From Another Language
© Mårten Lange
2012 turned out to be quite the year for world-spanning photography books. Among our Best Books of 2012, Wolfgang Tillmans' Neue Welt certainly fits that description; it investigates the world's "current situation" as observed through cities. Mårten Lange's Another Language, meanwhile, concerns itself with the totality of the natural world. In Lange's images, natural phenomena of all types find a comfortable home in his frame. At times, there is almost a casualness to the way that he captures something like a bat in mid-flight, but as he related in conversation, he is looking at his subjects "with the eyes of a scientist."
So, is the book itself the "other language," or are the images the evidence of it? In other words, is this a book about photography, or nature? As Lange made clear, the title of the book could refer either to either one. By not trying to spell this meaning out—and reproducing a resonant text by 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt at the back of the book—Lange has left room for the viewer of Another Language to draw their own conclusions. (This review of Another Language, published in the Brooklyn Rail, provides some excellent background information on von Humboldt.)
After producing a number of other works that explored the relationship between photography and phenomena, Another Language feels like the crystallization of Lange's ideas. Small wonder indeed that it's showing up on quite a few "Best of 2012" lists around the web.
Why did you decide to pursue nature exclusively as a subject?
It's been an interest since my childhood. Spending the summers in the countryside, fishing, learning the names of birds, looking for mushrooms. I studied natural sciences in high school but then moved on to photography at university. Nature, or at least matter, is something that appears in most of my previous work as well.
What is the "other language" you are proposing? Why is photography a suitable tool for this project?
The 'other language' refers to two things – the idea that nature and its laws can be seen as language, but also photography as a language and system. The title is reflected in the text by Alexander von Humboldt, but this is not actually where it originated. Many years ago while working in the darkroom, a friend of mine spoke about his frustration with being required to describe his photographs in text, and said that photography is a language in itself which cannot always be translated. I liked that, it stayed with me for years.
I guess photography is just as suitable as music or fiction when it comes to talking about nature. But it's my medium. It's quiet and enigmatic while at the same time being obvious. Nature is everywhere right before our eyes but it guards its secrets very well, just like photographs.
You often take photographs where the flash makes your subject stand out against the background. In your previous work Anomalies your subjects were almost entirely man-made, but what happens when you use this obviously mechanical technique with a natural subject?
I think the images in Another Language have a lot in common with Anomalies in regards to how I approach physical matter, though formally they are less strict. In Anomalies, the isolation-by-flash technique was a thing in itself and a part of what the series was about, but with Another Language these kind of compositions came naturally. I'm attracted to the sculptural qualities of objects and I'm always looking for the angle and setting that lets me make a sculptural image.
I like to think I look at the phenomena with the eyes of a scientist. Everything centred and controlled, like a museum display cabinet. I think photography encourages this kind of aesthetic in many ways. First, simply in the way the camera's viewfinder and the image frame are constructed. But also in the way that collecting, classifying and archiving seems to be built into the mechanism.
You mentioned that you spent almost a year shooting this book, at times in the American West. Could you tell me a little more about that?
I was awarded a one year working grant from the Swedish Arts Council that allowed me to travel quite a lot for this project. I made several shorter trips here in Europe, but also a longer one to California and Arizona. I had never seen a desert before and was amazed by the empty vastness of it. For me, travelling (or at least a sense of travelling) makes it easier to work. Waking up in a new place every day keeps one's senses alert. It's easy to lose that feeling in the everyday.
Then again, a project about nature requires exploration. I could never have found some of the images from the book in Europe.
Are you trying to develop a universal language, or show that photography could be one?
No, that's a rather tall order, isn't it? But I think it's important to always remember that photography is language.