Craigie Horsefield / 1.5.97 (first part) (en)
Looking down, the world without horizon or perspective becomes pattern and color. It takes time to reorientate and interpret the single plane of the ground. In painting this looking down has been a relatively unusual device. Views from above are usually situated with some foreground detail to locate them, as though having the viewpoint of a hillside or, occasionally, a high building. Although there are novelties, the picture made as though from the imagined view of a bird was not more than an anecdote. With the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, added to these bird’s-eye paintings was the curiosity of pictures made from balloons floating above the city. However, the rhetoric of these novelties was not developed until the early part of the twentieth century, when it became briefly part of a larger and radical program.
The view from above, with its pattern making of ordinary things, its new associations with the tall buildings of the modern metropolis, with airplanes and the machinery of the camera, offered novelty as possibility. It became part of the language of the constructivists, of surrealism and of the new objectivity. The old world was made new and strange, allowing the astonished audience to interrogate this now unfamiliar place. In the disruption of the commonplace world was the promise of escape from its familiar tyrannies. Dissemination through the reproduction of photographs to the audience of the masses was part of the possibility of a radical program. The audience, given new seeing — of which such devices were an essential part — would recognize the world for what it was, with all its inequalities and cruelties, no longer as the fiefdom of those who held power. The old order would be overthrown. This was the radical promise of aesthetic programs allied to a politics of progress. The almost antlike figures on city streets or beneath the radio mast, in the landscape of the modern world, caught in narratives of incident without consequence, were to be the unknowing actors in the transformation of that world.
Inevitably, the novelty of form faded, as it must, leaving only mannerism, an amusing trick, or a conversation piece. What small radical intent may have been attached to it was swallowed in the onrush of progress. Until now, when it is associated with aerial photography and mapmaking and a perspective distant enough to be without human incident, a view banal and ubiquitous, interminable. The photographs of Gerco de Ruijter made from the air are without horizon. However, unlike aerial photographs, the edge appears to act as a limit and not firstly as demarcation. The edge of the aerial photograph may be determined by practical concerns of the capability of the lens, the organization of a grid and, primarily, matters of scale. The actual edge we suppose to be a technical disruption between one sheet and the next. Here in the work of Gerco de Ruijter, the edge is not a border with an elsewhere. To some extent it is apart of the containment of the appearance of a hermetic world. Seen from above there is the, now familiar, disorientation followed by an only partial recognition. The busy landscape of Holland, roads and the buildings of towns, villages and farms, powerlines and railways have disappeared. The edge of the camera’s frame excludes them, leaving the spaces between. The world within the edge is at first hermetic and beautiful. Isolated, it is the world of a rural idyll and because we suppose that the world continues beyond the edge of the frame, it opens the disquieting possibility of its being without limit. It is as though there is discovered an extraordinary and imaginary place within the everyday and commonplace. The intervention of man is reduced to small incident. It is an almost magical land of containment and possibility, caught between discovery and dream.
The worlds of the pictures are without continuity or consequence; closed worlds become perfect in their stillness and isolation. At once present and impossible, in them is discovered a place recognizable and disquieting, this is the Arcadia of a green world thought lost. Our access to it is revealed in the mediation of the camera. A camera hung beneath a kite, a contraption that manages to be simultaneously poetic and banal. Once again, the camera is recuperated as the fantastical machine of revelation. In its mediation it is confirmed as apart of our wonder. The camera’s presence is constantly reiterated, but through familiarity it slides towards invisibility. Quite as remarkable as the claim on our recognition of photographs made from space rockets or within the veins of the human body is our wonder at their making, at the extraordinarily intricate mechanism of the camera. The worlds revealed are separated from us. Beautiful and shining, continents and seas, mountains and river deltas, these worlds are complete; large and small, the small made large and the large, small. In the veins of a leaf or the streams of a great river wonder floats free of pain. As the camera glides through the body or is engineered to look as though with the eye of an insect, it is invested with the innocent longing of the modern world stripped of confusion. Flattened and textured, read as pattern and color, the pictures resemble nothing so much as the forms of painting. This is the “likeness” of the pictures, their metaphorical rhetoric. Against these patterns we can discern more slowly the small incidents of recognition in the punctuation of a road, traces of human activity, tracks of cattle, corn tied after harvesting, the geometrical cutting of drainage channels, water courses and the regimented plantations of young trees in precise lines. Water, land and trees are the recurrent elements: trees in leaf as larger masses of colour or casting narrow shadows across the land, the land that also changes with the seasons. His intimate and pastoral, the industry of the small figures, the seasons that mark the landscape. In winter the water itself is frozen and riven by great cracks across its surface. Only the sky is missing, the sky in which the camera hangs. It exists but in the reflection of clouds on the water, the light of day sliding across the land, as form is described by shadow. The longing of this place, the inherited dream of the land, is of loss. The astonishment is at a world present but unseen. Here is an Arcadia without hills or mountains, inhabited by mythical creatures, a swan flying low across flatland, cattle at pasture and shadows. A real world become unreal. Photographs, so often the material of separation, repeatedly return to this: the lost place, the world to dream into.
Today, there are numerous monographs of the work of photographers, historical and contemporary. There are many illustrated catalogues and picture books. The history of photography is traced through the biographies of its central figures or in the rediscovery of the work of photographers passed by. Occasionally, there are publications of “anonymous” photographs, the debris of the millions upon millions of family snaps, of momentoes and keepsakes, made and discarded in this century. It is a history as activity and exhaustion, and its limit, its containment, is as indistinct as it is certain.
It isn’t simply that histories of photography are sequences of elision, narratives of continuity that draw together disparate materials into a semblance of structure, for which the things in themselves, the photographs, are taken to be sufficient justification. But that the development of photography is seen as having been driven by invention and technological advance, so that its form is simply a succession of tropes and mannerisms without social context or consequence and without purpose or intention beyond their containment. Photography is closed in the mechanism of its separation. By the start of the century it was principally the medium of document and record. Its practice was the production of the material of category, type and order. In the containment of its function and mechanism it was at once the document of the world and its separation from it. Photography became the practice of accounting an elsewhere, not even absence but, more exactly, what had not become. The picture was the record of information, to be read and looked through, while the photograph, the thing in itself, was present only as an interruption, the condition of transmission.
The photograph, this thing of paper and emulsion, stubbornly reverts to the material fact: the paper yellowing, edges becoming dog-eared through use and the image itself fading. In entropy, becoming present, it finds place only as it is broken.
The stillness of photographs is the stillness of death, where meaning is always elsewhere and the surface, the fact of the thing, is invisible. The photograph is without place in the separation of its meaning. Having no place it is denied relation, denied its possible becoming. The photograph may exist in the present as part of relation but in separation is always in the past. This is the delayed parturition of the photograph, birth forever postponed, never becoming. Its immanence denied in the culture in which it was conceived.