Olaf Otto Becker. The Broken Line

Ways and Lines 

Let us not forget that a beeline is still only a line,
not a way,and that we, viewed physiognomically,
are pedestrians and runners.

Christoph Ransmayr, Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (1984)


Tripod. Queqertakavsak, 07/2006, 74˚ 39' 01'' N. 57˚ 14', 15'' W. A title, a setting. Defined with precision using the coordinates of the longitude/latitude system and hence easily localized – at least with the aid of GPS. Plus a month –a surprisingly vague unit of time – which must be the month in which the photo was taken. The photo’s status as documentation, it seems, is assured; there is nothing now standing in the way of its localization. The image itself is shown on the opposite page. A color photo, it shows an inhospitable coastline in what is clearly a cold climate. The eye takes in the compositional structure in a matter of seconds, finding in the combination of colors and elements something it can latch onto. The turquoise of the water contrasts sharply with the white of the ice floes. The linear geological structures of the shore, clearly visible through the crystal clear water, are gradually subsumed in the background fog. There is no horizon to be seen. No movement. Nothing. A beautiful picture, one might think, an artlessly raw idyll. But what would it be like to be there?

After further scrutiny, one might perhaps notice the dinghy. A moored, empty dinghy. And the yellow plastic bag deposited on a slightly raised rocky spur. That, apparently, was the bag containing the satellite phone and flares – the emergency equipment, in other words. And next to it the tripod of the title. A three-footed biomorphic metal skeleton whose headlessness perhaps points to the photographer’s failure to find a suitable standpoint for a photograph? Or the exact opposite. In a matter of seconds, the aesthetic structure of the work goes back to being the documentation of an experiment. An experiment conducted on the person viewing it. Cast adrift in a hostile landscape, the eye searches for answers. What can it latch onto, the eye wonders, what is it looking for and what is it doing here at all?

Seconds, Minutes, Degrees

Looking at the tripod, it is difficult not to see in it a skeptical attempt at artistic localization and, at the same time, a leitmotif that remains vital throughout one’s perusal of the book. The common thread running through Broken Line is the attempt to pin down the images in both space and time evident in the specification of degrees, minutes, and seconds in every title. Taken together, the coordinates define a retraceable journey northward, ending on the seventy-fourth parallel. What they do not do is answer the question of what motivated these photos, some of which were, after all, taken under life-threatening conditions.

When talking to Olaf Otto Becker, who in the summer months of 2003, 2004, and 2006 ventured into the subarctic zones of western Greenland, one cannot help noticing in his slightly halting speech a pronounced unwillingness to provide simplistic answers. Asked what the intention behind his travels was, the photographer, who once studied philosophy, speaks of his fascination with the light in northern climes. Of the heightened alertness that the reality of the ice demands. And of the urge to capture the seen in a photographic image. But he admits, too, that there is more to it than that. One senses the presence of conscious doubt and it is to this doubt, perhaps, that the quest for orientation – in the purely physical sense of the term – can be imputed. The story he then tells possesses its own quintessential truth.

The undertaking was triggered by a puzzle, says Becker. At home in Munich in 2002, he bought himself a map of Greenland on a scale of 1:2 500 000 showing even the tiniest twists and turns of the coastline of this gigantic, ice-capped island. On this map, Greenland looked very much like a lingua geographica – an enormous tongue that had been painted white several eons ago, the only color being that along its frayed edges, as the only areas in which civilization, and life itself, were possible. Only at second glance did the photographer notice that not a single road was drawn on this map. And when he learned that the west coast is indeed impassable overland, he had a heavy-duty rubber dinghy shipped to Greenland and hired a local Inuk to teach him how to use it. It was from him, incidentally, that he learned that only at a walking pace is it safe to navigate a boat through ice floes.

One might describe the decision to explore the coastline alone as anachronistic. An objection – to the effect that the stretch of coast from Baffin Bay as far as Melville Bay was charted several decades ago – is quietly, but emphatically, dismissed. Lines, says Becker, are not the same as ways, and even the most recent maps turned out to be anything but identical with his own subjective grasp of the routes he had to take along the icy fjords and calving glaciers. He tells of the difficulties he faced when the surface of the water suddenly froze up, within minutes rendering an about-face impossible. Of the confusion he experienced when the compass needle was thirty degrees off what he had expected simply because the rock in that particular place was exceptionally rich in iron. And of the loss of all sense of time resulting from the lack of any clear circadian rhythm. Doubtless it is this degree of existential insecurity that fills the listener with such profound respect – at the same time giving him a sense of what it must mean to be alone on such a desolate, virtually uninhabited coastline. Becker reports that he covered a distance of four thousand kilometers. Four thousand kilometers for the sake of a few pictures.

Seconds, Minutes, Hours

Deliberately exposing oneself to – and then overcoming – such insecurity can be more than just a survival strategy; it can also be an artistic method. The radical physical deceleration required by locomotion on water, for example, was apparently accompanied by a sharpening of the powers of perception, which according to Becker made him aware of even the most intricate rock formations and patterns in the ice and water around him. It is this intuitive hyper-awareness that sets in even for the viewer looking at the photographs in this book. The images hit him, yet he has prepared himself for the blow, as the somewhat sibylline Becker puts it. Preparing must surely mean being ready for anything, for the landscape photos of Greenland are at the same time manifestations of an almost excessive sharpness, such as can be achieved only in a heightened state of awareness and with large-format photography. That this sharpness is unsettling even for the viewer is a result of the light. Almost all of these photos were taken at night, meaning at some time between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. local time. Knowing that the sun reaches its lowest point around 3 a.m., Becker used the diffuse light conditions prevailing during the night to capture the glacial ice masses and drifting icebergs in what look very much like pastel shades. Nuances of turquoise, mint green, and pale pink appear almost to coruscate off the page – a surreal effect bordering on kitsch, yet one that invariably pays tribute to very real light conditions. What remains is a certain disquiet in the face of reality. He does not make a subject of seeing, says Becker, and one understands instantly that the seen is subject enough for him.

There is therefore no place for the man with the camera in these works. It is rather the quality of absence that is strangely present in these images. Becker stresses the near absolute silence one encounters when meandering along in the water. There are no longer any screeching seagulls in this part of the world, where the only audible sound is likely to be the distant roar of an iceberg breaking apart – which apparently sounds rather like cannon fire. What Becker also discovered on his travels was that in these northern parts, the human body no longer serves as a measure of anything. On the coast of Talerua, for example, there is a granite cliff that rises up vertically out of the sea to a height of 1,200 meters. The view of the ice fjord to be had from Illulisat, meanwhile, takes in an ice mass spread over a distance of sixty kilometers. Anyone who wants to find their place here is doomed to feel lost.

Deliberately basing the compositional structure of his images on the Romantic tradition of landscape painting and the golden age of Dutch art, Becker, like Caspar David Friedrich and Jacob van Ruisdael before him, seeks to articulate nothing more than his wonder at a landscape untouched by human hands. This, as Becker himself remarks, is the conventional interpretation of landscape manifested in the Greek term automatos. The “of-its-own-accord” quality of kinesis that works even when there are humans present. Because it is, after all, the landscape itself that creates the preconditions for what we humans then make of it, says Becker. His words have the ring of a thesis still searching for the truth in the image.

Sky, Mountain, Forest

Oquatsut, Ikerasak, Taqsiussaq, and Nussuuaq are the names of the scattered settlements which the photographer passed on his way northward and in which he saw at first hand the influence this bizarre and overpowering landscape has on the Inuit who live there. The isolated wooden houses with three-digit house numbers and gaily painted facades frantically drawing attention to their existence do indeed seem symptomatic of a defiant determination to survive here against all odds. It is a form of appropriation, says Becker, that among the poor in particular expresses itself as chaos and in the summer months spreads virtually unchecked. Photos here count as evidence. It is the objects that provide anchorage. Cooking pots heaped up in front of houses, blue canisters deposited on rock spurs, wooden boards discarded in front of a door. An icebox abandoned on the wooden veranda of a hunting lodge in Taqsiussaq at last has a chance to thaw out. A sled dog killed in the traditional manner hangs head down and jaws agape from a balcony in Nussuuaq. Becker is anxious to point out that the hide will be used as a sled covering. Because everything is costly here. One or two electricity poles can be made out in the background – a reminder that the days are becoming shorter and that the battle for survival is about to become tougher. What can it latch onto, the eye asks, what is it looking for and what is it doing here at all?

Inuktitut, 07/2005 70˚ 48' 30'' N, 51˚ 37' 00'' W. The living room of an Inuk in Ikerasak. One of only two interiors in the entire book, both of which show how the natives live – clearly an indoor universe in which once again it is the objects that provide anchorage: a flat-screen TV, a crystal chandelier, a certificate issued by the Justice Ministry. The digital clock tells us that it is 17:42 local time. And still daylight. The right-hand wall boasts a motley collection of memorabilia: porcelain polar bears, yellow plastic roses, and a framed landscape painting – a naïve depiction of a blue sky, snow-capped mountains, and an evergreen forest. And below them a lake. A lake that is not frozen. A kitschy picture, one might think; another artless idyll. Asked where it is, Becker replies that it is a painting of the Königssee in Bavaria.

© Christoph Schaden, 2007

published in: Olaf Otto Becker. The Broken Line, Ostfildern/Ruit 2007, p. 140-142.


Olaf Otto Becker

Text published in:
Olaf Otto Becker - The Broken Line
Ostfildern 2007, p. 140-142.

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