Monday, December 10, 2012

Another Language by Mårten Lange

My review of Mårten Lange's Another Language (MACK, 2012) is currently in the December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Pick up your copy in NYC or you can read it below, or here along with the rest of the Rail on their site. You can also buy the book here or here.

Mårten Lange’s Another Language is the latest book published by the increasingly influential photobook publisher MACK. While Lange has self-published numerous books, this is his first by a major publisher and an exciting addition to the young photographer’s growing body of work. Largely concerned with nature and natural phenomena, Lange’s pictures carefully point and ask us to look closely at the odd, wondrous, and often alien world that surrounds us. Simultaneously romantic and coolly analytic, Another Language presents a series of images that form an ambiguous visual language about the strange and beautiful world we inhabit.

All images © Mårten Lange and MACK, 2012

From solitary animals and sparse landscapes to celestial bodies and meteorological events, Lange’s small rectangular black and white photographs depict a range of distinct natural phenomena. Moving between the micro and macro, the familiar and strange, Lange shows us a whirlpool, a fossilized talon, a solitary koi fish, a wisp of smoke, a jagged lump of crystals and a distant mountain range. Bringing the book’s themes of nature and the sublime full circle, the book opens with a solitary shooting star and ends with the moon or distant celestial body. Presented as traditional single image spreads or in pairs, each center-framed image assumes a totemic quality and evokes the variety and beauty of the natural world. Each photograph in its straightforward presentation and central framing points to its subject as if identifying a distinct natural phenomena—isolating it from the rest of the world and revealing it for closer scrutiny. The sequencing and diversity of subject matter eschew an ordered presentation and instead weave a heterogeneous web of connections. In its deceptively simple framing and presentation, the book almost resembles a children’s alphabet book as reimagined by Minor White and E. O. Wilson—grounded in fact, yet full of curiosity, romantic longing and mystical revere.

Lange is perhaps best known in the photographic community for a series of self-published books put out by his now shuttered press, Farewell Books. In addition to his own books, which include Woodland (2007) and Machina (2007), as well as Crows and Anomalies (2009), Farewell also published a number of other artist’s books, including a book by the photographer John Divola. Lange’s previous books were also shot in black-and-white, but used a square format camera, which emphasized the work’s similarly rigid frontality. As the titles suggest, each book usually contains a singular subject either woods, scientific machinery, or solitary crows. Reminiscent of the square-format landscape work of Lee Friedlander or Ray Metzker, the work has a chaotic intensity that is always at odds with and balanced by the rigidity of the square. Anomalies, Lange’s best self-published book, dispenses with a singular subject, and presents a variety of simple structures, objects, and details all shot with a harsh flash at night. Isolated against the dark environment, the flash overpowers all other light and transforms his subjects into a collection of strange and disarming facts about the natural and human-built world.

All images © Mårten Lange and MACK, 2012
The book’s only text is an excerpt from the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th century Prussian naturalist and explorer, and is presented at the end. Humboldt explored Latin America and authored numerous books including the multi-volume Kosmos (1845–58), which is quoted by Lange. In Kosmos and his other writings, Humboldt argued for the unification of the physical sciences and the underlying harmony of nature. Enormously influential, his theories lay the foundation for ecology and inspired a diverse range of later thinkers, writers, and scientists including Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others. Humboldt’s ghost clearly haunts and informs Lange’s holistic and inquisitive approach. While Lange’s inclusion of Humbolt suggests a deeper ecological connection underling his subject selection, his homogenized and typographic approach makes explicit formal claims for their similarity. Scientists would likely bristle at the loose associations drawn between such disparate subjects but Lange creates a vision of the world suffused with wonder and awe. A puff of smoke is as magical as a raft of ducks or as beautiful as a school of fish in a tidal pool.

All images © Mårten Lange and MACK, 2012

Like Lange’s self-published books, Another Language measures roughly 6 by 9 inches and has a nice, intimate feel. The gray clothbound cover contains a single blind-stamped image of a whirlpool modified from one of Lange’s most stunning images in the book. Enigmatic and sublime, the vortex on the cover pulls you into the book. Resembling an old field guide or outdated scientific manual, the book feels simultaneous anachronistic and yet utterly contemporary. In this work, Lange continues to develop a style all his own. His quiet, romantic images resist contemporary trends, remain decidedly idiosyncratic, and yet speak freshly to both the medium and present.

Please note: This review originally appeared in the Dec/Jan issue of The Brooklyn Rail.