Why Don’t We Walk Along The River?
Rut Blees Luxemburg & David Campany, 1999
Why Don’t We Walk Along The River?
Rut Blees Luxemburg and David Campany in conversation
David: It’s Saturday night and we’re at the foot of Hungerford Bridge in Central London. Rut, you are preparing an image of the underside of the bridge. You’ve made a small 35mm study which we have here, so we can see your image and the bridge itself. Was there an obvious way for you to make an image here? By that, I mean, do places strike you as images?
Rut: Well, this study already has a title which is Die Ziehende Tiefe. It took me a while to figure out the title which means The Wandering Depth. And ziehende also means pulling, so there is this play between ‘wandering’ and ‘pulling’, and that’s exactly what I felt about the water here. It sort of pulls you, as well as moving along. And with this long light exposure you suddenly see something below the surface, and that is what I was interested in here. So, yes, there was an obvious way for me to shoot this scene.
David: Seeing the place for myself and your image of it – which is quite a transformation – leads me to think that you are able to see places in terms of how long exposure will render them. I guess this comes with experience. There is often a tension in your work between what is there and what is not there.
Rut: Yes – that is certainly an experience that guides my image making.
David: This seems partly a technical matter to do with long exposure – some things are rendered crisp, others disappear – but it is also to do with how people see at night, or don’t see. The long exposure is a look at something, but it is also a look at what is usually passed over by people in the city at night.
Rut: For me, that is the pleasure within my practice – that the camera allows what you called a transformation. Something other than what you can see during your mundane, everyday experience of the city can emerge. Something which is there, but which can be sensed better than it can be seen. The camera allows this to be unveiled or shown. In this photograph I had to work out the schedules of the river, the tides. When the tide is low, another hidden layer emerges.
David: Do you always make 35mm studies first before moving to a large format camera?
Rut: Yes – not always, but mostly.
David: This quite interesting in the sense of your relation to the site or location. It means that when you come to actually make the final image, it’s already a return to the site. You are going back.
Rut: I don’t think of it as a return. The moment of making the study is more of a pre-moment and the real moment comes when I make the large-scale exposure. Why don’t we walk along the river? I have made an image called Liebeslied or Love Poem about a quarter of a mile further down.
David: We are at the foot of Waterloo Bridge looking at a flight of steps you photographed in …?
David: It’s changed since then. The text that appears on the wall in your image – a text that looks like a poem that has been crossed out or covered over – has almost disappeared. What first drew you to this site?
Rut: Liebeslied has become the overall title for a body of work and for my second book. For me the Liebeslied was this elusive writing on the wall which seemed always more than just graffiti or some quick communication. Even when I first saw it, it was indecipherable. I think that the writer tried to eradicate it, just after writing it. And now it has become a stain or trace, adding to all the other stains on the surface of the city. I like the curves, they are so baroque that they suggest something much more palatial, or sacred, instead of a cold, outdoor space.
David: It looks like a very private form of communication, the opposite of most graffiti or street writing which might tend to be a disenfranchised citizen announcing something to the world in general. The poem seems like one soul speaking to another soul but within a public place.
Rut: Yes, that’s why for me it became a Liebeslied. It is very considered. The scale is intimate. It is writing at the scale of the body.
David: Which is also the scale of the page.
Rut: So I came and photographed it. It seems private. I’m attracted to the Heimlichkeit of a space in public. A space that allows for a moment of repose.
David: Do you think that repose comes from the places or from your images?
Rut: From the places, most definitely. It is hard for me to photograph places where I don’t have that feeling or relation. The images then try to trace that sensibility.
David: I think of your work as almost the opposite of street photography which we associate with bright daylight, people, grabbed chance instants and speed, instantaneity. Here we have long duration, emptiness, a shell that becomes a content, rather than the other way around where in street photography people become generalized ciphers of the masses. In your work the population is either moving through – coming or going – or absent.
Rut: Well the 5 x 4 camera is the opposite of what the street photographer would use. It requires slowness and concentration and the exposures are long. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. So it’s another kind of street photography. Or maybe ‘street’ isn’t even important. ‘Public’ photography is better.
David: Your photographs are often of streets or contain streets.
Rut: Well in the newer work the street is becoming less significant for me. In my earlier work, collected in the book London: A Modern Project, the street was much more important. Now it’s other places.
David: There is generally much more intimacy in your recent work. You have moved away from the great heights and the monumentality of the built city.
Rut: That’s a deliberate move. The idea of the Liebeslied suggests that intimacy of communication. An attention to another experience of the public. Not the great, grand declamation but the small theatrical spaces and gestures. Shall we go further along the river?
David: OK, we’re at the site of a picture called …?
Rut: Nach Innen or In Deeper.
David: The title seems to refer back to a quote by Roland Barthes that Michael Bracewell used in the introduction to your first book, if I recall .
Rut: Yes, yes: “To get out, go in deeper.” It became the motto for this newer work, in a way. Deeper, closer to the ground.
David: You can’t get much closer to the ground than the water, or sea level.
Rut: Well the interesting thing about the sea level is that it moves, as we saw, it changes within a couple of hours.
David: This suggests interesting questions of duration and long exposure and the subtleties of changes. I’m reminded of a great little essay by Jeff Wall called ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence’. He’s talking mainly of how the instantaneous picture can show forms that are unavailable to human vision, but I think the long exposure of moving water does something equally specific to photography. This soupy, syrupy quality.
Rut: And here a very golden quality to water as it is lit. This image is also very much about absence. You see the footsteps on the mud? They are expressive of something that runs right through the Liebeslied series, which became about a possible poet who is wandering the city in a way that is in contrast to the flâneur made famous by Baudelaire. The flâneur’s relation to the city is very much about a pleasure or diversion. The poet’s wandering is more about an encounter.
David: I remember in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, James Stewart asks if he can accompany the wandering Kim Novak. She replies that only one person can wander, two are always going somewhere.
Rut: I think that’s true. I do walk alone although occasionally when I come to shoot on large format I’ll take an assistant, but by that stage the wandering has been done.
David: There has been a lot of recent discussion about the flâneur and the contemporary city, partly as a response to new forms of spectacle, and partly, for political reasons to open up the city and break the alienated, uncreative habits into which city dwellers fall or are coerced. But the wandering of the poet is far more contemplative, it seems. Perhaps more difficult or painful.
Rut: I wouldn’t call it difficult. It’s a different daring. To dare to have this encounter, which might be an encounter with the self, or with what goes beyond the experience or appearances. It looks deeper to levels of experience beneath. In that way it can be much more political than the flâneur whose distraction fits in so well with the city’s diversions.
David: The more recent work is spatially more intimate. It is also slightly more mute. Of course all photography is mute, but your previous work conjured up sounds of passing cars or anxious voices.
Rut: The newer work is not mute. You just have to listen more carefully. Its just not as loud.
David: The American photographer Robert Adams once said “Still photographs often differ from life more by their silence than by the immobility of their subjects. Landscape pictures tend to converge with life however on summer nights when the sounds outside, after we call the children in and close the garage doors, are the small whirr of moths and the snap of a stick.”
Rut: Hmmm …
David: Obviously there’s a sort of American rural romanticism in there, but the idea of a picture taken of a silent world is perhaps more realistic than a photograph that shuts off noise. The silence of photography is consonant with a silent world.
Rut: I’m not sure. That’s debatable. But within my work of course it’s all taken at night, which has a very different level of silence or noise.
David: It’s a John Cage-like idea that the quieter things are the more significant the sound. This would run counter to Adams. Do you want to say something about the significance of the river coming up again and again in this new work?
Rut: Hölderlin had some interesting ideas about the river. The river is this wonderful moving entity, which combines places and joins them up together and brings them to the sea. Hölderlin understood the river in a relationship to the sky, through the reflection of the sky in the water joining the two different elements together. For him the river was almost a receptacle of the gods. Do the gods come down through reflection and the rain?
David: Water at night is a very powerful image.
Rut: It suggests an immersion. In my past work I was very much interested in vertiginous sensations. In this work I am much more interested in the sensation of immersion. Of course the river reflects… so it has this curious relation to photography. Water appears in another image called Feuchte Blätter or Moist Sheets. In German the word has a double meaning again. Blätter means leaves on a tree but also sheets, perhaps waiting for the text.
David: You have found nature in the city.
Rut: In my new work nature dictates a lot of the photographs. I have to wait for rains or tides.
David: This is a big break from the permanences of the world of concrete and steel that characterized London: a Modern Project. The newer work is more intimate. It welcomes nature and looks to the ephemeral.
Rut: Well the ephemeral did surface in A Modern Project, usually in the lights on buildings that would go on and off according to people moving around.
David: Now then, you’ve brought me to a rather swish but smelly public toilet. We’ve paid twenty pence and now we’ve entered one of the city’s more intimate spaces! You’ve made an image of a very similar space.
Rut: Yes. The image is called Orpheus’ Nachtspaziergang or Orpheus’ Nocturnal Walk. This isn’t an ordinary toilet. It’s one of these modern generic city toilets, a capsule. I think as an image it is very lush, which I like. These toilets have never been successful. No-one dares to use them. I don’t use them! But I like the privacy they offer within the city. In a very public situation you suddenly have this incredible privacy.
David: And the marbles and metals of this interior are so similar to the cafés springing up all over the city.
Rut: Absolutely. But it feels strange. I like the beautiful round mirror. I shot it from the outside glimpsing the inside, from the position of a walker. And as Nietzsche said “Only the thoughts formed during motion are worthwhile.”
David: Let’s return to this idea of the walking poet in contrast to the flâneur. For Hölderlin, or the poet, walking involves responding to the world around them while being wrapped up in, or preoccupied with, other thoughts.
Rut: In a way, the motion of walking induces a certain state of mind. It’s not dreamlike, but it is almost meditative. So shall we walk a bit further?
David: We are looking down at a tennis court you turned into a photograph titled Corporate Leisure.
Rut: The tennis court is on top of a building owned by de Beers, the diamond merchants.
David: It’s in one of those courtyard spaces that exist around the back of the impenetrable looking facades of so many big London buildings. How did you come to be here?
Rut: I think the impenetrability of the city is more of an illusion than a reality. You can actually find access to these places and enter them. This has been very important for my work – penetrating sites that at first suggest inaccessibility. What is so frightening about these places is the future they suggest – the fortress and the control that emanates from it. But I think they can be entered.
David: The glass facade of the city is not so much transparent as it is reflective, bouncing back the gaze and reflecting the city around it. It offers itself as a spectacle of power that precludes entry, but as you point out, by bringing me here, the city isn’t quite as impenetrable as it seems. How do you feel about the surveillance cameras? From where we are here I can count about seven or eight.
Rut: Well, as you’ve seen the cameras are not as effective as they suggest. They didn’t pick us up. This is the attitude one can develop in relation to surveillance. It is more a myth than a reality. If the urban dwellers let the surveillance camera dictate movement around the city, they might as well stay at home.
David: We’ve arrived at what looks like a shallow excavation site. I guess a building once stood here but now it is being used temporarily as a car park. You made an image here called Das Offene Schauen or Viewing the Open. It is a cinematic image, something like an establishing shot. Frame shape varies a good deal across your work. Does the cropping come afterwards or at the act of taking?
Rut: It varies, as the image requires. This place felt something like a Western in a way, with a swooping panoramic expanse. A vista.
David: Questions about the medium of photography and related technical matters have surfaced already in our conversation. Now, I have this sense that the serious amateur, in coming to grips with the medium, encounters the long exposure as probably the first ‘trick’, the first magical bit of photography, where the camera itself is helping to produce an estranging effect. It is giving a kind of duration that is longer than normal, producing its own forms in the image. And on that level there is something about all long exposure night photography that contains something of the fascination that the serious amateur has with the camera itself.
Rut: Well for me it’s not so much a fascination with photography but a fascination with the possibilities of the large format camera and the long exposure which allows me to let chance enter the work. The long exposure leaves space for unexpected things to happen while the shutter is open. So contingency is a big part of my way of taking images, of letting in that which is outside of my control.
David: This is an interesting way to use a large format camera, which we usually associate with the height of control and pre-meditation.
Rut: The serious amateur would be horrified by certain results I get in terms of colour balances and uncorrected perspectives.
David: There is always something in your work about on the one hand being very controlled but on the other letting chance happen within that control. This is somehow quite similar to your overall strategy of walking through the city at night and seeing what happens. It is a framework in which new possibilities can arise.
Rut: I set my own constraints, but they are open for whatever can happen.
David: The street photographer whom we mentioned earlier has historically shot an awful lot of image, and probably a lot of awful images, to get what they want. You don’t work this way.
Rut: No. I edit before I shoot which means I take a very deliberate number of photographs. The consideration and the chance come before taking the image and during the image but not afterwards. For me it is much more interesting to concentrate on less, and perhaps in one image enough happens to keep you engaged for a longer period instead of moving onto other images.
David: That means you have an output that parallels a painter more than a photographer. And you also make preliminary studies, which is quite a painterly activity, as a way of preparing or pre-editing before committing to the time and expense of a big image. Are there many images that don’t make it to the final stage?
Rut: Yes. Not many but there are a few. But sometimes I go back to them and think about them again.
David: Could you talk a little about titles of your photographs?
Rut: The titles open up the work for another reading. These other readings are often literary, or mythical or allegorical.
David: Again this is more like a painter than a photographer. Let’s take an image like Mount Pleasant, a beautiful image of some rather savage metal fence work running along a high wall.
Rut: It was taken in Mount Pleasant, but the name is also evocative of another sensation. In the Liebeslied images I’ve gone back to German. Not intentionally, but somehow it came over me to use them, because often the German words have the quality of being equivocal, and in translation a gap opens and another layer of meaning becomes possible.
David: This plays against how mass culture puts image and text together to clarify, to contain what Allan Sekula once called the “fragmentary, incomplete utterance” of the photograph.
Rut: Yes, but my titling is not an obscure act. It is something which opens up something else.
David: Would you want to say something about the erotics of the work?
Rut: No. I leave that to the interpreter.
Rut Blees Luxemburg and David Campany, 1999. This conversation has been published several times, notably in David Evans’ fine anthology Critical Dictionary (Black Dog Books, 2011), and in David Campany’s Art and Photography.