The Thames project (complexe 2)

photography and the flow of time

 

Picture overview

 

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the thought that a person cannot step into the same river twice. The continual flow of the water, hence its changing nature according to the parameters of time, causes the river to constantly renew itself and be unique in every single moment – even if, as a constant element within the landscape in which it rests, it may look like the same river. He who attempts to photograph a river in its full length is confronted with a comparable problem. Needless to say, the process is less a logical than a logistical and in particular an aesthetic challenge. In May 2006, Stephan Kaluza and his two assistants started just such a venture. They traveled from the source of the Thames, which wends 346 kilometers through the south-east of England, downstream along the southern bank to the river's mouth and from there back again on the other side, always with a camera in hand and keeping the opposite bank in view. Through this circular motion, the river's mouth, usually seen as the place where a river comes to its natural end, moves to take on a central position in the piece. Where the course of the river did not permit otherwise and where the shoreline became inaccessible, they boarded boats from which they continued their work: one image after another, always with the same camera, always with a 55s millimeter lens, whose range of vision comes closest to that of the human eye, and without a tripod.These self-imposed constraints in the choice of equipment, thereby relinquishing technical finesse, are based on a conscious, conceptual decision that wishes to concentrate attention on the creative process and refer it back to the body and perception. In this way, a compilation of circa 30 000 photographs developed over a period of four months, which were digitally assembled into a 15 centimeters high continuum of 5000 meters length entitled: “The Thames Project (complex 2).”The sheer size of this project necessitates a very practical requirement, which is simultaneously an aesthetic programme and an indication of Stephan Kaluza's artistic intent. In spite of the immense scale of the project, his main concern relates to the process of reduction, the compression of space and the condensation of time through the medium of photography. For as the river grows wider, the opposite shore recedes more and more into the distance and the Thames changes not only its empirical appearance, but also its photographic likeness. While in the first third of the journey the river is so narrow that it is still possible to record the opposite shore in detail due to the minimal distance, the camera's range of vision expands with the river’s surging width before London, finally multiplying its scope, where the river loses itself in the sea. As the assembled row of images grows in length, so the character of the photographic image changes almost imperceptibly. For the photographic process this means that the rhythm of the shutter is dictated by the flow of the river; the Thames itself dictates the timing. At first, only a few steps and seconds lay between the individual photos. However at the river's mouth, the various positions from which the photographer shot the image are separated not only by significantly larger spatial distances, but also respectively longer temporal distances.At the same time, the proportions of the landscape shift within the piece as a whole; the first few kilometers quantitatively demanding considerably more photographs and therefore also taking up more space than later sections. Added to this medial distortion of proportions comes a further artistic distancing device: a straightening of the winding riverbed into a completely horizontal line.

 


Within the montage, these discrepancies are at first invisible and merge into an artistic, only seemingly unified time and space that hides its cracks and tears. In contrast with conventional 360 degrees photography, which seamlessly documents a circular segment with a technique geared towards this specific type of image, the completeness of the panoramic layout is here the result of a digital staging of reality, a medially multiply fractured illusion that tests the viewer's perception. And so the subtle seasonal changes in vegetation and weather, the shifting perspectives and proportions only become visible upon close inspection. Last but not least, the route also reveals a kind of civilisational leap in time that connects the landscape at the source and its surrounding villages with the London of the early 21st century. It is in this sense as well that “The Thames Project (complex 2)” reveals itself as a photographic longitudinal study.

The effect is almost cinematic, letting the sunrise slowly fade into the evening twilight – interspersed with a shower of rain. But while film projects its photogrammes in temporal sequentiality and at such high speeds that the shift from one to the other becomes invisible for the human eye and the cross-fades of the images on the retina create a flowing form of movement, here the individual images stand beside each other en suite. No edits place accents and direct the eye of the viewer.

The vertical edges of the individual sequences, which as caesura define not only spatial but also discrete temporal sections, blend into a continuum. The mechanism of speed as the constitutive requirement of the cinematic image is unhinged, simultaneously decelerated and transposed onto a simultaneity that makes the river seem as if paused.
Here speed only plays a role in the form of the movement made by the viewer regarding the piece, whereby standing in quasi “reduced” poetic contrast to the movement of the photographer at work. Stephan Kaluza aims for a photographic strategy that explores the possibilities of representations of an object, which because of its size defies the moment so characteristic of the medium of photography. He challenges photography: For him it is about the entirety – simultaneously.

With enough distance, you could step back and see the entire river all in one piece. But in order to be able to look at a single image with such dimensions, it would require a distance that would cause the piece itself to become invisible. Therefore the need to choose a section for presentation, as in the case of this publication, which is a integral element of the artistic concept. The 400 meters chosen here make up a total length of circa 280 pages in this 9 cm high version. The side-by-side of the images become compressed layers, one on top of the other, and the passing movement of the viewer in the exhibition space becomes the turning of pages in a book. In spite of this relatively small excerpt, the character of the overall piece is retained. Even while the double page spread at the beginning only shows a few meters of the opposite shoreline, it opens up towards the middle, in the area of the river's mouth, to encompass a horizon of several kilometers length, only to return in the end to the same up-close perspective that already marked the first few pages. And so the book ends, contrary to its linear structure, quasi in the same place as where it began.

It is not yet very long ago – when England and continental Europe formed a continuous landmass at the peak of the last ice age – that the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. And so there is not just a conceptual relationship to the preceding photographic project “complexes (1) – rhine” that must be noted, but in a certain way also the prehistoric geographic proximity of these two objects, which Stephan Kaluza has made the subject of his work. What separates these two river is thus less space than in fact time.