Reto Camenisch

Departing homeward

The photograph of Lanzerote seems to mark a frontier ... a frontier which has to be crossed. The foreground of the picture shows a crossroads. A road sign and white road markings repeat the command to 'stop'. Two signposts point in different directions: Mirador del Rio right, Arrecife left. Straight ahead, the terrain rises gently and opens out. The viewer's gaze stretches up into this landscape, past two indistinct, embedded buildings, rids itself of the restrictions and finds release. Reto Camenisch does not follow the signs to left or right. His photography plods straight on, leaving civilization behind and, with it, the geometricization and taming of nature into countryside. These photographs open out, into wide open space, into height and depth, light and darkness, softness and hardness. Camenisch moves forwards in space and simultaneously backwards on the time axis. He sallies forth into unspoiled landscapes, seeking worlds which merit the adjective 'natural' because they are barely humanized, ordered, changed, metamorphosed, controlled or exploited, if at all. He seeks worlds which mark time differently, have different spatial subdivisions, keep a different rhythm - and even sound different.

Reto Camenisch tramps the whole world: steps over to Lanzerote, strides across the Bernese Oberland, hikes through the Engadine, climbs Kilimanjaro, crosses over the Auvergne, into Brittany, Andalucia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Cyprus, through the Entlebuch and Glarnerland to the thousand-year-old cembra pines of the primeval Tamangur forest. He departs from modern tramlines, slips out of the timeframe of the present, and heads far enough away for the ribcage to expand and for breathing to slow down. Then a different feeling takes hold. The body yields, tired but relaxed; the heavy 4 x 5" camera and tripod are laid down, then set up. Reto Camenisch dives in. He surveys a plain which absorbs and releases vision. His eyes travel up a rock face which rises from its base-plinth and bursts into an abundance of gradations and ledges. These criss-cross the picture, obstructing vision. They are massive, yet finely nuanced into varying shades of grey. We follow his gaze, down into a valley marked by heavy falls of boulder and scree. What we find is not some grim hellhole. Rather, it is as if the light and the fog cry out, opening another world in which all rules are reversed. We stand before a dark ridge, shrouded in fog to the front, and immersed in the silver streaks of the photographic paper to the rear. A colossus of nature towers upwards, as if begging to be conquered, to be cleared like a blockage in the throat. Our eyes ply over slopes of granite and volcanic scree, penetrate rock formations, watch the interplay of light and shade, plunge into weird forests of scrub, blocking our path like crazy poles, like a wall of spears. We wander over wild meadows which seem to keep the naked earth warm like a fleece. We pass the cembra pines in their bushy, slow-motion dance, looking up into the expanse of eternal snow. Gorges draw our gaze down, past the rock face on the left, halted by the one on the right, and on along our imaginary path. Then the world opens out before us, and our eyes travel out to sea, resting only on the horizon. They glide over rock formations, over expanses of water, observing the spray of a storm, following trails in the rock. These are the marks left by time, wind and water, the traces of the elements precipitated. The surfaces across which our eyes move look furry, stubbly, bristly, sandy or velvety to the touch. The slopes up and down which we clamber seem rough, angular, brittle, scratchy and scaly. This is nature enfolded, foaming, stitched and patched, the wall before our eyes, the mountain in our sight, the nature in our soul.

Reto Camenisch presents our eyes with large-format, silver-gelatine surfaces, as dense black and white embodiments of his search, his yearning to go and see. Here clouds, whisps of fog, wild nature's perspirations mingle with the process of developing the polaroid negative on the spot. The patches, streaks, whisps and sprays in the picture make these photographs seem steeped deep in their paper medium. The Pola edges, the typical stripes, patches, lines and shadows on the edge of black and white polaroid photographs, come across like a gaze short of sleep, but wakeful yet. They strengthen the sensation that we are witnessing some alchemistic process which defies the puny bounds of the rational. We behold and enter these images, oblivious of time. They are the fruit of long paths laboriously travelled, of a journey into a genre of land or existence which Reto Camenisch follows so far that community life is lost from sight. Then he takes the plunge, sinking into the landscape until he breathes with it and adopts its rhythm. The landscape begins to resonate for him as his inner nature bonds with the nature outside him, in a temporary unity which he had thought lost.

Camenisch's photographs are portrayals of experience and desire. We live 'by the laws of nature' in a world where nature has lost its critical authority as a counterbalance to civilization and society. What we see of nature, in all her forms, has always been reshaped by humanity for some purpose or other. Thus, if we see ourselves as part of nature at all, we have robbed ourselves of an essential anchor. Our once glorified emancipation from nature boomerangs back on us. The freedom we have won melts away before what Gernot Böhme has called the new "base of an exploited nature". Reto Camenisch seeks his personal 'salvation'. He looks for temporary rest and contemplation during his search for correspondence between inner nature and the nature outside, for spots on earth which still allow a Rousseau-esque experience of nature, a unity of ego, place and time ... Camenisch is a man who breaks away to come back, who puts himself out to get there, to come home.

His photographs visualize his search. They are expressions of the longing for the self-balancing 'U' of communicating vessels, for functional interchange between subject and object driven by respect and appreciation rather than by dominance. In his vision we, who act, make nature resonate like a musical instrument. His pictures are contemplative, deep and serious. Their very sombreness quells hilarity. They hint that these primeval places, where such immersion is possible, will not be there for ever. These remnants of ground will soon be completely pulled from under our feet as the last of nature is changed, harnessed, exhausted. In Hartmut Böhme's understanding, the place of innocence is lost as we (or future generations) have to go through with detachment from nature, to complete our alienation to reconcile nature and spirit anew.

Reto Camenisch's camera shots seem to exude this dualism. Photographically, they mark the trail of his search. They record his memory of innocence, of being embedded, of being cradled. They are signs of a temporary diversion from the trim lawn of the present. But, pace Spinoza, they also seem to presage the end of self-shaping, life-giving nature (natura naturans) and the dominance of natura naturata, nature created by humans.

20th-century photography experienced the break with holy nature, marking the end of pictures of an untouched, unspoiled, pantheistic nature. The holy image of nature of Carlton Watkins, Anselm Adams or Minor White was replaced with the more realist photography of the topographers, who show how nature is bridled, occupied, used and mastered; how terrain changes into territory. Examples are the photographs of Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and Robert Adams - and there are others. The step they took was crucial, because it restored landscape photography's critical faculties. It repaired its clarity of vision and allowed it to become a contemporary medium of analysis which seismographically records the current state of relations between people and landscape.  The present trend is back to the landscape photograph as an original picture, as part of foreknowledge, part of submerged nature. Sally Mann, with her pictures of the overcast American south, or Jitka Hanzlová, with her forest photographs symbolizing the untamed corners of the human psyche, echo the theme of Reto Camenisch's natural sites. They, too, deal with the loss of essentiality, of source, of untrodden ground. They represent the search for depth, for unity and for wholeness in their photographs. The natural world outside is our benchmark as we review our existential wrapping and lifeskills.  But, as Gernot Böhme writes, inner nature and outside nature have "finally become something which lies before us. They have become a project." This makes the recreation of nature in human terms one of the key political issues of the 21st century. Reto Camenisch's search spawns original images which powerfully remind us of the nature we have lost. We let them resonate with our own nature, like sounding boards from the depths of space and time.

Urs Stahel

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