Lars Kiel Bertelsen (b. 1965), associate professor in Art History at Aarhus University
As the saying goes: You cannot see the forest for the trees. But what does it actually mean? That the big picture, the whole, will disappear in favor of the singular? That abstract concepts hide behind the material? That perspectives shift, demonstrating that what is visible rests alone on point of view?
Could you say the same about photography: You cannot see photography for photos? From the very earliest days of the medium of photography, since the 1820s, this tension between the unique and the diverse has had a profound influence on this medium.
The founding mythology of photography is the tale of the struggle between two men, with one representing the singular and the unique (Daguerre) while the other represented the diverse and commonplace (Talbot).
Daguerre’s technology was costly, refined, precious and beautiful like art. Its shiny, mirror like metal discs were unique, irreplaceable and valuable, while Talbot’s paper-based process was inexpensive, mundane and reproducible.
We all know the outcome of this mythological battle. It could be won only by he who was most in line with his time (our time), characterized by automated repetition, democratization and exchange. Daguerre won honor and glory, and a fortune, while Talbot’s process has won over the long run and has dominated our civilization ever since.
With it, the image becomes diversified. It becomes reproducible and interchangeable; it becomes a visual currency that can be exchanged and traded. It becomes something alive, if we by ‘life’ understand something that in itself contains the code for its own imperfect replication and dissemination.
Although photography in its earliest stages was tied to the physical – chemical in its basic substance and awkward to work with – Talbot’s negative-positive process is the starting point for the setting off of the enormous acceleration of the visual field that we have experienced throughout the 20th and 21st century so far.
The amount of photographs produced in the last century is gigantic: a forest of images we cannot see because we live inside it. Yet still, the total sum of photographs produced in the 20th century is but a small forest compared to the astronomical amount of images produced within the last 20-25 years.
The development of digital technologies and distribution systems has accelerated the field of the visual at an outrageous speed, to such an effect that the challenge of being able to see the big picture today is more similar to the challenge of trying to understand our own whereabouts in relation to a galaxy rather than to that of a forest.
This evolution within the world of images was made possible by the transition from chemical to electric photography. A charged current was, quite literally, added to the image. Where a photographic image previously was the tangible product of an optical-chemical process using physical materials, the photographic image of today is a digital signal, an impulse, something circulating in an ever expanding circuit.
The image has become electrically wired, yes; but the current itself has also become part of the image, which is nothing without it. Where a picture was previously defined by its stillness (hanging exactly there, on the wall), images today exist only within their ability to continually go with the flow. Enduring only for as long as they circulate.
This is why these photographs of a single, windswept tree are so archaic: they are revealing a different kind of temporality, which we had forgotten we still inhabit. They remind us of a distant past that we are still stuck in. Like a powerful zoom disregarding any corresponding distancing, leaving us dizzy as we are simultaneously brought closer to and drawn away from what we can see.
They do this by soaking up different senses of time in their beautiful surfaces: the seconds-short click of the camera shutter; the millennial ages of the tree; these strangely distorted images, developed on already by decades long overdue aged photographic paper,, which – although they have been made today – look like they are hundreds of years old.
And behind such temporalities yet another impression of an even greater measurement of time, a geological time where the infinitely slow exchange and circulation of chemical substances and sedimentations of physical materials form the standard.
This time existed before man arrived on the planet, and will still be here when we have left it. In this time, which remains both our distant past and a possible future, there are no people to stand in front of a tree and look at it. There exists only a tree.