Simon Fröhlich. Wald

A book review by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

Little can one articulate about the profound emotions and the bundle of memories we confront whenever we take the time to walk through and spend time in a forest. While Simon Fröhlich’s Wald is an account of such wandering, it is rather the instantaneous capture of vague, fleeting moments that captures our sight. In his attempt to rediscover the slowness of photography and reclaim his own past memories, Fröhlich has appealed to analog photographic technologies as a means to free himself from the multitude of technical possibilities of today’s photography. It is ‘feelings’ and ‘impressions’ that Fröhlich attempts to reproduce in his images, hence the use of instant photographs for the book, to rule out any possibility of subsequent manipulation and to ensure the uniqueness of each moment. Fragments of a vague, sensible memory, these faded moments are blurred, transient and almost ghostly. “Talking about the forest is not easy,” says Elfie Semotan in her introduction to Wald, “since nearly everyone knows the woods and has a very personal perspective. […] The book provides an extensive and multifaceted compilation of moods and sentiments.” [1] To retrieve emotions without going into the wood, one needs to exercise their own recollection of sight in its connection to the particular smell and sounds of the forest, the decaying leaves at their autumnal moment, the “mugginess” of summer afternoons with their bright yet diffuse light, or the tree trunks slowly melting into the mist.

The relation between photography and memory – or photography as an object of memory – has always raised numerous contradictions, [2] especially since photography has been considered the discovery of Nature’s own medium in its early days: in the nineteenth century, Nature had found a way to register its own images in the Artifice of photography. In Wald, tranquil and musty settings imbue the sight with diffuse tonalities to create a seemingly romantic perspective and a fleeting aura of what is habitual and forgotten at the same time.

Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

In his famous “Little History of Photography,” [3] Walter Benjamin defines the aura as “a peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be.” Closely related to a romantic photography that was the norm in Germany in the 1920s and often (dis)regarded as a somehow backward-looking pictorialism, the understanding of aura needs to be addressed in much broader anthropological, perceptual-mnemonic, and visionary dimensions. [4] As Miriam Bratu Hansen notes in her effort to defamiliarize the common understanding of the concept, two main definitions can be drawn: “(1) Aura understood as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance [apparition, semblance] of a distance, however near it may be” (or, “however close the thing that calls it forth”); and (2) aura understood as a form of perception that “invests” or endows a phenomenon with the “ability to look back at us,” to open its eyes or “lift its gaze.” [5] Yet Hansen choses to follow “ a third usage of the term that, at first glance, appears distinct from both,” and which may intimately be related to Fröhlich’s Wald – “the more common understanding (now as then) of aura as an elusive phenomenal substance, ether, or halo that surrounds a person or object of perception, encapsulating their individuality and authenticity.” [6] Photographic signification entails the logic of the trace – indexical dimension, or existential bond; or what Benjamin has elsewhere called the “aura of the habitual,” the “experience that inscribes itself as long [repetitive] practice.” [7] The indexical dimension of the aura reveals a past whose ghostly apparition projects into the present; it leaves a mark, an impress.

As Hansen notes, the futurity that sears the photographic image in the chance moment of exposure emerges in the field of the beholder’s compulsively searching gaze. An ominous manifestation of the aura, related to the realm of the daemonic and the self-alienating encounters with an other, older self, resurfaces in the technologically refracted, specifically modern form, in Benjamin’s notion of an optical unconscious. The medium is no longer a technological one here, but refers to “an in-between substance or agency – such as language, writing, thinking, memory – that mediates and constitutes meaning.” [8] Benjamin claims, however, that aura as a medium of perception, or “perceptibility,” becomes visible only based on technological reproduction, as the gaze of the photographed subject is refracted by the apparatus and its nonhuman lens, the particular conditions of setting and exposure, responding to the other look “that at once threatens and inscribes the subject’s authenticity and individuality.” The oscillation between gazes that can or cannot return the gaze of another has lead Benjamin to develop the seemingly distinct sense of aura in “Little History of Photography” into a later definition of aura “as the experience of investing a phenomenon with the ability to return the gaze (whether actual or phantasmatic). […] [The] experience of aura […] arises from the transposition of a response characteristic of human society to the relationship of the inanimate or nature with human beings. […] To experience the aura of a phenomenon we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.” Hansen observes that Benjamin thus “attributes the agency of the auratic gaze to the object being looked at echoing the philosophical speculations from early romanticism through Henri Bergson that the ability to return the gaze is already dormant in, if not constitutive of, the object.” [9]

Fröhlich’s photographs are not pictures of a volitional remembering; instead, they display the fleeting content of involuntary memories, the uniqueness that makes them, as Benjamin would say, “lost to the memory that seeks to retain them.” [10] The same essential inapproachability and unavailability that defines the content of these involuntary memories, closely related to an irrecuperable absence or loss, is characteristic of aura too; it marks a temporal dimension where the dialectics of distance and closeness inscribes within the unconscious. As Hansen notes, the fleeting moment of auratic perception actualizes a past not ordinarily accessible to the waking self and entails a passivity in which something “takes possession of us” rather than vice versa. [11] The disjunctive temporality and space-time staccatos inherent in the fleeting disruption of linear time, allow one to see Fröhlich’s photographs as an uncanny articulation between past, present, and future perceptibilities, where the photographic apparatus achieves less the image of a subject, but rather its inherent dislocation within both sight and memory. Wald is a reflective, ruminant, musing series of encounters with nature through nature’s subtle substance. The auratic presence relates here to Benjamin’s idea that the aura, as Hansen shows, “is a medium that envelops and physically connects – and thus blurs the boundaries between – subject and object, suggesting a sensory, embodied mode of perception.” [12] It is this sensory and embodied mode of perception that is captured in Fröhlich’s photographs, asking the viewer to surrender in plain sight to the object of seeing, marking the very “auratic quality that manifests itself in the object” as “it appears to the subject, not for it.” [13] What we see in Fröhlich’s photographs is nature in its veiled presence and dislocated perceptibility, oscillating between far and near views, complementary perspectives and fleeting frames that allow the viewer to understand the photograph as a mode of perception, rather than an actual depiction that would differentiate subjects or objects.

Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

“Past moments fade away over time and what remains are notes in your mind, small fragments that are combined like a puzzle in a manner that is considered to be true or was perceived as the truth at that time,” says Simon Fröhlich in describing Wald. “Those are very subjective memories of instances that might have never happened exactly like this, but which are mirrored in present situations […]. These moments should be perceived in their ephemerality, taking place in a split second and being captured as such in a photograph.” [14] In order to preserve this very “split second,” Fröhlich refrained from any picture editing, balancing the pristine surroundings of the forest with analog techniques that would reveal the irrevocability and irreversibility of the perceptual moods transparent in the photographs. It is an ‘atmospheric’ approach that reveals not only the slowness of the photographic process, but also its embodied condition; rather than photographs of objects, these are photographic memorial objects, inciting the viewer to understand the very materiality of the photograph as a medium of representation, to seize its own physical being in space and time. The photograph is less an ‘image’ and rather a tactile presence in experienced time, a site of meaning that is acknowledged in the material and presentational forms of both the photographs and the book. One may equally ponder upon that which exceeds the photographic image in a photograph. Is it manifest in the plasticity of the image itself? Can it reveal itself within the presentational forms? Does it bear witness to the physical traces of usage and time imprinted within the photograph? What is it that is actually supplemental to the image?

A certain imminence and obsolescence is imprinted within Fröhlich’s photographs, a sense of airy substantiality that displaces ordinary perception while laying a heavy grip on memory. The photographer’s persistence in using instant picture materials also discloses the material activity of making the images, that these photographs are developed on the spot, claiming patience and marking an event in itself. The resulted ‘image’ is inseparable from the ‘ritual’ and photographic tekhné inherent in the process of taking the photographs. Yet something continues to evade the images, as they display, to paraphrase Mitchell, “their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy.” [15]

Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

By refusing the multitudes provided by the use of new photographic technologies, Simon Fröhlich seems to escape the dialectical relations technology keeps with the cultural and social determinants. The ‘slowness of photography’ marks here a contraction of time and the blurring of clear territorial spaces. But, more importantly, by creating repeated views of veiled perceptibility, the photographer equally blurs what is inside and outside the photographic frame, generating a continuity that is in turn fragmented by the arrangement of the photographs in the album Wald. Like the arrangement of any series of photographs in an album, Fröhlich’s arrangement may at first be seen as a means to tell a story that the photographs cannot tell on their own. [16] But neither the partiality of the photographs, nor their mosaic inside the book, should be seen as a gesture to restore a lost space, time, or narrative. The shallow focus of Fröhlich’s photographs is instead a means to break with the rupture between ‘frame’ and ‘off-frame’ effects.

Christian Metz is famous for having analysed the way photographs are marked by the cropping of space, by what is excluded from the frame and is unavoidably missing from the photographic image, or what Metz calls “a cut inside the referent:” “The photographic take is immediate and definitive, like death and like the constitution of the fetish in the unconscious, fixed by a glance in childhood, unchanged and always active later. Photography is a cut inside the referent, it cuts off a piece of it, a fragment, a part object, for a long immobile travel of no return.” [17] Reacting to both Freud’s analyses of the fetish and Pascal Bonitzer’s analysis of the problem of off-frame space in film and photography, [18], Metz shows that unlike the “substantial” off-frame space of the filmic, where a plurality of successive frames, camera movements, and character movements allow a person or an object which is off-frame in a given moment to appear inside the frame the moment after, then disappear again, thus being taken “into the evolutions and scansions of the temporal flow,” the “subtle” off-frame space of the photographic does not allow the spectator to have an empirical knowledge of the contents of the off-frame – “[the spectator] cannot help imagining some off-frame, hallucinating it, dreaming the shape of this emptiness. It is a projective off-frame (that of the cinema is more introjective), an immaterial, “subtle” one, with no remaining print.” [19] The off-frame effect in photography, continues Metz, “marks the place of an irreversible absence, a place from which the look has been averted forever. The photograph itself, the “in-frame,” the abducted part-space, the place of presence and fullness – although undermined and haunted by the feeling of its exterior, of its borderlines, which are the past, the left, the lost: the far away even if very close by, as in Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “aura” – the photograph, inexhaustible reserve of strength and anxiety, shares, as we see, many properties of the fetish (as object), if not directly of fetishism (as activity).” [20] Is it therefore possible to see in Simon Fröhlich’s Wald less an attempt to counter the off-frame emptiness generated by the photographic image, in a narrative that could be traced throughout the album, like most photographic albums do, but rather an experiential approach that seeks to blur this very distinction by insisting on a dislocated, disrupted continuity of the visual field?

Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

Nature is often looked at as an alternative to succumbing modernities and current urban existence. Moving through multiple levels of discourse, photography generates both sign and exchange value, blurring or stressing the ideological boundaries, and creates alternative ways of both photographing and seeing Nature. While the claimed pristine wilderness in Fröhlich’s Wald may point to Nature’s existence autonomous of human existence, ‘(in)visible’ photographs that do not seek to acknowledge the presence of any photographer, it is still the photographer’s gesture that creates the photographic discourse. The forest, as we know, is already the symbol of a natural sanctuary, a place of passage and intermediation, a shelter for ambivalent states of startle and calm, pressure and sympathy, the dark and deep roots of the unconscious. Nature may seem neutral, inoffensive or threatening, beautiful or/when falling into decay, but its photograph is a less a means to decode, demystify or deconstruct it, but rather a means to reveal what is hidden within consciousness, an unconscious site that testifies to ways of seeing and understanding which disguise relations to the natural world and social relations at the same time. Wald can be seen as an experiential attempt to bridge perceptual discrepancies and discontinuities, but it also traces imaginary relationships to Nature and Society. It may be true that longing is “the agony of the nearness of the distant,” as Heidegger once notoriously claimed; but Wald is equally a place of belonging. As a site of meaning, however, the scenes in these photographs lead and should be seen inside the forest – what leads outside may well mislead. A wanderer rather than someone lost, the viewer must glimpse through the flickering moments, the dark and enveloping canopy of trees, the lights scales flooding our eyes, or the dense trunks that simultaneously open and close our views, to reclaim a sensible intuition that can be found either on the paths well made by others, or following the unknown and untrodden forks.

 

– June 15, 2015

Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Video © Kehrer Verlag. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Video © Kehrer Verlag. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Simon Fröhlich, Wald. Image © Simon Fröhlich. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Editions Soon

Copyright © anti-utopias / Xpose Art Collective 2011-2016. All rights reserved.