Loredana Nemes – Graubaum und Himmelmeer

Look up the beech in a book for plant taxonomy and you will find a picture of a tall tree with a strong trunk and long branches that form a symmetrical crown. Open Graubaum und Himmelmeer (Hartmann Books, 2023), the new book by Loredana Nemes, and the image of the single majestic tree gets shattered into a kaleidoscopic vision of a dense forest where gray coloured trunks rise next to each other, slender and muscular, each with its own unique bends and curves. Weathered trees tower above young ones shooting up from below where the decaying foliage creates a fertile ground. Suddenly the gray of the trunks is darkened by an autumn fog. They become silent figures that have turned inward. When the leaves are hit by the springtime sun, they start to glow and seem to belong more to the element of air than of earth.

Nemes has captured the beeches in her black and white photographs in different lights and seasons, and she has done so in such a convincing way that you wonder whether real beeches are not coloured at all but in fact exist as these silvery creatures on the page in front of you. If you ever tried to make a picture in a forest yourself, you will know of the difficult task that the visual field of entangled lines presents to the photographer. The artist has solved it in precise yet unforced frames that stay true to the natural complexity of the trees. The eye is invited to move in all directions, and every point in the frame – center, edge, and anywhere in between – feels just as alive as any other.

Shining through the trunks, a vast body of water acts as an immense reflector of light. It’s the Baltic Sea at Rügen, Germany where Nemes has developed the work over the course of four years. The peninsula is known for its chalk cliffs famously depicted in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. But Nemes does not give us a view of the cliffs. As the forest is cut off by a vertical drop, the gaze has to take a leap from the density of the trees out into the expanse of sky and water. Seascapes, taken from the edge of the cliff, make up a second set of images. Their vastness stands in contrast to the forest pictures that vibrate with detail. Looking out over the sea, the only hold for the eye is the horizon line.

Graubaum und Himmelmeer, Greytree and Heavensea – the sequence unfolds the German title’s neologisms as opposites: the formed and the formless, the finite and the infinite. Into the forest and out onto the sea and back again the sequence moves. And while the photographer refrains from staring into the abyss for too long, she takes her moments to linger at the sight of the beeches that directly stand at the cliff’s edge. For these trees, Nemes has a special fondness. Standing at the threshold, they act as mediators between the security of the forest interior where life retreats to renew itself, and the open sea that erodes the cliffs and will eventually swallow them. With their roots exposed, their branches growing over the edge, and their trunks contrasting sharply against an emptiness of the backdrop, they become individuated from their companions.

While the tree naturally lends itself to the portrait format (the choice for all fifty images in the book), one could imagine horizontal framing matching the natural expansion of the seascapes. This expectation changes as you immerse yourself in the sequence: stepping out of the forest with nothing but the sea in front, it feels as if your gaze has been formatted by the rising trunks. You almost could say that’s what it feels like – for the beeches themselves, that’s how they look out from the cliff.

Out from the cliff and into the forest – the basic pattern of the book is repeated, with the repetition revealing difference. You marvel at how the water changes under different skies: Now blindingly bright and roughed up by winds, now dark grey with somber clouds melting into an evening sky. You wonder if there is such a thing as The Sea, a stable entity beyond the forces shaping its ever shifting form. This variety is matched by the printing – richly nuanced tones convey an almost silvery shimmer, the wealth and clarity of details are mesmerizing. Presented with slim white margins, the pictures seem as though they are always moving outward and off the page, ready to spill over into the brilliant red chosen for the endpaper and the cover alike. 

In what way, one may be tempted to ask, is Nemes work taking the ecological crisis into account? We have become accustomed to think of landscape work in terms of pollution and destruction. Since the New Topographics the human impact on the earth has been established as a central theme, and as a result, images of unspoiled nature are often met with suspicion – are they not simply covering up the mess that we have created all around us? 

The forest scenes and seascapes in Graubaum und Himmelmeer propose something different than a reactionary fantasy of untouched nature. Akin to an artist like Awoiska van der Molen, or Ron Jude and Bernhard Fuchs, who both are exploring uninhabited spaces in their latest publications, Nemes is interested in the Outside, the world beyond the human. Neither critical investigation nor sentimental projection, the images work to open our vision to the simple fact of existence, to the specificity of these trees in this forest, and to the sky and water that adjoins them. 

There are many ways of taking our predicament into account and of responding to the crisis with artistic methods. The mode Nemes operates in is appreciation. By returning to the same groups of trees again and again, the work hints at their fundamental inexhaustibility. The beauty of the images appears less as a product of the photographer’s skill or her subjective viewpoint, and instead we understand that this is how the trees reveal themselves to an attention that does not demand anything from them, not even to play a part in a plea for environmental protection. In discarding the notion of instrumentality altogether, even for a good cause, it is the very form of this attention that affects the viewer: we do not have to be asked to care or take action – a demand that we could potentially reject – but the desire to care arises in us unintentionally as a response.

Loredana Nemes

Graubaum und Himmelmeer

Hartmann Books, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Felix Lampe. Images © Loredana Nemes from her series “Graubaum und Himmelmeer”/ Hartmann Books.)

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