Dorothee Baer-Bogenschütz on Peter Schlör

“The Sun, say the ancients, is big game. During the day, it runs through the sky, mocking the hunters who are unable to shoot it. Far away in the west, however, far beyond the Atlantic Ocean, there lives an extraordinary people, who although they have only one leg and only one eye are exceptionally strong. When the Sun, therefore, exhausted from running through the sky all day, settles down to sleep in the land of the one-legged, these same people come and stab it with their spears until the red blood flows copiously. This is what makes the sky so red at sunset. The hunters then feed on the Sun all night – at least until just before dawn, when one of them takes the Sun’s shoulderblade and throws it back east in a huge arc. Anyone who pricks up his ears around that time can hear it flying through the air, saying sobobobobobo. Once in the east, the Sun grows again from this shoulderblade and once again sets off on its daily journey through the sky.”

Traditional San folktale (1)

Peter Schlör has three eyes. His third eye is his camera – the camera with which he takes up position in front of the sun to see what it illuminates at day’s end. Seconds before the Bushmen’s spears strike, he can still feel it burning on his neck. The shadows are becoming longer and the contours as sharp as a scythe. This is the hour when Schlör likes to stand in the middle of the desert and shoot a space-time panorama rooted in reality. But does it match the reality too? Today, his lens is trained on the Rant Mountains of Namibia, a range near Sossusvlei, the red-hot center of the giant dunes.

The sun and I are gazing at these mountains.

As countless black and white photos will testify. And Schlör rates those that combine maximum drama with rigorously formal abstraction “especially good.” It is a balancing act. And the photographer exaggerates, of course, using his third eye to move mountains. It is digital image processing that provides him with the necessary scope – scope for dialectic shadow boxing against the presence embedded in absence. Sometimes, Schlör actually buries himself in his own shadow and then hides inside a much larger shadow so that he himself no longer exists – without shedding a single drop of blood. And then he presses the shutter.
The result is generally a sequence or series of shots. Rhythm as ritual: Schlör pans whole mountain ranges and desert horizons, stopping at regular intervals – “exactly every 200 meters” (2) – to take in a new vista.

When I say I travel, then what I mean is not just the act of traveling to a country, but that of traveling within it as well. And not by bus, but by car. What a nightmare it would be to drive past a shot without being able to get out!

The visual yield appears both realistic and yet painstakingly contrived, for Schlör stages his motifs according to strict organizational principles.

A single picture is interesting, a series even more so. Taken in their entirety, they constitute a reinvention of reality, an image parallel to nature.

He selects the best possible hour for his shoot – the right light, right frame, film, filter and exposure time, and “then I wait for the right moment to come.” Schlör, in other words, creates the emblematic moment. And the overwhelmed viewer stumbles into the image trap.

When I’m driving, the landscape appears to unroll before me like a movie reel, meaning that for me, photography is like an unrolling of nature – I produce a whole movie condensed into a single image.

On his image-finding expeditions, Schlör is invariably drawn to regions devoid of people. He thirsts for the expansiveness of the desert. He wants the totality so that he can do the segmenting – or what he calls isolation and subtraction. Regular segmentation is the principle underlying all his panoramas and tableaus. In the pictorial medium of black-and-white photography, the desire for emotional penetration goes hand in hand with the urge to approximate by abstraction. The archaic, idealized landscape of Schlör’s imagination that itself spawns still more ideas for images at least inside his head lives from ideal light.

My favorite light is the direct light obtained when the sun is right behind me. Which is why my preferred time of day for taking photographs is when the sun is low in the sky.

Sunny security and desert expansiveness. Among cowboys, architects and tour operators they are worth their weight in gold – at least for those who live from just such backdrops: John Wayne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Cook. The sight of emptiness invariably inspires a sense of drama. In the desert, the eye can roam freely as it can nowhere else, which in the farmlands of Southwest Africa means at least as far as the next fence. The year 2004 saw Peter Schlör in Namibia, in a world of savannahs and salt-pans, big game and giant succulents silently suffering the scorching heat, the blindingly bright light. The degree of aridity on the east-west axis ranges from semi-arid to hyper-arid. Schlör experiences both semi-desert and desert proper. And succumbs to the magical nothingness of the Namib, to a landscape that provokes associations extending into the cosmic.

We drove first through bushland, although it was the desert that interested me most. The sheer expansiveness of the desert was something I found extraordinarily fascinating – that feeling of being in a huge open-air arena some sixty kilometers across. And not a single road in sight, not a single house – nothing at all.

The aridity is a source of exceptional beauty – of dunes as red as the blood of the Sun – and of sheer desperation. The San, the Bushmen of southern Africa who are among the oldest ethnic groups on the continent, have developed survival strategies that enable them to counter the inhospitability of the desert with their own ingenuity. The tourist who travels for fun rather than for existential reasons and never without his three liters of water per day is able to appreciate the primordial quality of the desert without having to endure its hell. He naively joins the ranks of our modern-day adventurers and thanks God for it too. He squints into the desert, repeatedly raises his binoculars and books a place on a photo safari so as to be able to capture whatever runs away. He even believes he could stop time itself if he could only catch an animal in his viewfinder – an oryx at half-past eight, perhaps? For all these animals flee the moment they sense they are being gaped at. He sees giraffes and big cats, zebras and ostriches, elephants and antilopes all of which – come the evening and the safety of the camp – he will eat. Today’s motif is today’s dinner. He will encounter himself.

It is always about loneliness, about isolation, about depth. You see these bizarre shadows. It’s like finding the images you carry around inside you all the time.

The emptiness of the Namib is fulfillment for Schlör. He drives as far as the Skeleton Coast, Namibia’s westernmost frontier. This coastal desert, this seemingly endless strip of sand along the South Atlantic rim, is one of the largest maritime cemeteries in the world. The seamen washed up there have long since become the stuff of legend, the whale bones scattered along the beach its spectral hallmark. Walvis Bay was once a flourishing port with a natural harbor for whalers and later became an important industrial base. Until the wave of history broke over it.

The frontier regions are even more exciting than the classical desert.

At the northern end of the Skeleton Coast is the “Wilderness,” an impossible place where few outsiders dare to venture. Better to go south to the old diamond-mining town of Lüderitz. Schlör goes into raptures over the deserted dwellings now half-buried in sand. He captures a condition that is as ephemeral as it is symptomatic of inexorable, irreversible dissolution. His camera scrapes away the veneer of civilization that nature is in any case corroding as it reclaims its lost terrain. The merciless wind drives dunes through abandoned houses.

The outside penetrates the inside.

Schlör investigates the latent insecurity resulting from the alienation of the individual from society, politics, religion and nature – the panic of being lost – using experimental set-ups such as one would expect of a research scientist. Like the scientist, he takes samples at regular intervals and creates such conditions as are most conducive to that fertile moment in which the image – which remains a self-portrait even after the person photographed has gone – is conceived.

We are in an exceptionally receptive state when traveling. Traveling is a bit like taking stock of oneself. The greater the distance we put between ourselves and our home, the more unconsciously aware we become of who we really are and the point that we are at. We find things that seem very relevant to us at that particular time. I for one find them intuitively.

Schlör does not leave that which is objectively existent untouched, however. His aestheticization of nature is almost an act of reverence, an apprehension of grandeur, and his camera, a seismograph of the sublime. When he sees a huge cloud shadow spreading darkness over the land and sees how this menacing, animal-shaped monster, this nebulous creature comes to rest on a mountain ridge and “twenty minutes later disintegrates down the mountainside,” then capturing this on camera becomes tantamount to an act of devotion. The dramaturgy of his twenty-one-part series, NamibRand (Namib Rim) is unremittingly rigorous: “ten parts Coming, one part Being, ten parts Going.”

Schlör’s photographs are not only revelatory of his own individual ordering system, but also convey his own subjective sense of time. The transience of cloud formations is nowhere more striking than in the sky over the desert, whether it is the Negev or the Namib. This catalogue, as the first major overview of Peter Schlör’s work since 1986, not only contains photographs taken over a period of twenty years, but also shows how the photographer has shifted away from single photographs and towards complete series, the most impressive of which are perhaps the aforementioned views of Namibia, published here for the first time. The year 2004 obviously marked a broadening of Schlör’s horizons, for it was then that he first ventured into southern Africa, which unlike the Maghreb was still terra incognita for him.

For me, traveling in the desert is a lesson in how life can be. It always looks so simple and so clear at first and then suddenly, you find yourself standing there without a clue which way to go next.

Schlör first developed a yearning for the desert while in Egypt.

I discovered my love of photography in the Sinai twenty-two years ago. I was staying not far from Sharm El-Sheikh in a place called Naama Bay, where I spent two weeks camping out on the beach. There was a hotel there the Israelis had abandoned and a diving school that’s still there even now.

This quiet little cove has now become a magnet for mass tourism. And is already languishing. Meanwhile, just to the north of Sharm El-Sheikh, the first casualities of fast-track development are already clearly visible: Here, a belt of hotel complexes built in a hurry and abandoned even before the first guest had checked in stands empty. Ruins that remain an indictment, even as time and the elements erode them. Architecture that can no longer be ascribed a function. An economic barometer made of bricks and mortar, yet bereft of everything except nostalgia. In the Sinai, Schlör saw the soft underbelly of mass tourism, the writing on the wall for today’s fun lovers. Yet his photographs are also imbued with that topography of the past that never knew a present, with a poetry all their own. This is where he feels close to the metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico – for nowhere is the individual thrown back upon himself more violently than here, where he discovers just how spectacularly his own kind has failed.

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia and east coast of the Sinai, which is no less strewn with the concrete skeletons of post-modernist complexes than is the former with animal and human bones, both testify to a hybrid, expansionist way of thinking such as informs the unflagging efforts of the tourist industry to conquer the desert itself. And as the sand-to-dust continuum appears at its most forsaken there where it is black, Schlör set off in search of his color of choice and found it on the Canary Islands.

Lanzarote really is a desert island – in every sense of the word.

Meanwhile, other potential destinations are already emerging before his inner eye – his fourth eye.

Mongolia would interest me too.

The cover of AUFBRUCH (Departure), one of his earlier catalogues, shows a scrap of asphalt. Schlör photographs this objet trouvé from a waste dump as if it were a jewel, captivated by the intricacy of its surface structure and inky black interior. He will continue. His departure into desert expanses will continue.

Dorothee Baer-Bogenschütz | 2006


(1) From Sigrid Schmidt, Märchen aus Namibia, (Düsseldorf, 1980), quoted in Karl-Günther Schneider, Bernd Wiese, Namibia und Botswana, (Cologne, 1996), p. 65.

(2) Peter Schlör talking to the author on April 11, 2006; all the quotations both in the text itself and those set in italics are taken from this interview.