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DEEP BLACK The Transformation of Emptiness
by Dr. Harald Krämer, Bern, Switzerland

Lunar landscapes as far as the eye can see. Hills as a gesture of abstraction, clouds as a gesture of lyricism. Rhythms full of emptiness. The melancholy of De Chirico. The loneliness of Friedrich. The yearning of Adams. The dead cities of Schiele. The timelessness of Cooper. Black squares, black beaches, black holes and again and again black sky. Deep Black – the title of this book. Yet no one who knows Peter Schlör would describe him as melancholy, as one in whom black bile holds sway. So why Deep Black?

The deepest black of all is that of black velvet, although the black of deep space is deeper still. The physical definition of absolute black is a non-luminous body that devours all light. Brooding black is the complementary color of vital, life-affirming white. Black is the color of mourning and death; as a liturgical color, the color of Good Friday and the funeral mass. Yet it is also the color of dark secrets, of taboos, of magic. In Christian symbolism, black is the color of earthly mourning, gray the color of the Last Judgment and white the color of the Resurrection. And as to the theoretical question of whether black is a color at all, the only theoretical answer is that black is a color without a hue. None of which answers the question of why Deep Black?

Black’s powerful psychological impact rests on our experience of nightfall and the extinguishing of all color which that brings. Perceived only as a pall of gloom and hence fraught with danger, black can indeed affect us negatively, whereas for those who associate darkness with mystery, whose feelers are sensitive enough to pick up what others cannot see or hear, it can be a very positive experience indeed. As Derek Jarman once so astutely remarked: “Black contains the possibility of hope.”

If we take a closer look at Schlör’s works and at his series in particular, then we soon realize how absolute his mastery over the interaction of these two worlds – over the interplay of light and dark – really is. His interest is above all in the finely nuanced shades in between, such shades as the rest of us all too easily shrug off as various shades of gray. And we notice something else too. What is the source of this extraordinary calm and why do these black and white still lifes hold such a fascination for us? The answer is simple. It is because far from depicting just the natural world, these landscapes and motifs more often than not contain fragments of the artist’s own biography as well. The pine trees are a pointer to the playground of his boyhood, the rows of trees recall those lining a road he used to walk along everyday. Painting or photographing a landscape is bound to entail exposing something of one’s own emotional landscape at the same time. Autobiographical and topographical information here merge together in a single, symbolic whole that strikes a chord in us all. The landscape we see is the sound of our own past and this is what makes it so fascinating and so familiar. Then there are the compositional qualities of the subject itself or, to quote that old master of the art of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, an “attitude [on the part of the photographer] requiring concentration, mental discipline and a sense of geometry.”

The second most important factor contributing to the calm exuded by these works after Schlör’s reductive use of black and white is the harmony generated by the classicism of their composition. This harmony is evident in his use of axial and parallel symmetries, in the golden section, in the way in which light and dark elements interact and by no means least in the effect of containing these glossy dark photographs inside matte white frames.

Schlör’s compositional sensitivity manifests itself in a number of different ways: In the Sinai series of 2001, for example, it comes to the fore in the architectonic interlocking of the abandoned houses, while in the Versandungen (Sanding Up) series of 2004, the sand dunes inside the ruins have a damping effect making for mysteriously silent formations, the latent rhythm of which suggests the simultaneous presence of order and chaos. In the twenty-one-part work, NamibRand of 2004/05, meanwhile, this interaction of compositional forms manifests itself as an exciting metamorphosis.

Arranging his photographs in series enables the artist to inch towards his motif, which once found, asserts its full complexity by being shot over and over again. Yet those who place their faith in first impressions only will miss the most important point of all. For nothing is the same here. Everything is changing all the time. And this is what these works show us gently, perhaps, but emphatically and continuously. Schlör devotes himself to making visible the phenomenon of synchronicity within asynchronicity. His seven-part work, Kohleberg (Coal Mountain) of 1998, and even Nefta of 2004 are both outstanding examples of his visualization of this principle.

Yet this serialization is not without its wiles and once viewers have understood that no two extracts from a given series are alike, they will be astonished by the wealth of possibilities this highly sensitive game of perception opens up. Relatively easy to recognize is the change of location in the two-part work, Kirschbäume (Cherry Trees) of 2006. Far more complex, however, is the change of motifs in the series Kohleberg and Stroh (Straw), another two-part series of 2003. La Geria 1–3, another series dated 2003, meanwhile, merits special attention in this connection, for here, both the long shot and the detail change even while remaining seemingly identical. Schlör directs the viewer’s gaze to the plethora of possibilities from which just a single detail – the one true detail, perhaps – was to be selected, while at the same time casting doubt on the choice ultimately made. For it is precisely in this infinity of possible motifs and of possible details in the midst of the reality surrounding them that the challenge of the photographer as artist resides. Rudolf Arnheim described this as the “two authenticities of photographic media,” which seek to express “actual fact” on the one hand and “the quality of human experience” on the other.

So what is the secret behind the way in which the motifs Schlör captures are always the same and yet always different? How does the photographer direct our gaze and how does he manipulate us as the viewers of his work? Expressed in metaphorical terms, Schlör slips into the location of his motifs and there represents, as it were, the subject he himself is shooting. He not only depicts, but the eye of his camera actually fuses together with the location so that what is seen and what is to be seen become one. This is most clearly apparent in his self-portraits, in which he positions himself inside his own shadow and then portrays the shadow as a kind of stand-in for himself. On all these journeys, all these roads leading to the right motif in the right place at the right time, Schlör has always had his shadow to accompany him – an incorporeal companion he has come to understand and appreciate over the years. These highly unusual portrait photographs can therefore be viewed as a tribute to an aspect of ourselves that we do not know and that will remain forever alien to us, even though it is closer to us than our most intimate friend. Looking at the shadows on these photographs, one cannot help but ask whether they are not part of their own spectral world of a homogeneous universe against whose myriad shades of white, gray and black we ourselves look like outlandishly colored aliens?

“You have to hurry if you want to see anything, because it’s all disappearing,” as Paul Cézanne once said. And Peter Schlör, it seems, has taken these words to heart. For how else should we interpret his unflagging attempts to document all things ephemeral? Perhaps he is best described as an attentive chronicler of the transformation of emotional states as manifested in landscapes, deserted villages, houses, sand dunes, disused mines or even in the photographer’s own shadow. His photographs make visible the inexorable metastases of our civilization in exquisitely composed black and white still lifes in which not only the beauty, but also the impermanence of all human activity is expressed. Deep Black ultimately stands for the unconscious, for the association of dream and metamorphosis and the visualization of invisible happenings between visible worlds. This – what Rilke called the “Kunstding” or “art thing” – is what Schlör shows us. And perhaps the one who comes closest to expressing in words the essence of Schlör’s “art things” is the Japanese master to whom the following poem in the Manyôshû is attributed:

“Being-in-the-world
can be compared with what?
It is like a light
rowing out without a trace
into deep black.”

Harald Krämer | 2006