Benedikt Partenheimer, The Weather is Fine, Hatje Cantz , 2021
The Weather Is Fine
English 2021. 128 pp., 60 ills. Hardcover 32.00 x 24.00 cm ISBN 978-3-7757-5073-8
Not only do we live in a period of rapid, exciting change, but we are also in the midst of the Anthropocene age. The environment and climate are changing in the wake of human-driven turbo-capitalism. Benedikt Partenheimer’s works make it possible to imagine—sensorily as well as contextually—the close connection and increasing imbalance between humans and the earth. Photographs of fascinating, impressive elegance reveal processes of ecological and cultural transformation. What makes these pictures so irresistible is the human influence factor: the painterly mist of air pollution floating above urban panoramas, the ambivalence of mountain reflections in melted glacier water. The price of beauty is inscribed into each image.
By David Campany
One often hears it said that experiencing climate change can be like watching your child grow. Nothing much seems to be happening day by day, caught as you are in the minutiae of a relationship that is morphing so slowly you barely notice. But now and again, and all of a sudden, something dramatic happens. You are startled by a change in your child’s face, perhaps. Or, they articulate a complex idea you had not imagined they were capable of. Or perhaps they assert their independence with great will. The slow and steady transformation is punctuated by moments of surprise or shock. Think about it as ‘everyday life’ and ‘events.’
These two terms seem to parallel another two terms, ‘climate’ and ‘weather’: the incremental changes and the unexpected occurrences, both of which are transforming our world. Benedikt Partenheimer is interested in climate change rather than weather, the gradual processes rather than sudden events. These are not the reactive images of a reportage photographer or photojournalist. What he observes with his camera do not seem to be events so much as ongoing processes. The observation is more akin to a slow, unnerving stare than a quick glance. This is a photography of the stoic lens rather than the excitable shutter. These exposures do not arrest a world’s rapid movements, rather they confront its deeper and more unsettling tempos. Unblinking, thoughtful and cautious. Decelerated, calm, and studious.
The things Partenheimer photographs are not unique. They are groups of recurring phenomena that are all, in different ways, signs of incremental but profound change. The bright artificial light of vending machines. Sunlight filtering through polluted air. Methane escaping from thawing permafrost. Trees leaning in warming ground. Reflections in glacial melt. These things are photographed with the quiet procedure of a visual system but in truth they are signs of a world in which systems are increasingly unstable. So, there is a tension between the calmness of these images and their alarming implications.
Partenheimer’s visual assessments of our situation feel like the testimony of a measured and composed witness. He went into the world with his camera, took a very clear and long look, is reporting back with clarity. And like all pieces of evidence, these photographs require contextualization. A photograph cannot tell you whether what it depicts is unusual or commonplace. A photograph is not a statistic. Partenheimer’s decision to shoot in series goes some way towards suggesting that what he photographs are not isolated incidents but indicators of patterns. And yet, photographs can never quite have the status of scientific fact. They are, as William Henry Fox Talbot put it in 1844, “Evidence of a novel kind” best left to the “speculation of those who possess legal acumen.” We are still speculating about this today. Even so, the evidential force of a photograph derives as much from the fact that a camera, and perhaps by extension a photographer, was there to make the photograph. Or, to put it both more abstractly and more concretely, there was a will, a consciousness, to go and make these images, to observe and to picture. Whatever else they are, Partenheimer’s photographs are testimonies to the fact that he committed to make them. He has selected and stood before these scenes and situations, and perhaps his photographic approach can be read as an indication of how he looked at what he found.
In photography, as in vision itself, all we have is light. We do not see things for what they “really” are. We see the light that that has bounced off them, or the light they emit. A lens gathers that light and focuses it upon a receptive surface. Photography and vision can feel tactile and immediate, but in truth their strong sense of touch is only ever evoked rather than experienced directly. Photography and vision require distance, physical and symbolic. There are no human bodies depicted in Partenheimer’s photographs, but there is an acute awareness of light in all his series, and by extension an indication of the presence of an acute observer. In these images light is reflected, refracted, diffused, burning, glowing, sometimes in colour, sometimes black & white, and sometimes tonally reversed. It seems light itself has become the subject matter, at once the key to the world’s problems and the means of illuminating them. All of this draws our attention to the acts of seeing and photographing, and to the status of light as messenger and meaning.
It is telling that Partenheimer makes reference to the first nuclear test, which took place on July 16, 1945, at 05:29 and 45 seconds. He notes this event has come to be understood as marking the beginning of the Anthropocene, the era in which human activity becomes the defining effect on the planet’s climate, environment and future fossil record. But that date also marked a new era in our relation to light itself. In that nuclear test, brighter than a million suns, light became ambivalent. While it is a medium of clarity and understanding, light has also become a harbinger of unimaginable destruction. Beautiful and deathly, the Anthropocene marks the end of light’s innocence. And like all ends to innocence, it cannot be reversed, undone or unlearned, regardless of our environmental future. Light will always be a source of mixed feelings, until the sun burns out.
Benedikt Partenheimer has made a book. Whatever else they may be, books are not particularly fast and not rapidly reactive in the ways they communicate. A book can a long time to develop, a long time to produce, a long time to find its audience, and a long time to be understood. So, the relation between the book form and urgency, between the book form and change, is complicated, to say the least. We can think of the slowness of these photographs and slowness of the book form as setting themselves apart from the speed of the mass media with its attention attuned more to events and intensities than to long-term change. Moreover, a book, any book, has on some level a sense of posterity. Images come and go online, and magazines are read and disposed of, but a book is there for the long term, for the record.
A book is a commitment to a future it cannot know in advance. It is an open appointment with an unspecified viewer or reader to come. Even when we look at a book in our present moment, holding it in our hands, absorbing what it has to offer as the light bounces off the surface of its pages, we know, or unconsciously intuit, that we ought not to be the last. A book should outlive us. This is why we still make books, why we cannot let go of their promise. Should the existence of this book be taken as Benedikt Partenheimer’s faith that it will have a future audience? Is this book a sign of its maker’s hope or optimism that something of humanity will survive the crisis that is just beyond the frame of these photographs?