Reto Camenisch

On the Brink

What seest thou else
In the dark backward and the abysm of time?
Shakespeare, The Tempest


Reto Camenisch has come a long way to get where he now is. But, in the nature of things, and like most of us, he was already there without wanting to admit it. In fact we carry this place, this abyss, around with us, and could see it at once, were our gaze only more discerning. Easier said than done, in a world where image and sound intrude more and more! Amid the hubbub of the market place (jingling ringtones!), we can hardly hear ourselves speak. Assailed by all kinds of stimuli, we lack practical orientation and do not even know it. In perception terms, we risk losing the ground from under our feet.

Reto Camenisch's first book BÜRGERBILDER (1993) can still be seen as the product of his work as a portrait photographer and photojournalist. But by the time of BLUESLAND (1997), many pictures already hinted at a dawning awareness of this problem. The body of the book consists of 64 black-and-white photographs of the Mississippi Delta reminiscent, paradoxically, of William Eggleston, the coloured visionary of the southern United States. It is not just the democratic choice of subjects. The photographs are also a kind of prologue to thirteen of Switzerland, likewise black and white.  The first and biggest of these, "Weissenberg, Glarus", similarly square in shape, is a forerunner of the images in his new book which, devoid of human presence, impress by their peacefulness. That volume was to be entitled HEIMAT.

Black and flecked with snow, the mountain rises from the bottom right-hand corner into a grey sky of moving cloud accounting for less than ten percent of the picture. This is the spot where, in September 1964, Edmond Camenisch tragically fell to his death while hunting. His son was six years old at the time, and the event probably marked the boy's life more than any other.  From the mid-1920s Alfred Stieglitz used to call his cloud photographs "Equivalents", explaining that they should be seen "as equivalents of my deepest experience, my fundamental philosophy, of life."  "Weissenberg, Glarus" is Reto Camenisch's "Equivalent".  Anchored to the ground quite a long way off-centre, it still has more in common with the series from two years before, which Stieglitz took with a large-format camera and dubbed "Music - A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs".

For his new volume, Camenisch again set out on a search for which, this time, his chosen tempo was 'andante moderato'. From his front doorstep, he journeyed to the end of the world. "I travel, I move from one point to another. No matter how foreign it is, when I get to the place, I am at one with it. It is my h"heimat for brief moments - sometimes rather longer." The ability of this heimat-seeking globetrotter to see anywhere as his home is a transitory thing and, as such, betrays a certain affinity with Ernst Bloch's interpretation of hope in both utopian and nostalgic terms. Bloch draws on this theme at the end of DAS PRINZIP HOFFNUNG, defining hope as "something that appears to everyone in childhood, and where nobody has ever been."

Reto Camenisch did not use this idea as the title of his third book, maybe because it tends to disturb rather than provoke thought. Still, we are meant to share his thoughts when we now read the title ZEIT [time], not least because the rest of the title has something programmed about it (ORTE - places - was itself a temporary name for the landscape project). The heimat which appears in individual pictures of different places finds its fulfilment in time, no matter how fleeting and transitory.

Reto Camenisch does not make it easy to discover the common factor in his landscape photographs, to infer the decisive ingredients of his idea of home. The variety of his motifs is not just geographical but geological. Dramatic views of mountains and cliffs in Switzerland and New Zealand rub shoulders with gently rolling hills and coastlines. Some of his panoramas reveal no mark of human activity. Other shots clearly seek to convey the vanity of taming effort. One such is the square of wooden fencing around a single tree in a snowstorm; another portrays tumbledown walls in the Andalucian highlands.  The only factor common to all seems to be the intention to snatch an unmistakeable composition of lines and light from the dark backward and abysm of time. These elements combine to find an echo in the photographer's inner being.

Possibly none of his pictures succeeds in this with greater fascination than his shot of the Niesen, in the Bernese Oberland. The mountain is captured through a V-shaped section of valley decked with pine trees. The mountain emerges from behind the zig-zagged black edge of the woodland, accentuated by a bright mist of cloud, to form a rhombus of near-equal sides. Compared with this dramatic scene, "Julier, Graubünden" is fairly unspectacular. In the middle distance, left, five cows graze on mountain pasture amid scattered boulders. Still, there is the background of towering mountainside, almost saturated with dissolving shades of grey, on which the shadows of the clouds themselves look like a rockscape. "Thus the mountain is seen from a distance and from below. Its sole feature is steepness. Its victory is unquestionable, a walkover. The top of the mountain's flank, this grey, smooth rock with a slight sheen, is like a plate, an armoured car, an inlaid work in fine steel or silver. And the whole, long drawn-out profile of this peak structure under bright skies might also have lent the impression of a giant ship sailing not only earthly seas, but into eternity." These words end the first section of Ludwig Hohl's BERGFAHRT, a tale which took him over thirty years to write. We are bound to assume that, for Reto Camenisch too, photography has struck an inner chord. 

Kerstin Stremmel

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