is the new poetry of such photographs?
I know the younger generation doesn’t ask themselves these questions. They exhaust technical means and possibilities, living themselves in a large format, mobile, globalized world. So it remains up to me, through medial technology, to discover the newly created poetry of photographs. Frederik Büttgen, with his large format photographs in the Coasts of South Africa collection challenges exactly this notion.
2 Abstract, deep blue abstract, an ocean in 7:8 proportion to waves of 1:8 and sandy beaches of the coastal landscape, mostly void of people. Only in one area far away are people strewn about like matchsticks on the sand. Through the series - incorporating four images of the same coastal area in South Africa - abstraction is initially captivated: an enormous ocean is presented as abstract colour planes. These, in relation to the coasts, with their oversized, dark colour planes offer the format an ominous grandeur. An aesthetic ideal has metamorphosed the stormy sea into a calm, albeit massive colour plane. The sensual and corporal of the colour is reduced to a space/width effect, one could say, in the sense that poetry has been used in the way of colour field painting. Intimacy and fantasy delivered up to the sublime`s absoluteness?
We are in transit through these colour planes - served up nicely as though on a tray - to the narrow, far removed stretches of coast. Wonderful! Foaming waves wind themselves in white and blue, snaking like a jeweled necklace around the almost naked throat of the coast, bound by a road. The sharpness of the coast figuration is in contrast to the abstract planes. An especially exciting development in the picture with the matchstick-people in sand are the waves: foaming white, deeply graduated mountains of water roll over one another, showcasing the violence of the ocean, which no living being would be in a position to defy. Not a surfer in sight! I’m personally afraid of the superhuman force of the ocean. I was born in the mountains. Heraclitus’s dictum - the ˇ’Ηϑος - the initial impression of the demonic nature that people must face - has made me into a fearless mountain climber, however leaves me deeply threatened by the superpower of the ocean. Just as grandly as the colour planes, these oversized swells – in contrast to the miniature figures lying in the sand – show me the poetic potential of the elemental force of the ocean. To me, it’s like mountains tumbling over one another like monsters in heat.
3 By this point at the latest, one asks himself: How in the world did the photographer do this? Because as a construction indeed - expressed in the word “poetic” in Greek, one has to first create poetry - such waves emerge over an abstract, calm ocean. But ebbs cannot be photographed in this way. However, in the other three examples, the human eye recognizes that it cannot perceive such wide coasts and such fine detail resolution at the same time, from such a distance, and with the width of the ocean view. What is presented to me, through perfect digital processing and printing technique, as a fascinating colour chart proves to actually be, in origin, a refined photo collage. A couple dozen photos melt into one enormous ocean – and a view of the coast that only the gods could imagine. A helicopter came to the rescue of the human eye, or rather the camera: the unevenly shot photo selections combine into a single, synchronized unit – one solitary picture. A heterogeneous structure as an imaging unit! With this, we slowly uncover the poetry of this large format. Distance as well as width of the abstract areas, and at the same time height and proximity of the stretches of coast derive from successive helicopter shots, which were compositionally melted into one simultaneous solo picture. In essence, the large photo manipulates the time, which we need to perceive, observe and finally determine and define the world.
The composition contains a double optic: a long-range and short-range optic crushed into each other. On one hand, we have abstraction, emptiness and width and on the other, there is figurativeness, preciseness and proximity. Together, these deliver the key to this large format. We have at first the abstract empty colour planes, and then the extreme detail resolution of the narrow coastlines. You can recognize things on the beach. From a great distance, you can see a highway in small detail. It was put together out of several photos. Light blue bays with foamy trims, rocks and fields with little trees seem to be very close. No real eye could be able to perceive and recognize both of these aspects from a central image point of view. This composition demonstrates decentred vision.
4 The same collage principle – in which pictures are not really perceptible – is also transferred to the classic advertising motif “Beach” in a virtually purist perfectionism. It focuses on the famous “Cliffton Beach,” and shows four white sandy beaches with similar topographies. In the foreground of the foursome, we have once again the precise detail resolution. With “Cliffton Beach Four” you can even make out Cola written on the red beach umbrella, still closed! The clinically pure sandy beaches fill up slowly with people. They sit alone or in little groups, without creating the usual mass orgy of southern beaches. All ocean views are photographed from a raised position. In the background, the bravely chosen, empty, just barely breathed blue morning sky can be seen in the two thirds of the photo.
In print, it seems that a rather balanced overexposure strengthens the unreality of the motif and conjures up an artificial digitally manufactured sublime. The emptiness of the picture produces an extraordinary lightness of nature perception. With strips of sand bordered on both sides by bushes and rocks, these airy photographs, gazing out into the openness, exude an unbelievable calm and quiet. Who wouldn’t want to spend a never-ending holiday in this ideal world? The sequence of the white sandy beaches present themselves as perfect advertising photographs for the beautiful, paradise-like South Africa beach. A career in advertising photography is guaranteed. The way that people see and remember is in the style of postcards and advertising pictures. And they act in accordance with these images, whenever possible.
I take philosophical pleasure in making an ironically critical comment about large-scale photography in their way of presenting overly beautiful advertising worlds. The format already transforms the photographs into unrealistic, escapist dreams. Going on holiday means dreaming. Advertising photographs have the task of seduction. And Frederik Büttgen understands that perfectly. Philosophically, this means: Dazzling through illusion. With Nietzsche – once passed by the world of meaning into the rich depth of the elements and in the height of ideas – the sense circulates in an infinite world of superficiality, which is naturally of great interest to the world of art photography. With Nietzsche, appearance in advertisement is canonized. This would also represent the intellectual border of advertising photography, which is expressed in these pictures. A self-awareness of South Africa’s shortcomings naturally does not manifest itself on these beaches.
5 Through composition, digital photography allows an unexpectedly high intervention into the world of photography, simultaneously broadening the conventional topics of seeing and image conception. “The sun as wide as a human foot.” This saying is attributed to the aforementioned pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus from Ephesus around 500 B.C. You lie on the sand in the sun. You stretch your foot out and raise it slightly in the air – and with the bare width of your foot, you cover the entirety of the enormous sun at a great distance. Means and movement generate perception and truth. We’re finally touched corporally. We can only recognize the world under certain conditions. Frederik Büttgen spares no expense in shifting these conditions, both through the taking of the photos and also through their composition. He deploys a helicopter, merges single shots into an overall image of the ocean and landscape in order to open up photography to digital sublime and tap a new, powerful picture potential.
As said before, the monumental impact of these photos unfold mainly because of large, almost monochrome sections of water or sky, into which the observer is drawn, like an abstract picture. When Barnett Newman in his wall-sized red colour field paintings challenged the usual view point, he literally allowed the observer to become absorbed into the colours – the viewer’s vision was devoured completely by red – he canceled out the common subject-object separation in order to create a sensation of sublime. In the photographs initially following Bechers’ work - after the pair themselves were bound to the very intimate form of small-format – printing techniques, which created the largest possible art photography, became stylish in Düsseldorf. Frederik Büttgen personally doesn’t belong to this group, but he is boldly tied to it. His large-scale pictures are fighting for a place in the current photo boom through perfection and aesthetic.
6 “Almost all my limbs are artificial!” says the rich protagonist in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy The Visit (1956) as she slaps her hand on a cold thigh. She has returned to Güllen, her childhood home, to take revenge on a lover from her youth who impregnated her and then sent her into the desert.
Since the middle of the 20th century, mechanical and electronic support of the human body with its limited organs and senses – even mental support and navigation via almost limitless medial technologies – has been raised to such an extent that even art has been completely seized by this development. Are these technologies now taking their revenge on the intimacy and fantasy of the earlier world picture and its people?
Photography strikes me as such a lady who’s grown long in the tooth and has to use a prosthesis in order to see from the very beginning, and today, through digital recording and editing techniques – à la Photoshop – finds herself in a comfortable position to utilize a new, unexpected apparatus for seeing. As a result, all notions of the nature and the authenticity of the picture are shaken.
Once started with the claim of documentary authenticity of nature, today’s measure of authenticity in artificial imagery has been radically reduced. The old “Dogma of Authenticity” is still strived for – in other words, banning real time occurrences on film – and rightly so – in connection with photographic coverage of war, catastrophes, terror. But even in the First World War, scenes of fighting behind the front line were “situated” and shot. There is doubt today surrounding the myth of Robert Capas photographic icon of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, who captured falling soldiers “in real life.” There is no photograph which isn’t edited in some way. A photo taken by Paul Hanson on 21 November 2012 “Funeral in Gaza” just now has won the World Press Photo Award 2013. Real or staged? Authentic or reworked? I suggest: authentic although edited. I’d say: Authentopoetic!
These South African nature photos prove themselves as authentic in an artistic sense, in accordance with the collage composition. Every single photo used delivered current material, bringing about a new, even poetic “reality” to a perfect mixture. Art doesn’t need more than a trace of the genuine for one to discover the poetry within it. A powerful monument of perception is created. I’m amazed by the extent to which new digital technology enables visual consistency. A look into the small scale reveals intimacy and creates fantasy. The large-scale format establishes something like the sublime in the digital and heterogeneous. We’ve been living in the heterogeneous and differential for a long time. The medium delivers us the form of the sublime.
Digitally generated people today seem to float around in abstract, global media worlds, occupying only very selective detail resolution of parts of the reality, and seem to be interested in a fictitious flow of time continuity. They experience different speeds in common, ecstatic synchronism. This South Africa project has found an astoundingly strong image composition for this.
An ideal, that reminds me of the image concept - although compositionally inverse - is “The Monk by the Sea” (1808/10) by Caspar David Friedrich. A similar aesthetical idea is indisputably the engine behind Frederik Büttgen’s photo compositions. To combine empty, dark, abstract areas and sharp, selective, nearby coastal lines in one composition in such a harmonious way proves a highly modern photographic performance. This is how captivating and beautiful photography comes into being.
© Paul Good, philosopher, Philosophie Atelier Bad Ragaz 2013, Switzerland Professor Paul Good worked as a philosopher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf for 25 years and wrote a series of books about art philosophy. In Bad Ragaz, he has maintained a philosophical atelier for book and symposium projects since 2007. www.philosophiesymposium.ch