Volker Pantenburg: Off Location / On Location (engl.)

Volker Pantenburg
Off Location / On Location
(deutsche Version hier)

In discussing photography, the word motive usually means the distribution of light and shadow on paper, of forms in space. Yet for every picture, there’s also a motive for the photographer – a desire or an intent. The motive of a photograph is therefore just as much in front of the camera as it is behind it. In terms of time, too, there are motives before and after the shutter release has been pressed. Each photograph can be regarded as a confrontation of the two, as a more or less successful compromise between the photographer and the world, between a subjective and an objective motive. In this arrangement, the camera represents the attempt to convey the one by using the other, to allow interplay between the external and the internal. Of course, photographers’ motives can be of very different natures. In the case of travel photography, pictures generally serve as a way to reassure oneself. They testify to one’s presence somewhere, and furnish the mind with snapshots of a past, which, transferred to the present, is supposed to be saved for the future. Even if travel photographs can sometimes claim to be aesthetic products, the main purpose for most of them is to assert: I was there. Or, keeping in mind the moment when the picture will be viewed: I will have been there.

Yet what happens when this particular feature is not a given? When the Chinese mountains are photographed about eight thousand kilometers away from the country’s border? This Summer I Didn’t Go To China: suddenly, the pictures’ claim to be witnesses disappears and is no longer significant. Instead, the photos articulate the suspicion that the photograph might have been taken without the photographer actually having been there. So in 2001 China was in the Rhineland. Photographs of distant places are taken in an apartment in Cologne: a dream topography, contrastingly lit, mountain landscapes in bed. Models, studies, cascading folds, textile tectonics. The reality of the Far East cannot measure up to the motifs in these pictures; they are not photos of mountains, but of eight-thousand-meter-high imaginary constructs. My own private Himalaya (the Sanskrit word Himalaya literally means snow dwelling). A fictitious line connects the Chinese-Rhineland mountain landscapes and the photos taken by Mr. Double Double and like-minded others, which were found along the shores of the Yellow Sea. In both cases, we see a space where logical ties are cut in favor of another form of connection. Here, people and even entire mountains are barely held down by gravity. Things and people are simultaneously the same, yet different – strange, yet familiar. Floating is good form.

The landscapes taken during the summer of 2001 were an attempt to create a positive assessment of a journey not taken. In contrast, the pictures found a year later would suit the expectations of the typical tourist. In the process, however, the character of these pictures has been curiously altered. The fear of not really being there encounters an exaggerated, almost eerie doubling, created by a conspiracy of technical photography tricks. Not only was I here, but I and I were here. The doubling of reality photographs attempt to achieve, day in and day out, is elevated to a principle in the images, and therefore undermined at the same time. One has the unpleasant feeling that 1+1= 1⁄2.

People in the pictures are unidentified doubles, traveling through unreal territory. And while those depicted may have long since placed the photos in their living rooms at home, the originals remain at the scene of the crime. In the form of nameless negatives, rejected by a photographer with good business sense, they are thrown away and gradually disappear below the surface of the beach. Found footage, footprints, prints: visual tracks in the sand, a symbol of time trickling through the tapered glass. For their part, the grains of sand have also left behind traces of themselves in the image. Along with the salt crystals of the sea water – a reminder that salt is a necessary ingredient in every photographic developing process – their effect upon the negative is corrosive, mutating, artificially aging, and at the same time, reformative. How long did the negatives lie there? I like to think that some of them might have been taken at the same time the local Himalayan photos were taken. Two people who are totally unaware of each other, who will never meet, but whose viewpoints have crossed paths in a discarded strip of negatives, press the shutter release at the same time, with nothing but the globe between them. A moment frozen in time, then stillness. The world keeps on turning, as if nothing had happened.

Volker Pantenburg, Berlin 2008
(translation: Allison Plath-Moseley)

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