The evanescent landscape
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena for CALAMITA/À
Olaf Otto Becker (born 1959). For more than 25 years now, landscape photography constitutes the main topic of Olaf Otto Beckers photographic work. He is especially interested in documenting the visible traces of human overpopulation left behind in nature. He said “It’s these traces that make clear how exactly we treat our planet.” After thorough research, he usually work a couple of years on one specific topic, to then publish his results in form of a book. The single image is of great importance for him, but it’s sequences that allow him to tell an in depth story. Olaf says “I think of myself as artist as well as eyewitness to the changes of our time that are important to me. I read the landscape and record what I find to be truly remarkable.”
CALAMITA/À: You started out studynig communication design and later philosophy. What made you shift to photography? What photographers or artists would you give as inspiration for your own work?
Olaf Otto Becker: Before I studied communication design and philosophy I wanted to study painting. When I realised that it can not be in the the purpose of art to finance my living. I decided to study communication design because I was interested in design and communication as well and I wanted to enable me to support myself financially.
After this I studied philosphy because I was interested to find answers for my essential questions of life.
I have always created images. I started with painting and shifted to photography when I realiszed that I was more interested to find images instead of inventing images. I have been always surprised about things I found and saw. Grown up in the countryside I have always loved it to be in the nature. This connection to nature and life has never broken until today. At the beginning I explored my personal privat and local surrounding. Later I became more interested in worldwide observations of the traces of human beeings. I cannot say there were these painters or those photographers which influenced me most. The influences have shifted by experience and interest again and again. My work is influenced by the language of art. This means, I try to paint with the help of my camera tools. Walking and travelling arround in the selected area, I always try to find answers to questions like:
What do I see? What does this mean for me? Could this, what I see, also mean something to somebody else? How does this fit to my project and theme? What would be the best perspective and composition to use the visible landscape to express exactly that what this special found landscape means for me and my theme. Is the light the right light for it? If not, what would be the rigth light conditions?
After answering all these questions and a lot more, I might take a photograph of this landscape.
In the moment when I push the shutter I already know this is a good image. There are no surprises about the result.
A/À: The lesson learnt from the masters of large format colour photography and the ones from pioneers like Carleton Watkins, Mathew Brady and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. What has been the import of these examples on photographic interpretation of landscape and its changes over time and light?
OOB: Studying photographs of Watkins, Mathew Brady, Timothy H O’Sulivan and modern landscape photographers I have been fascinated about the ability of storytelling by good photographs. A good photograph always tells a story.
A/À: In your work emerge the relationship with (man) nature, and space; the “symbolic landscape” and the precise composition of the images also recalls the style of the German painters of the eighteenth century. I see also the cultural baggage of German Romanticism. is there a German approach to photography? Is the German aesthetics different? Please explain.
OOB: I guess everybody is influenced by family culture, the local culture of the village and town where one grews up, the relgion and politics which influences ones life directly and the resulting interests. However the first photographs which really impressed me where photographs by Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier Bresson and russian photography. Later I was more fascinated by American photographers like Meyerowitz, Misrach, Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams among others. Now there are not really borders for influences any more except my personal borders. And my personal borders have to do with my cultural german background and education and the experiences which I directly made while travelling around in the world and coming in contact with various cultures. One thing remained always and this is the respect for everything. Unfortunately this has not always been a very german attitude.
A/À: Obviously time is a huge theme in your practice. How do you conceptualize it in your work?
OOB: Every photograph tells about a chapter of time. The living time of every animal, every plant and human beeing is limited. We realize time only by changes. I am interested to tell about traces of changes. So I am also telling something about the time when these changes happen. When I worked on my Iceland project “Under the Nordic Light – A Journey through Time I visited many places again and again over years. I took photographs of the same locations with the same perspective and light conditions. Some landscapes had changed a lot in a short timeperiod others had not really changed visibly. I was more surprised about the unchanged locations because thousands of things had happened in my life between the first photograph of this landsacpe and the last photograph ten years later. So I exspected finding something similar in the landscape, but it was not visible for my camera. I realized time is a very individual definition.
A/À: Some of your series were done in Iceland and Greenland.… Did you do any particular research on the territory while working on these project? How did you choose the locations that you photographed? Can you talk about your photographic process in capturing landscapes? How has your development as a photographer brought you to this extreme form of topographic photography?
OOB: I am interested in places where landscape is still inventing and shaping itself and where this origin landscape comes in contact with human beings. The increasing amount of human beings results an enourmous influence and change in former untouched nature. Traces of change caused by overpopulation are visible all over in the world. This means something for me and for us. I try to tell about that what I realize.
A/À: What attracted you towards landscape, urban spaces and evanescent and unstable horizons? Endless distance and the absolute: what is the contemporary sublime for you?
OOB: It has always been great experience for me beiing alone outside in nearly uninhabitant landscapes. I am facinated by the inventions of nature or some would say God. I try to carry home my personal accounters with photographs big like windows, windows to something wonderfull, windows to something which seems also very sad sometimes. Nothing is safe and constant, but this also means everything is possible with good or bad meaning. We are not really important for nature. We are only a tiny part of it although we might think we would have been more. We are a part of the bigger part which is inventing itself new again and again over time.
A/À: How has this project challenged or changed your own understanding of what being alive means or how and why it matters to define what being alive is?
OOB: Life is for me awareness and interaction with my surrounding. I try to come to knew as much aspects of my being and my/our surrounding as I can. I enjoy every new experience and I try to respect all other beeings.
A/À: It stands to reason that you have a close relationship to the things you photograph. Let’s talk about the close relationship you have with natural environments. Where does this interest come from? How can photography contribute to “reinventing” the viewing experience?
OOB: Only if I am able to forget for a moment the images I have ever seen, the curtain to somthing new will open. This is a great experience and can lead to new pictures.
A/À: The arctic is even more polluted than elsewhere? Is ecology part of an economical system? Is global warming an important part of your research?
OOB: I would not say that the arctic is more polluted than elsewhere, the opposite is the case. In the arctic you may find beautiful untouched landscapes and nature. The water is clear. You may drink water directly from a creek or river. The arctic has plenty of fish because it is a very good habitat. However global warming has influence to the nature already. But still it is only the influence rising temperature. The rising temperature will cause more problems in the southern hemisphere of earth. Billions of people and animals will loose there homes. Drinkable Water will became rare.
Pollution will also in future mostly be there where humans are.
I tried to make global warming visible by taking photographs of rivers and lakes filled with melting water, by taking photographs of melting glaciers. By taking photographs of icebergs – beautiful images of change. However we can thing about what this change will mean for us even it looks so beautiful.
A/À: Can you talk about the significance of waste, excess consumption and destruction of resources to your work?
OOB: I am really emotionally touched by it. We have to solve the problems caused by human overpopulation. This the greatest challenge for our future. How can we limit waste, excess, consumption and how do we use the resources in future?
We are a very clever speciees, but we are also destructive, competive, intolerant, selfish, inconsiderate, domineering, and always limited by knowledge and pesrspective to find fair solution for problems which will consider all aspects of life on this earth. I only can answer with small picture poems to it.
A/À: What inspires you in your every day life?
OOB: My answer could completly fill your your space on your hardisk. But it is more simple to say, I try to have fun in my life. I try to have good time with the people I love, and for things I am interested in. I love to experience life. It is a special gift to be born out of nothing (I cannot remember the time before my birth), spending some time on earth with a kind of an awareness and finally disappear again in the time before my birth.
A/À: What are you currently working on in your photography? What’s in store for you in 2015, photographically or otherwise?
OOB: I am working on several new themes at the same time. I do not really know which theme will result in a new exhibition or book in the moment. I try to forget all the images I already know, to be able to find something new.