I have also been fascinated with the outer margins of photography, and the possibility of photographing the unrepresentable. Trying to find new and unique ways of representing the world is one of the most challenging things to achieve in photography. The drive behind this project was to see if I could photograph a landscape with nothing in it – an impossible landscape devoid of meaning, history and trace. The project then started with this question.
In 2006 I bought a fourth-hand Eskom bakkie (pick-up) and modified it to attach a four metre ladder to photograph from. I ended up doing numerous trips across the length and breadth of South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia. I covered a distance of over 80 000km, photographed over 150 rolls of medium format film and hand-printed 400 of the images.
My projects have always involved journeying or driving and this is a major part of SOJOURN. The process of looking at landscape whilst long-distance driving creates an accumulative blur, an after-image which here is broken down and essentialised into two visual elements, the land and the sky, Terra Firma and Terra Nova. What is left is the single simple line that divides the two – the horizon.
SOJOURN focuses on two main strains than run parallel to one another. The first is a concern with photographic framing and looking, and the aesthetic, structural nature and constructedness of landscape imagery. Implicit in this is the very nature of what the camera does best – to record the ‘real’. These images play with those notions in subtle ways through a way of looking at landscape which is always imagined and dislocated through an elevated viewpoint.
The second avenue that this work explores is the very idea of landscape in Southern Africa, not landscapes of popular tourist destinations that are embellished by sunsets and the ‘right light’ or landscapes that are topical or newsworthy. These are spaces that are remote, isolated, spaces that shift seasonally, spaces that are in transition, under construction, being reshaped outside the urban gaze. Here change occurs slowly and is often brutal, where earth is not only moved and shaped by machine but also mostly by hand.
Beyond the political, the social, environmental and the economic undertones, this work is about us, a concern with the body, and the place where we will be laid down rest, laid back into the lay of the land. To be horizontal, to be primordially connected back to the land, to become ash and dust, to become strata.
At the brink in no-man’s land
by Brent Meistre
To point a camera towards land in Southern Africa is to draw the history of the continent to your eye. A history which is archaeologically layered, complex, implicit, but also a blind spot; a specula highlight on the retina, an aberration that deregisters the picture. Every tilt and pan is a political act, an act of representation, of framing, of remarking of boundaries and borders, the camera recording, re-constructing and complicating the ground. This, an un-representable no-man’s land where we find it hard or even impossible to position ourselves.
With its ocular vantage point and ability to capture, the camera carries with it the burdens of colonial and imperialist vision, history, politics and ecological concerns. To photograph land here brings all these complexities to the fore. No more than ever as borders and boundaries and ownership shifts, land itself is unstable, nomadic in its own sense. Through and under the scrutiny of the camera lens, land and sky tilt up and down skirting around the viewfinder attempting to settle itself, to find home.
The land before us is a strange but familiar land, a no-man’s land, cultivated, demarcated, and stratified with the patina of history. The ruins above the firma that lies on its skin, erodes quietly as time, and memory accelerate its absence. The photographs in this collection are about that skin, a flat expanse of a body that recedes into the hinterland and more importantly into the interior.
It is apt then to be a migrant in this space, constantly shifting, on the move, drifting or wandering with purpose and intent. The drive and impulse then is to be ‘moving on’, leaving behind, a timeless desire to accumulate distance, hurtling towards Utopia, leaving Arcadia in the dust.
At the brink
To drive through the landscape imagining what it may look like from an elevated position is to drive in a constant state of displacement and ascension. Driving and turning your head, watching the land approaching, foreground, middle ground and background coming into composition as your eyes align parallel to the roadside, fence and telephone poles. This driving in a suspended state, seeing, projecting and inverting the image ‘in camera’ of the land before you. In this manner I photograph in a no-man’s land.
Through this elevation removed from the ground, I am suspended precariously on a brink, a point of ascendance or descendants. Depressing the shutter at this moment is like being at a threshold or at that brink, the moment of closing your eyes: a moment of blindness, breathing out with the camera mirror locked up, blinded and ‘click’. The land is engraved, a decisive moment, transformed into the monumental, memorialised and unmoveable.
An inscription, a discarded object become markers and define a space, especially where there are no structures to reference it. These traces of occupation or human activity are traces of narratives of the past. The remnants or residues are our clues, vestiges, and are amassed in their sparseness in these images throughout this collection.
There are shapes and colours that grab our attention and draw us to what may be in the landscape, be it a windmill, a ruin, fallen tree, burnt-out wreck or patch of freshly dug earth. These forms in the landscape create an entry point, a focal point, and a point of interest. Much like the subject of the works of the New Topographics, the images in this book concern themselves with not only the changing view but what is filling the view – as open space is ‘emptied out’ and filled.
The Interior Landscape
The threat of the wild and untamed land and what lies beyond the containment of fences and gates is the ‘dark-heart’ of the psyche. Over the horizon where we cannot see, lies the unimagined. It is the secluded and secretive, a domain of exclusion where the past is buried.
The interior or hinterland is a fantasy space. An imagined and nostalgic place positioned in the DNA strands of all. It is a place of origins, the rural home of the urbanised in old Pondoland, the The Great Karroo, Namaqualand and the Kgalagadi. It is a place of beginnings, forefathers and mothers, a place we are drawn to and from, through a compulsion. This is where our constructed notion of nature and the wilderness lie, where our Edenic pastoral past calls us from.
What then is more primordially a landscape concern than the act of laying the deceased into the earth? To place a body in a horizontal position and to demarcate, indicate with a cairn, to return to families and ancestors.
Landscape can be said to be a rural concern where, unlike the urban centre, history disappears slowly in it. The urban centre concerns itself with portraiture where history and trace disappears daily. This is a vertical concern: it mirrors buildings and the upright human form. The rural and remote is a place where people come to, not a place where people live. It is not one place or point like a city, it is an expanse, a field or area.
On the road
The arterial, matrix road network can lead anywhere. To imagine that every road that I may find myself on is connected to every other road on the continent is invigorating. It ideologically compresses the distance between here and there and perpetuates an interconnectedness that ignites the nomadic spirit.
Road building is mark-making, an inscription on and into the land. The road leading towards the horizon itself is like a line drawn out before us, sketched and inked into the land. This mark-making is then inextricable linked to the construction of landscape imagery. In its rudimentary abstract form, the parallel lines of the centre line of the road, the roadside fence, the telephone line, the cultivated contours and the horizon line compose the land. Telephone lines, fences, staggered and double-barrier lines point me to a one-point perspective vanishing point. It is from this departure point from which I never arrive, an imagined distance.
The language of the road is the one of silence, an in-articulation. Seated in the rear, talking to the back of another’s head, or speaking at the windscreen into the landscape before me, language breaks down, as I am mesmerised by the continual line that is drawn before me like a groove in a vinyl record. Distance and speed accelerates the absence of memory, the past, promising a new life and new beginnings and endings.