These are the words with which Buzz Aldine, pilot of the Apollo 11 lunar module, described the lunar landscape – words that could come to mind when viewing the landscape photographs of Steffi Klenz. Yes: desolation, unexpectedly large desolation, nothing but mountains composed of exotically coloured rocks bathed in a melancholic, unearthly light. Lying beyond the pale turquoise mountain in Dagenham East we might expect to find some forgotten galactic lunar filling station, and among the yellow-grey mountains of Pudding Mill Lane there might loom the arm of giant excavator belonging to the Jupiter Mining Company…or is it a desert landscape from the Far East? No. All you need is to purchase a ticket to the London Underground, get off the fifth station from the end of the north-eastern green line, and there you are.
In her series A Scape, German photographer Steffi Klenz (1979) – a recent graduate from London’s prestigious Royal College of Art – concentrates on the north and north-eastern outskirts of London. Her detailed, attentive gaze is capable of introducing the viewer to the fascinating otherness of these displaced landscapes.
Klenz has spent more than two years visually exploring landscapes and cities, the centre and the periphery – efforts that have led her to an artificial highland, whose abandoned, uninhabited plains are usually overlooked, considered unworthy of or not even befitting a second thought.
Hainault, Tottenham, Beacontree…animated, exhausted, exploited, derelict landscapes shown with a sense of monumentality, respect and extraordinary sensitivity for the morphology of space. Klenz does more than record empty landscapes – she builds up and discovers a viewpoint that teaches us to see the compelling architecture contained in their small and large forms.
And man? He is nowhere to be seen and yet we can sense his presence directly in his role as creator: Klenz captures these man-made, unstable and unreal lunar landscapes via a fleeting, long gone moment, just one snapshot of their never-ceasing state of change. Landscapes exhausted and abandoned by people, as if they were mere echoes, mere shadows of their original form. Meta-landscapes wrenched from the continuum of time, empty inside – not only in their virtual persistence, but also in their desolate existence.
Klenz creates an overall sense of oscillation between the real and the unreal not only through the poetics of her gaze, but in particular by gently playing with scale and focusing on the importance of detail within the whole. Her sophisticated modulation of proportion lends the resulting landscapes a dimension of uncertainty and tension between reality and appearance. By focusing our assumptions and breaking through our prejudiced expectations, Klenz forces us to be aware of space and the structure of space, the importance of the hierarchy of elements, the morphology of the landscape and its internal makeup.
Klenz is certainly not the first nor the last contemporary (not only) young photographer to focus on the periphery of large cities. The interiors of suburban motels, bedrooms of workers’ dormitories, banal courtyards, office complexes and out-of-the-way filling stations on the industrial periphery – shown in a hundred and one different ways – are themes that have managed to climb to the very peak of contemporary photography since the ground-breaking days of the “Becher School” of the 1970s.
In a sense of urgency, A Scape goes beyond the mere need to follow fashionable topics. It opens questions and overturns stereotypes. This new, artificial landscape of the moment, without history, created from itself, is a kind of peculiar and artificial alter ego to a stable, real and living landscape – a natural landscape as we know it, or have known it.
These otherworldly landscapes, photographed with a sensitive feminine eye, show us something from their secondary, instinctive nature and are suddenly so fragile, so beautiful – not at all what we would expect to call these ugly spoil heaps somewhere on the edge of town. Some critics have labelled Klenz’s work lyricism, and it is true that her landscapes are surprisingly full of melancholic beauty in their perfect timelessness.
But deaf landscapes also reflect that which we do not want to hear, do not want to see. There are almost no places left to escape from the large city except precisely here, to these heaps of turned-up earth that plainly reflect our own (human) degeneration. All that remains is silence and emptiness.
Klenz, however, is not afraid of emptiness. Far from it. Not only does she know how to find it and capture it on film, but – through the strength of her personal view – she is able to force it to give up its testimony of hidden meanings. Klenz convincingly confirmed this unusual ability in her subsequent and most recent photographic series Nonsuch, in which she captures the metaphysical atmosphere of the model town of Poundbury.
Both visually mature and consistent photographic series – A Scape and the more recent Nonsuch – share the same investigation of the urban landscape by focusing our attention on the city’s extreme elements and the way in which we inhabit and characterize space. They force us to see things slightly differently than usual and to ask: is a model town, empty and without any sign of life, a town at all? Are heaps of mining backfill a real mountain, can they be real mountains, and is such a panorama a real landscape?
Simona Vladikova is an independent writer based in the Czech Republic. She is a regular contributor to Fotograf Magazine.
(This text was firstly published in the magazine Fotograf, Landscape Issue, Volume 5, 2007, Czech Republic)