Photobook Talk: Pictures From the Surface of the Earth
I bought Pictures From the Surface of the Earth following last year’s May Photo auctions. I was completely bowled over by this one print and when I was researching it I discovered that it had been published in a book. It’s nice to have photobooks sometimes, it’s almost like owning the print but without having to shell out several thou (unless you want Helmut Newton’s SUMO).
But don’t mistake the sudden appearance of this ***NEW*** Photobook Talk issue to be the literal equivalent of Polyfilla. As I’m working on an analysis of 2019’s London May Photo auctions (a mere two months later, it totally slipped my mind I could even talk about it, not being an auction pro and all that…) I remembered this one image I saw during last year’s sales and since I had the book it seemed like a good opportunity to crack out my emotional brain as opposed to my analytical one.
Very briefly on the topic of photobooks; I don’t have very many monographs because they tend to be quite expensive. So, in lieu of photobooks by actual photographers, I’ll do a thing whereby I intersperse the few proper monographs I own with other books on photography. Diversifying the content slightly.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better, But Sometimes It Is
One of the works that stayed with me from viewing last year’s May Photo auctions was a gargantuan print by Wim Wenders entitled, The Road to Emmaus, near Jerusalem (2000). The sheer size of it struck me first because it occupied an entire floating wall at Phillips previews. And for a print that size it was relatively subdued in character. There was nothing brash or obvious about it, it just existed and calmly occupied its own space.
With an estimate of £10,000-15,000 it wasn’t really anything out of the norm as far as average pre-sale estimates were concerned.  Ultimately, the print just about doubled its high estimate with the inclusion of Buyer’s Premium, making the total sale price £32,500.  I don’t like talking about money, especially in reference to art. Let’s continue.
The Road Well Travelled
If you do even a little cursory internet searching you’ll find out that Wenders’ intention with this body of work resonated from “being on the road”. As a trope, the “road” or concept thereof has appeared throughout his cinematic works and in his photographs too. His travels around the world have brought him into contact with many roads, physical and metaphorical, so the photographs that he took result from his interaction with them.
Wenders travelled through the American West, Cuba, Israel, Germany, West Australia, New York, and Japan. The photographs that resulted vary in subject and size, as well as tonality. Some are bright and colourful, perhaps reflecting a popular perception of their locales, some are subdued and subtle, echoing the reverence inherent in their locations.
The Surface of a Picture
With any photograph what you have is a snippet of action, a moment in time captures, a peek through time’s veil. A photograph tells a story, no matter how dull or banal it appears at first glance. With Wenders’ photographs the story is contained within a sometimes expansive frame but the emotional connection one discovers when viewing it is immediate. There is nothing superfluous about the way in which he draws his framework around the scene, there is just truth and honesty, and that’s what makes these photographs so powerful. It’s a profound experience just to view the images in a book, never mind experiencing the intense passion and radiance that resonates from seeing them in the flesh.
For obvious reasons the photographs that speak to me most in Pictures from the Surface of the Earth are those that were taken in Israel. Even looking at photographs of the country in its diversity makes me feel that I’ve been there before, even if I haven’t. It feels familiar. Like home. I thought I could immerse myself in The Road to Emmaus, near Jerusalem, its size made it possible to really feel the warmth of the air, the crunchiness of the earth underfoot and the almost overwhelming view before me. I suppose the immensity of the piece made it more natural to go inside. There’s a constant element to his Israel photographs; everything has changed since Auguste Salzmann went there a hundred years ago, and yet not really all that much has changed at all.
I went to Israel back in October last year with mum and dad and we stayed on Lake Galilee. I didn’t really think I’d enjoy it because I knew what we were heading for; quiet, sleepy environs with cities (I think I’m a city girl) quite far away and the nearest source of civilisation possibly being a kibbutz. And yet when I saw Wenders’ Lake Galilee Before Sunrise (2000) I felt that same sense of calm as I had when waking up in the morning and seeing those placid waters. It’s sort of one of those places. Of course even in October it was dreadfully humid and so the initial tranquility that this photograph imbues is slightly lost when I think back. It’s important to mention that I never saw a sunrise quite like this, all sunrises and sunsets (all 60 million of them) are unique but the sensation that this image provides revives a similar sense of internal peace.
And there are other works, like Beach Front in Tel Aviv (2000), taken all of nineteen years ago. I feel a personal connection to this mini-set of Wenders’ photographs, perhaps because Israel is a country where I feel at home, but there’s also a natural set of memories that come to mind when we’re presented with a visual prompt. Looking at this vividly violet skied image I remember walking barefoot on that gravelled concrete path by the beach, and I remember the intense humidity late into the evening. Photographs are so powerful, an image seen through someone else’s eyes has the potential to conjure up memories from past experiences. It’s quite magical.
Photographs exist to tell their own stories. These photographs, they’re objects, they exist and they say to us; Look at me, look at what I’m showing you, there’s a wealth hidden within me and I’m not going to share it with you just because you looked, you have to work for it. But the people who take the photographs imbue those photographs with stories of their own, simply by dint of taking them. And yet, photographs don’t just exist to tell other peoples’ stories, they’re also there to remind us of our own, if we let them.
- This work was sold as part of a collection, which means one person (the consignor) put it up for sale (consigned it) alongside a bunch of other works. Usually the auction house sells a handful of works from different people; in auction parlance it’s VO, which is “Various Owners”. In the case of one person consigning a lot of works to a sale it’s SO; “Single Owner”. The auction houses would much rather take 50 works from a VIP’s collection and sell it as such than 200 works from random consignors. It’s about cachet; if you’re even slightly in the public eye then the auction houses would like to get their hands on your stuff.
- Phillips, Photographs from the Michel and Sally Strauss Collection of Contemporary Photography, Ultimate Evening Photographs & Day Sale, 18 May, 2018: https://www.phillips.com/detail/wim-wenders/UK040118/38 [last accessed July 23, 2020]
- Wim Wenders, Pictures From the Surface of the Earth, London: Haus Publishing Ltd, 2007.
- Ibid, foreword.
- Ibid, pp.94-95.
- Ibid, p. 99.