Mårten Lange: ‘I wanted to make a story about something beyond the reach of the camera’
The photographer talks about his lifelong fascination with prehistory and his latest photobook, Chicxulub, and the difficulties of capturing lost worlds
by IZABELLA SCOTT
Photographer Mårten Lange, born in Sweden in 1984, works primarily in the photobook medium, turning his camera to subjects as diverse as crows, hidden craters and complex machines, and synthesising them within the book form. For many decades, the photobook has been an important vehicle for the display of photographers’ work, the most famous examples being Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) and Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963). Lange follows in this tradition, photographing in black-and-white and seeking out a language constructed through photographic sequence alone – a visual language in which images are also ciphers to be interpreted in a chain. Lange’s photobooks insist on the complexity of visual language, as a medium with a grammar and toolkit of its own. He has published seven photobooks to date, Machina (2007), Crows (2009), Anomalies (2009), Landmark (2010), Another Language (2012), Citizen (2015) and, most recently, Chicxulub (2016). On the occasion of his latest book, released in July, Lange talks about lizards, lost worlds, the technological sublime and the existence of a point where science might surrender to the poetic.
Izabella Scott: The Chicxulub crater, after which your latest book is named, is an enormous basin buried underneath the Gulf of Mexico that has fascinated geophysicists for decades. What drew you, a photographer, to the crater?
Mårten Lange: About 66m years ago, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain hit the Earth. There is scientific consensus that this event led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with more than 75% of all species on the planet. The impact crater is just off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, near where a small fishing village called Chicxulub is located. The village has given its name to the crater. And the crater has given its name to the book. The book has no text, but a very strange title, prompting the reader to do some research and providing exposition that way.
I travelled to Yucatán in January this year to make a sort of photographic expedition. I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs and prehistory since I was a child. The Chicxulub impact event has become something mythic in my mind – romantic, apocalyptic and ancient. Part of the impetus for the book was my desire to make contact with a lost world. The crater is half a mile underground now, so there are no obvious visual traces left of the impact. The question for me was this: “How can I make a story about something that is so far in the past, something invisible, beyond the reach of photographic observation?”
IS: It is almost quixotic to use the camera to do something it fundamentally can’t do – to photograph something no longer visible. What was your strategy?
ML: I began with the themes of evolution, extinction, exploration, and I took images of flora and fauna, and of ruins, both modern and Mayan. My strategy was to invoke a lost world by creating photographs that had something violent, dinosauric, ancient or cataclysmic about them.
IS: Wittgenstein said that “the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed”. He was talking about language, but perhaps it relates to photography, too, which you have described as “another language”. Can you tell me about your strategies to contain the inexpressible – lost, invisible worlds – in the expressible – the photographic medium?
ML: I think the inexpressible is always there, close to the surface. A picture of a house will raise questions about who might live in that house. So, my job is about understanding and making use of this mechanism. Photography is just like written language, in that everything contains something else, and this aspect of photography can be enhanced by the book form. In sequence, images tend to influence the reading of one another and something builds that is more than the sum of the parts.
IS: To return to Chicxulub, there is a narrative of sorts, so it works as a story. It opens with a view of a coastline, which suggests you are approaching an island from the sea: an arrival. Then you begin to index the flora and fauna, to take note of your surroundings. Of course, your photographs are taken in different locations at different times, but they begin to form a single world – a single narrative – in the book. Do you see Chicxulub unfolding as a story? Are you encouraging narratives to emerge?
ML: The strategy of combining images was the answer to my initial question: “How can I make a story about something that is beyond the reach of the camera?” I collected many images, but the book is made up of only 28 photographs. First, there is arrival at land, as you point out. This is followed by the image of a lizard on a rock, turning his head as if to cry out. Next, there’s a shaky image of an asteroid approaching, which is followed by an image of smoke in the jungle and then a pothole in the road. By now, the scale has begun to slip and the pothole looks like a large crater. I deploy everyday phenomena to imply dramatic events.
I’m always interested in narratives, but they don’t have to be obvious. I like there to be multiple interpretations. For example, there are two other apocalyptic narratives weaved into the book. There are images of Mayan sites, the traces of a culture that was almost completely wiped out by the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. Then, later in the sequence, there is an image of a high-rise hotel, left unfinished. The global financial crisis meant that fewer Americans holidayed in Mexico, and the southeastern city of Cancún, in particular, was hit. A lot of building projects were stalled. The oceanfront in the Chicxulub village is likewise lined with derelict beach villas. For me, these two other collapses connect with the seminal extinction event. They are part of the cycle of creation, evolution and destruction.
IS: Your photographs are full of “duplicity”, if I can call it that. For example, a hanging nest made up of twigs and leaves is also unmistakably lizard-shaped. It stands in for multiple things, and what you are doing on the level of images is something like wordplay – exploiting meaning, finding echoes. Are you looking for these moments in nature – patterns, echoes, shapes and natural forms? Do you seek out these soft optical illusions?
ML: I’m not really looking for them, it’s more like I see them. I tend to look at one thing at a time, like distinct phenomena separated from their surroundings – almost like sculptures. And then a number of formal connections appear when editing, like rhymes appearing in prose. It’s very rewarding to see it fit together, according to a logic I might not know beforehand. There is a joy in discovery when photographing, and then other jolts of joy when pairings and sequences appear.
IS: Your pigeon series, Citizen,transforms the common city pigeon into a beautiful, silvery protagonist. A city like London is at war with the pigeons. Was your book a bid to transform the pigeon from outcast into citizen?
ML: The common street pigeon is actually a species called the rock dove. Their natural habitat is cliff walls. But our cities are rather good replacements for cliffs, and I find the pigeon’s semi-domesticated existence fascinating. The pigeons don’t belong here, but they thrive. It’s not “natural”, but maybe it’s better than nature. Looking at the pigeons made me think of how humans live, in a habitat constructed by us, for us, but one that is often quite hostile or alienating. We share urban life with the pigeons, and they are citizens, too.
IS: Since its conception, photography has been deployed by the state to categorise, or classify, its citizens – a history that begins with standardisation of the “mugshot” in the 1880s. By calling the pigeons “citizens”, where you thinking about this dynamic?
ML: These animals are overlooked, hated even, but at this level of magnification they become individuals. I like that, the elevation of the banal. I like to think of them more as portraits than mugshots.
IS: Each of your photobooks is a discrete project, but there is also a very specific language at play in all of them. Could your books be considered as sequels?
ML: Of course, there are many recurring themes: nature, science, the sublime and the banal, systems of organising knowledge. I don’t think of one book as being the sequel to another one in the way film sequels need to be watched in sequence, but they do form a sort of collection because they share themes and expressions.
IS: Much of your work is about nature – flora and fauna and lost worlds – but your earliest work Machina turns to the machine. Why were you drawn to these complex instruments?
ML: This series was photographed in labs for research into nuclear physics, microscopy and nanotechnology. I was attracted by the mad complexity of these machines, and how, with increasing complexity, they start resembling chaotic nonsense. They look almost improvised but, of course, they are put together according to a complex plan. They often begin to look organic, like metallic jungle plants.
IS: In your Machina images, the machines are abstracted into landscapes. Theories of the “technological sublime” pose an aesthetic relation between advanced technologies and nature – that you can stand before a machine and have the same feeling of standing before a mountain. Do you think machines can be as beautiful or moving or terrifying as nature?
ML: The sublime chill felt from seeing a fantastic machine is different from seeing a mountain, simply because the machine is manmade. The fascination with the machine comes from the great technical sophistication and ingenuity we humans are capable of, whereas the beauty of nature is ancient – it is beautiful because it is ancient. And it has organised itself effortlessly in ways far more complex than any nuclear physics lab.
IS: To turn to Another Language,which is perhaps your most widely known work. It is a sequence of natural phenomena – flora and fauna, a whirlpool, a smoke ring, fossils, a deer in the forest – all photographed in the same manner and style. Because of this, scale is hard to determine and often it is difficult to tell if you are looking through a microscope, or a telescope, or neither.
ML: I collected these images over a long period. It began when I bought a digital camera to force a change in my practice. With it, I photographed much more freely, and eventually I made lists of natural phenomena I wanted to see. It was a text-based version of the photobook to come, a photobook without the photos. That list was never simply a shopping list, but it worked like a tool to focus the work. The image of the whirlpool, for example, was the result of a great deal of research and planning, while the smoke ring was just a random encounter.
The title, Another Language, refers to the idea of nature as a book that we are decoding by studying it, and the workings of nature as a language. It also refers to photography as a language in itself and using photography as a method for ordering phenomena in systems. The book ends with a short quote by Alexander von Humboldt, who was a great Prussian geographer and naturalist. His treaties, Cosmos (1845-62), were an ambitious and influential work attempting to describe everything in the universe, from galaxies to bacteria. At the end of the book, Humboldt says that there is a border where the laws of nature end and the human mind and language begin. He writes: “A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.”
• Mårten Lange’s series Citizen is on show at Galleri Charlotte Lund, Stockholm, until 8 October 2016. His latest monograph Chicxulub was launched in August 2016 and is currently on show with Another Language at Landskrona Museum, Sweden, until 16 October 2016.