The three books I had ordered are: Michael Kenna’s Huangshan, Thomas Ruff’s Schwarzwald.Landschaft, and an edited collection by Matthew S Witovsky: Foto – Modernity in Central Europe 1918-1945. All are purchases I’m very happy with in different ways, but I want to say something about Ruff here. Kenna is astonishingly gorgeous: I think of these images more as intimate portraits of the mountains rather than landscape photographs, but others have written about his book already (note that if you want one, you should act fast as there are very few available). I haven’t looked at Witovsky’s book much yet. At about the same time I had ordered Deborah Parkin’s Childhood Narratives, but I’d like to write something about her work another time.
I’ve come across Ruff before, and he is engaging for me in part because he subverts what we think of as landscapes. His book – based on a 2009 exhibition at the Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg – contains interiors, images of planets, and photographs of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in southern Germany, where he was born in 1958 (although he now lives in Düsseldorf). I should say here that I wanted to write about his photographs without reading the accompanying expositional text, which I will do another time.
I want to pick up particularly on the Schwarzwald images, which are digitally altered in intriguing ways. For obvious reasons I’m reluctant to scan in pages and reproduce them here, but clicking on this link and then clicking on the book image enables a detailed view of the cover that you can enlarge/reduce in order to study the image (but buy it here, not on Amazon: you get 10% discount and you support an independent bookshop!). I really like the fact that from a distance, the photograph looks like a completely normal photograph, but upon closer inspection, it is made up of numerous small squares, forming a kind of mosaic and altering the way in which we see the image. Examining a very small part of the ‘mosaic’ makes it impossible to work out what the image might actually be of – which is exactly what happens with a heavily pixelated image, though here the pixels are treated in quite a different way. Offering these cleverly distorted images as landscapes, Ruff thereby challenges and questions what I might normally think of as classical landscape photography. In critical theory terms, I might describe this as an interpretative or hermeneutical circle (or spiral), in which the parts inform the whole and the whole informs the parts, and repeated re-examination reveals ever more about the construction of the image. Without understanding and interpreting the whole image, the mosaic sections make little sense, and yet with the whole, the mosaic begins to be irrelevant – until viewed again, when the individual elements recreate something afresh to challenge and unsettle us. What adds to all this is that Ruff tends to create series of images, and so we can take this interpretation still further: each individual image, made up of distorted pixelations, is part of a greater whole. Just as no single pixel, no little mosaic of pixels can represent a whole image, is Ruff suggesting that no single image can represent what he wants to show us of the (his?) Schwarzwald? Is each image just another little part of a wider mosaic of images? A mosaic of images, made up of a mosaic of pixellated segments?
I can’t see myself wanting to change any of my images in this way – apart from anything else, what would be the point in copying Ruff? – but these questions about parts and wholes really interest me, and this book is an excellent opening to these questions. Perhaps this is especially so because whilst I’ve been off work with my broken arm, I’ve had time to reflect on what it is that I do with my photographs – and I have begun planning a deeply personal and open-ended series that is in part perhaps prompted by my accident. Some of my academic work deals with these questions of parts and wholes in various forms, so it is quite understandable that I should be reflecting on these questions in other contexts. However, I’ve also been helped in thinking about these things through discussing a book project with Mabel Forsyth, and we’ve talked about underlying motifs and subjects in our photography. I’ll not say more about these plans for now, but I’d like to try and produce two or three parts of my intended series by the end of the year if possible, and as that gets under way, I’ll write about it here.