I'm probably going to show my age by asking this, but how many people remember being in public school and being shown filmstrips? The teacher would bring out a type of projector, basically a high wattage light bulb with a couple of mirrors and maybe a magnifying glass, over and through which a partially developed negative would be pulled, sending a still image onto a screen.
It was primitive but effective, getting information across to thirty restless students who were so grateful for the reprieve from the normal tedium of class that they would pay attention for a while. Looking at the strips outside of the machine gave you no clue as to whether or not it contained a history of Canada or the common cold – both of which were options in grade school.
Like all negatives their secrets were only revealed under certain conditions. These ones were developed all ready so they gave up their images with exposure to light like a slide in a slide projector. Other negatives require more work to be turned into an image that can be used. It's in the preparation of the negative, the transferring of its negative image onto whatever will be used to take the positive that a photographer has his or her last chance to effect the photo.
Using the equipment in a dark room will allow a photographer to determine exactly how much of the picture comes to light, how deep the colours, and make final adjustments to composition. The art of the photographer doesn't end with the clicking of the shutter, it continues right on through until the image is laid out for display or reproduced in book form.
45301 is the title given to a 2003 publication of Viggo Mortensen photographs. The name is derived from the number found on a strip of negatives, and considering the contents of the book, I assume it is in reference to the importance that Mr. Mortensen placed on the development process for the works in this book.
Unlike the images presented in earlier works like Recent Forgeries or Signlanguage or even those from his more recent publications Linger and I Forget You For Ever the majority of the work in 45301 are deliberately abstracted. In some cases it is to the point where the subject matter is unrecognisable, others where it appears like you are viewing the image in front of you through thick, flawed glass, causing the figures or objects in the frame to distort.
In some he has gone beyond even bothering with subject matter and they are pure experiments in colour – the object distilled down to its barest essence, light. Colour can be subjective to the human eye as it involves how light affects surfaces and in turn how our eye reads that reaction. How often is it that two humans will ever see anything in exactly the same way?
At the risk of sounding like some new age flake: light is the essence of everything. Without light what would there be? No shape, no colour; nothing. A photographer works with light and manipulates it to create images. What he does with the light impacts on his finished product. In 45301 Mr. Mortensen experiments with light, image, and how they are both perceived by the human eye.
Using all aspects of the photographer's art he creates various situations for light, dark, and colour either to form an image or just to exist. There are those times when he leaves the lens aperture open in order to capture a moment of motion so that an object is blurred up to the point where it begins to break down into its components of light and energy, and past, to where it is beyond recognition.
The second image in the book itself, entitled "Ride 76" is a shot down into the ground at the front hooves of a horse. We can make out the tops of thr hooves and leg just above them; the hooves themselves are blurred to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from the ground they trod upon as it moves under them. The most substantial thing in the picture is the shadow cast behind the legs.
Created by the one constant in the world, light, a shadow isn't affected by the speed an object travels at except in how it changes the play of the light. Like looking out the window of a speeding train and seeing the ground whizzing by but seeing the solid lump of the train's shadow as it races you to your final destination. It never wavers in its objective no matter what obstacle might stand in its path or how distorted the ground it runs over becomes.
How we perceive speed and movement is dictated by how we see light; we might be able to tell a train is moving by the feel of it during the night, but we have no means of proving it by our eye. No light exists for our shadow to pass through to give definition to the moment.
At one point during 45301, towards the middle, you come across a series of pages on which strips of film have been laid out running into subsequent pages until the roll ends, and new ones begin. At first glance the films seem to be devoid of much, just endless rolls of extremely overexposed negative.
But there is a pattern within them that to my mind has turned them into another form of motion – the slow passage of time as the day changes. Some strips appear to start in the darkness before daylight and continue through the searing bright light of midday, the blues of twilight, and back again to the absence of light. Time moves without showing anything more tangible then colours shifting and light changing. If we could find a still point where we could observe a day like those film strips we would see it just as they represent.
Almost all the images in this book seem to involve motion of some kind or another; even the act of waiting to begin involves an activity of sorts as the body gathers adrenalin and prepares itself for whatever it must do. One of the final images in the book depicts a person sitting in the dark beside a gleaming light.
In spite of the fact he, or she, is in silhouette by looking closely some detail is discernable. While it may look at rest, it could also be said to be gathering itself for action. What lies just through the light? Is the person hiding from something and preparing to be found? What action will it have to take in the next minute, hour, or day?
Motion is anticipated by the contrast in light and dark. We don't need to know anything more then what the image provides before beginning to develop scenarios on our own of the possible and the potential. Unlike other pieces where Mr. Mortensen has captured motion in an attempt to hold onto time, here he has captured stillness and made it clear that it is only a momentary respite from activity.
Viggo Mortensen works to capture moments in time in many ways, one of which is his writing. In a more recent book - Linger - he talks about this while recording the details of cremating his beloved companion Brigit. He has made the conscious decision not to record the event with his camera, he writes to her in his journal, and in fact he had to go back out to his vehicle to dig out this journal to actually write down the events of the day. He can't help himself he seems to be saying, I have to have some record of events.
While there are no writings in 45301 the pages of the book are almost entirely scanned copies of his journal writings blown up and enlarged so that only occasional words can be seen peeking our from around the photos. Or the pages used have been so overwritten and scrawled upon that it would be impossible to discern what each page is about.
As far as I can tell the journal pages selected have no direct relationship to the photographs on each page. So why do it than? One potential is that he is showing us how much he is concerned with grabbing moments of time and making a record of them. This, he is saying is about his photographs, is what the world can look like, always moving, and the eye can do no more than record that motion no matter what implement it uses.
Maybe we can slow it down somewhat and stop it in the frame of a picture. But it will keep going beyond the boundaries of that frame even before the camera is put down or pulled from the eye. But in the journal there is no such notion of eternal motion as words can effectively capture a moment and give the illusion that nothing more will happen after that.
45301 appears to me to be a collection of works in which Viggo Mortensen is exploring the interrelationship between motion, colour, light, and dark. Whether through the lens of his camera or in the darkroom afterwards, or even in the production of the book, he has created examples and captured moments that exemplify that theme.
Of course as with all abstract art, reactions to pieces are entirely subjective, and you might look at the images in this book and think I'm full of shit. The sign of a good artist is that he or she is able to create work that causes people to think and form opinions that they can argue in favour of coherently. You heard my opinion, what's yours?
(Originally posted March 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.