Mårten Lange – Threshold

Humans leave traces of their presence almost everywhere they inhabit in the built environment. It’s difficult for humans not to leave a mark, as they have a tendency to leave a marker of their passing, however involuntary or intended. This is partly due to how we view our world and its obligations to suit our needs, habitats, and wanderings. Our illustrated archaeological record, dating back over 40,000 years to the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh on the Indonesian island of Borneo, tells stories of our earliest pictorial mark making. Our various habitats that exhibit our historical markings, be it tool or hand, date even further back before agriculture and sedentary living became commonplace. We are creatures that tend to make marks, and we are less secretive in our occupation of a space than we often believe.


Documentation of markings found in caves, on walls, and on architecture have been popular since the early days of photography. Humans have had a long-standing relationship with the built world, and this has been captured in photographs. During the Victorian era, photographers with a love for the classics and a fascination for the Mediterranean embarked on a mission to capture the scripts and scrawls of the Romans, Greeks, and the inhabitants of the Holy Land. In Egypt, the pursuit of antiquity unearthed sarcophagi and tomb hieroglyphs that narrated heroic tales of the past and celebrated the individuals entombed within the walls. Photographs of Rome, in particular, showcased ancient graffiti and markings left on tombs and the wounded stone of the Coliseum walls. The camera’s unique ability to capture human culture in still images made it a valuable tool in documenting the traces of human passing and culture throughout the modern world.


The fascination with the remnants of our past is captivating, not for what it directly tells us, but for the assumptions we can make at a glance. We often leave these signs in common places, such as homes, cemeteries, and prisons. The passing of time is evident in the yellow dust that dances in single rays of light passing through prison cells. Lord Byron even carved his name in exile on one of seven pillars in the dungeon of Château de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva. Walls that withstand time, such as the Tower of London and the Pyramids at Giza, bear witness to the marks left by our nails, hammers, and screwdrivers. Noted photographer Brassaï even made a photobook about it.

In 2011, I curated an exhibition with Daniel Campbell Blight called “On the Ephemeral in Photography”. The exhibition showcased works in which the existence of ephemeral traces was the foundation of the photographic work. The exhibits aimed to discuss our infatuation with the fleeting world, featuring colorful large-format night photographs by Rut Blees Luxemburg, photographs of forgotten human ash cans by David Maisel, and portraits superimposed with dust by Mikael Gregorsky. Eminent cultural and architectural theorist Douglas best describes our affair with these traces (in much better prose).


Each medium or technique necessarily has its own particular spectral characteristics. Writing might be thought of as the petrified voice, the setting of speech into stone and symbol. A psychoanalyst might tell you that speech itself is evidence of a phantom, both irreducibly personal and somehow alien. The introduction of the phonograph and recorded sound is perhaps one of the more perfect examples of spectral media – the disembodied and projected voice is inherently uncanny, in the sense that its repetitions occupy space and time in almost perfect fidelity to their original occurrence.

But what of photography?

To return to Derrida, he notes –

“It is the modern possibility of photography (whether art or technique matters little here) that combines death and referent in the same system […] the immediate proof given by the photographic apparatus or by the structure of the remains it leaves behind are irreducible events, ineffaceably original.” – Derrida, ‘The Deaths of Roland Barthes’.

For Derrida, after Barthes, the photograph haunts us with its effortless likeness. This perception of photography as brute, unadulterated representation is what allows it to work as an archival process – the strength of photography qua document or evidence testifies to this quality. But at the same time, photography and its mute realism freeze at an irreducible, irretrievable point. Compared to cinema (once described by Derrida as “the art of ghosts”), which unfolds as both sound and image in time, the stasis of photography has a different phantasmic quality. Photography’s arrested likenesses provokes in thinkers such as Derrida and Barthes a pierced experience of death in its very impossibility, but simultaneously the infinite weight of the present in all its reality. Or, to put it another way, the spectrality of photography is not only that of seeing a ghost, but of seeing the ghost in oneself. Douglas Murphy, 2011 


In considering photography and its spectral ability to promote a short-circuit toward death, we can challenge the presumptions inherent in the medium as one of record-making. Record-making is after all, a life-affirming activity, a boundless (and often unscrupulous) gesture which exalts a characteristic joie de vivre in which the act of leaving a note or scratching for the future is to claim life, the author’s innert graphism a way to reconcile the humbling acknowledgement of death and its contemplation in the midst of the most dire or jubilant of occasions. It is also a rebuttal against all great ends. It befits an attempt at legacy that is at once profound and stupid- a veritable gift for all occasion which satisfies one with an affadavit of living and the humor and preponderance of its future audiences from the great beyond.


In Mårten Lange’s book “Threshold” (KARL, 2023), we explore photographs of various rooms and spaces captured by the artist. We try to find clues to understand the traces we see in these images. Although we can imagine a lot of human activity in these spaces, the rooms appear silent and empty, with only a few shadows of the artist visible. The people who once occupied these spaces are no longer there, leaving behind only the marks of their presence. We can see where the furniture used to be, where family photographs hung on the walls, and where people spent countless hours breathing and living. These spaces are now disabled but still pulsing with possibilities through projection. What’s interesting is the emptiness that suggests the richness of activity within each image, creating a portal to a possible imagining of human connectivity. It’s like an empty beehive, dormant in winter, yet its potential for life still exists at its nucleus. These photos may seem cold, but they contain the light of life continuing, however transiently.


Threshold is a thick book that contains numerous images, but the repetition inside is anything but uninteresting. Each small frame is packed with a density that keeps the pace moving, similar to the work of Gerry Johansson, a fellow Swede of Lange. The book alludes to painting, and it reminds me of a type of 50s and 60s conceptualism in the work of Ad Reinhardt, Rothko, and perhaps even an absent-type of Donald Judd. The work is related to geometry, but the rooms also become monochrome field paintings, which is a gesture that Lange is certainly aware of. This nod to a different type of intended mark-making brings us back to the cultural relevance of trace and what implications may be drawn from the act of recording it. If one observes carefully, some of the pairs also seem to mirror one another in where the door is placed, or where parts of the rooms feel similar but are slightly off, creating an unnerving and uncanny dialogue between what we assume to be simple typologies.


The work focuses on the doorways and connections between different rooms. The title “Threshold” suggests that the photograph itself acts as a gateway to these environments that Lange records. Each photo shows a sealed or open doorway or door that marks the room and asks the viewer to mentally move through the passageway. This way of counteracting the density of the book’s images encourages us to consider a continuous series of rooms, similar to the concept of backrooms – the endless hallways and passageways that represent a type of locking limbo in our consciousness. Backrooms are often associated with video games, virtual reality, and urban legend, and serve as a conceptual portal to the shrinking divide between technology and human consciousness. The book’s circular way of connecting these many images draws the viewer in to recognize the book as an object and not just a simple illustration of an idea similar to Michael Snow’s 1975 book Cover to Cover. Overall, it is a highly successful publication and stands out in the artist’s growing catalog of important titles.


Mårten Lange



Posted in Contemporary Photography, Death and Photography, Europe, Photobook, Photography - All, Reviews - Photobook, Sweden and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .