December 23: I once bought a photograph by David Moore of a horse and carriage amongst other traffic crossing Tower Bridge in London in a fog in the early 1950s, when he had moved there from Australia as an ambitious young photographer. I have a copy of it now only in my head.
For me it always raised the difficult question of how fog should be represented in a photograph. Every part of that print carried tone, and most of it was dark, but not muddy. Others might have produced a print that was much lighter and turned the fog into a mist that transmits light from somewhere beyond.
The 1950s was the period of the Pea Soup Fog and the worst incidence of it occurred in the year Moore arrived, in 1952. The Great Smog of that year killed 12,000 Londoners. I remember as a child living there 1955-58 experiencing these disorienting and ugly, grimy fogs, but the 1956 Clean Air Act had started to clear the air by the time we returned to Australia. David Moore’s photograph then, may reproduce the scene a little lighter than that he saw on the Bridge. It remains a photographic problem open to interpretation.
It is interpretation that becomes extreme for Jens Knigge who is currently showing his Northern Light at the Johanna Breede Gallery in Berlin until February 1st. His imagery of a country of ice and snow and frozen air is a vision of broad mid-tones and the subtlest gradations, interrupted only here and there by the black of volcanic rock. On first sight, it is hard to find your way, to orient yourself to the scale, the viewpoint, the altitude, and attitude.
Knigge has photographed Askja (above), in the Dyngjufjöll Mountains in isolated central Iceland, in an almost total white-out, when most images of it are made in summer when it surrounds a lake which is the sunken crater. At first glance, the traces we see take time to assemble themselves into the outline of the caldera against drifts of thick cloud, before the contours of massive slopes emerge from the merest stipple of grey. The effect of all this near-white paper is disorienting.
What he has had to do to get there and to set up his large format cameras, a 5×7 inch Linhof and Linhof Technorama 617, I don’t know, and I find it hard to imagine because December 25th here will be 36ºC (97ºF) and the idea of ice and snow is as remote as a white Christmas, and transporting gear and photographing in it is hard to conceive. It is an alien landscape; 1960s American astronauts trained in the area as the landscape was thought to be similar to that on the moon.
When a contemporary photographer uses an archaic technique like the platinum-palladium print in the age of digital imagery, they must have a good reason, and it is in the extended greytone scale for which Knigge values it.
Born in 1964, Knigge grew up in Jena, East Germany, the home of Zeiss lenses. He studied automotive engineering in 1987, but started in photography in the early 90s with portraits of jazz musicians after he’d moved to Berlin in 1989. He worked in architectural photography from 1995 and that has influenced his personal image-making for which he has made abstracted details of Rudolph Steiner’s Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland and Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, as well as contemporary structures including Axel Schulte’s crematorium built in Berlin-Treptow in the mid -1990s and Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial finished in 2005. He learned platinum printing from the German master Wolfgang Moersch.
Obsessed with this process to the point of using nothing else in his projects Knigge showed in solo exhibitions at the Carl-Zeiss-Foundation in Jena, Germany, the Kunstallianz-Project Berlin, Germany, the Josef-Sudek-Atelier Prague, Czechoslovakia and in several groupshows in Germany and UK, and since 2006 regularly shows solo at Johanna Breede.
Platinum printing is a contact process, requiring a negative as large as the final print. Knigge appropriated medical X-Rays of wire and steel pins reinforcing broken limbs, finding their large size and density perfect for platinum prints which he exhibited in 2014. The Askja image is 11.9 x 16.9 cm or 5 x 7 inches; the same dimensions as the negatives directly from his Linhof View. The photographer must coat their own paper with the platinum or palladium solution. Palladium was introduced as a cheaper alternative during the 2nd World War, but is now almost as expensive, and it would cost almost AU$20 to coat each sheet for Knigge’s prints. However the result is extraordinary to see ‘in the flesh’ as the image sits in the weave of the rag paper rather than on it, unlike silver gelatin or most inkjet prints, and the subtlety of tones is striking. Photographer select from a range of art papers for the kind of whites desired since it they, not a manufacturer who is doing the coating, and as a consequence prints are usually limited edition. Platinum and palladium are very stable so the process is archival beyond conventional digital, silver or dye coupler printing.
Sir John Herschel and Robert Hunt made the first experiments with platinum as a photo-emulsion, but found it was insensitive to light and Hunt, who pursued it as an alternative process, had trouble with prints fading. It was not until the 1870s that a patent process was commercialised, but by then there were plenty of viable, and easier to use, emulsions available. However, major photographers like Peter Henry Emerson, Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen, Laura Gilpin and Irving Penn have practiced its use, each of them seeking perfection in monochrome printmaking.
Knigge is pushing the medium, himself and his equipment to an extreme in photographing this landscape of Iceland and making these prints. Normally photographed in summer, Askja, Hnappavellir on the southern coast, the ice-cap glacier Vatnajökull, and all of the realms into which he travels, are on the edge of the Arctic Circle which is undergoing huge changes as the world warms and the extent of sea ice retreats. None of that issue is mentioned by Knigge or his gallery however, and perhaps it is what we are meant to read for ourselves in these pictures. They are images seeming to consist of almost nothing, materialising in our perception only with patience, like staring into a fog.