The World in the Light of Photography

During its unrivalled victory march over the past twenty years, photography has become one of the leading media of contemporary art. In a process that was initially characterised by a desire to experiment and work through the wide spectrum of photographic possibilities, the medium’s assertion finally culminated in not always pleasing attempts to outbid the rest with an overwhelming brilliance of colours, ever-larger formats and a new, cool and perfect presentation of the works. In the course of this development content has been inclined to lose intensity, to the benefit of technical mastery as a primary aim.
In the last decades photography has also rescinded, of necessity, its original promise to produce an authentic reproduction of reality. However, Bertolt Brecht’s still correct, profound comment that a photograph of the Krupp works is incapable of telling us anything about the reality of the Krupp works has now been underlined by the fact that every conceivable reality can be simulated in the assumed photographic image, using the modification possibilities of digital image processing. The widespread dissemination of these possibilities will make almost everyone into his own image processor in the near future; supposed reality captured in the image will turn into the reflection of a virtual reality. In addition, world-wide networking means that such a flood of images is zooming around the world in a matter of seconds that a word even had to be invented for this rapid flow. It is the power of images that speeds the messages of our age around the world. And, of course, the extreme velocity with which these messages reach even the most distant part of the globe means that the multiple voices of human culture are being reduced more and more to the one-dimensionality of the currently dominant visual world.
These are the points at which Olaf Schlote’s photography begins, championing no more than the quiet gaze of the artist, which - in the place where he lives - tracks the mysteries of existence that endure beyond the flood of images. Beyond the mainstream of the metropolises and megalopolises, Schlote spins the steady thread of human curiosity with his photographs: the fundamental condition of art, which seeks to illuminate the basic conditions of human existence - beyond the glittering surfaces.
Using the light of photography, Olaf Schlote creates a world that is entirely his own: a world of intensely experienced moments. His photography is a means to explore reality, a special perceptual tool, a device for quasi tactile seeing.
Schlote’s pictorial worlds describe a reality that may easily be overlooked - beyond the hectic flow of high-gloss images. Different as his motifs appear at first glance, their common denominator is a casual beauty within things camouflaged or concealed.
Schlote finds moments to capture his gaze on expeditions through real areas, travelling in Greece, France and Italy, on the streets of Berlin, while exploring the landscapes surrounding his home town or in those enchanted corners of Bremen’s port area which are gradually losing their original momentum.
These moments may be quite striking, but they are usually more passing moments, focusing on what is often unseen in everyday life, on a sphere in which deeper meaning can unfold. One of the central works in Schlote’s oeuvre is spectacular, of this there can be no doubt - the artist arranges a special find in a triptych, circumscribing its strange appearance with the title beyond. Three different views of a dead owl appear on the three glowing panels, embedded in the surrounding natural space as if laid out on an altar of death, its design reminiscent of some Indian ritual. The owl - as a symbol of the ability to see in the dark as well as being synonymous with wisdom - shows a vibrant pride in the face of death. The three-part photograph seems to contemplate the moment of transition, the interwovenness of life and death. And indeed, many of Schlote’s photographs circle around the steady flow of becoming, which incorporates the passing as well as the newly emergent. The exhibition in the Weserburg also provides a counterpart to the image of the owl facing death. Requiem - also a triptych - is a calm depiction of an inward-looking person in death. Here, the cloth covering the body is a faded white, the dead body is partially recognisable, the folded hands are at peace - silence, an end without sound. The end of a life can be experienced in white light; we know nothing of this life’s transition into another - a foreboding transit?
Schlote has captured images of human existence in many completely different photographs. We see moments of travel, of departure, of expectant longing to arrive in a different place, the existence of which is unimaginable. We see groups of people deliriously playing, caught up in life’s round dance. Or people on their way through the normality of our cities, framed by traces of history that appear in the architecture around them. The eye of the artist is always tracking down those moments that reflect basic existential conditions. The elements fire, water and earth appear in quasi somnambulant images of landscape, their sharp, mottled light recounting constant change, pulsating oscillation, gliding into a different state - on the tides of light.
Glittering light with its blinding force, the light with which photography draws its images, becomes a defining medium in Olaf Schlote’s most recent works. Light erases some of reality and thus the legibility we attribute to photographs. As technical images, photographs are strangely difficult to decipher: as Vilém Flusser puts it, “their meaning seems to impress itself automatically on their surfaces - as in fingerprints where the meaning (the finger) is the cause and the image (the print) is the effect.” The technical image is hot-wired with the “intended” world; it seems irrevocably tied to its meaning. And so these images appear “not as symbols in need of deciphering, but as symptoms of the world they mean, and that we can see this meaning through them, however indirectly.”
Olaf Schlote plays with these contexts. The motifs of transit - bridges, steps, tunnels - appear in a light that makes the world it records all but disappear. Here, a different level of reality seems to be illuminated. The world of exact, tangible coordinates fades into the haze, making way for a different experience. The image allows the world to be manifested as a constantly changing continuum. In the light of photography, the aggregate state of reality becomes a continuous current - with no shores, quite limitless, kept safe in the view of the light alone. Moments of reality thus become changeover places, the bridgeheads of a different perception which enables us to sense an existential echo in these phenomena. Olaf Schlote’s images flicker in such fluid atmospheres, orbiting around once concealed phenomena now made visible in tracks of light.
Olaf Schlote’s photographs uncover reality with its mystery and wealth of facets. They focus our view on a world of marvels and lead us beyond the limitations of our “pre-set” grasp of reality.
Here, a plant’s ability to survive in an inhospitable industrial environment becomes a sensation of quiet beauty. Birds’ nests tell of the fragility of existence; compelling portraits make a fleeting moment of life into what it is - a significant breath of vitality. All Schlote’s photographs focus on the eternal cycle of becoming and fading.
His individual works, now brought together in a comprehensive exhibition, are not single pieces of a puzzle that needs solving. Nevertheless, in the interlocking and counteraction of parallel worlds, they come together to create an unspectacular, intimate, photographic song, in which the tune of existence takes on a wondrous tone. By precisely capturing the small miracles, orders and formations of reality, Schlote unwinds a mysterious, invisible thread that runs through the visible world and can be sensed only as an atmospheric presence; the presence of the artistic viewpoint, the signature of vision.
Photography - as practised by Olaf Schlote - is quite different to most current variations found on the art market. Despite their huge diversity, Schlote’s works are always authentic, reflecting the untiring artistic viewpoint with which he derives an immeasurable narrative from the sphere of reality. The photographer Schlote plays less with photographic means and more with the poetic aspects of the real. The utopian vanishing point of his photographic undertaking is that “miracle of art”, upon which Georg Simmel reflected in his essay Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers (On the Philosophy of the Actor, 1908): “Part of the incomprehensible sublimity of all art, therefore, is its ability to bring together, as if naturally, the levels and dimensions which are separated by indifference, alienation or animosity in life… and in this way, it offers us an intimation and a pledge that, fundamentally, the elements of life are not so irredeemably indifferent or unrelated as life itself would sometimes have us believe.”
In this, Olaf Schlote can trust in the “witchcraft” guaranteed by his artistic practice, which Vilém Flusser once described as follows: “the new (witchcraft) aims at changing our concepts concerning the world out there. We are dealing, then, with a magic of the second degree, with an abstract sort of witchcraft.”

Carsten Ahrens

Olaf Schlote

Aldous Huxley once said - after reading Einstein - that the
universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but is stranger than we are capable of imagining (Richard Ford)

A whitish-grey square on a black background. At its centre there is a plus sign, flanked to the right and left by two minus signs. A picture following in the wake of Suprematism? The nature of the symbols distinguishes it from paintings and drawings of that art movement. Kasimir Malevich did not use ciphers from applied mathematics for his meditative panels; instead, he chose geometric figures.
The image with the whitish-grey square is by Olaf Schlote. It is a single work, but at the same time it may be regarded as one component of a group of images. The image is also a photograph. However, it is not the photographic reproduction of an abstract painting. Nor did the photographer embellish his motif with these horizontal and cross-shaped symbols before taking the shot, for the sake of some mysterious aesthetic aura. Equally, the motif is not an object as flat as a board, although the image conveys that impression. Its irregular outline and relief-like surface trigger the initial ideas.
The object in this picture appears completely flat, which is the outcome of the viewing perspective: all the elements of the image are drawn into this perspective. As the view of the motif is taken from directly above, the raised features seem linked together on the flat plane. That is why the greyish-white square is not a one-dimensional figure, but the plastic, bird’s-eye-view of a square-sided stone. There is a difference, not immediately revealed, between the stone’s phenomenal existence and its being in the image.
The stone in the photograph is a border stone between Germany and the Czech Republic. One of many standing in the forest. The distance between the individual stones measures between 100 and 150 metres. Their symbols are demarcations of the border. In this concrete case, the symbols have been freshly painted. Border guards patrol constantly. Only those who know how to read them can interpret the border symbols correctly. Art is no different in this respect.
The technical pictorial medium, photography, is characterised by an iridescent ambiguity. Its images reflect the present within the past - and the other way around. On the one hand, photography - or to be more precise, the analogue photographic technique - cuts into the continuum of time: its images hold onto a specific moment immediately after the triggering of the camera mechanism, fixing it inalterably on the negative material of the film. On the other hand, when contemplating these images the particular moment seems so remarkably present that we gain the impression the people, things or conditions depicted have rescued some part of their past existence through time, undamaged and in true-to-life form. Only the ephemeral laws of fashion - clothing, bodies, poses and ambience - lock them into the specific spaces of times past. This explains why some images suddenly increase in actuality when corresponding retro-looks appear in the fashion world.
By contrast, the stone is still there, immovable, resistant to all the temptations of fashion. The added symbols also make a claim to eternity. Schlote underlines the qualities of the present in his images, but in a way that translates the apparent corporeality of the motifs photographed into an almost physically tangible representation of semblance.
It is true that the character of historical evidence, a documentary value, has been attributed to photography. But actually, everything that has been depicted has disappeared into endless orbit, never to return again. It is only its factual absence that is documented in the image, as Robert Castel pointed out many years ago. It documents the factual absence of an object in its visual representation - as irredeemably absent. In the analogue process, the photographic image visualises a past moment in the manner of a medium definitively programmed toward the past.
According to the logic of this insight, there should be a utopian moment concealed in this shot by Olaf Schlote: in other words, the circumstance that the border stone is no more than the relic of a long distant past. Utopia is something quite impossible in photography. Its business is dystopia, i.e. the anti-utopia: shifting things into human consciousness - in the best case. Nevertheless, the crux of Olaf Schlote’s photographic art is touching on the impossible.
By contrast to film, which obeys the same technical principle but apparently overcomes the factual absence of what is shown with the help of a kinetic presence, the aspect of the “off” - a factual “emptiness” - defines the nature and structure of the photographic medium: in the optical evidence itself. Face-to-face with photographic images, viewers have a virtual transit visa, which keeps them in a permanent psychological state of transition for the duration of viewing.
What is valid for the photographic medium in general also applies to the precise method, themes and artistic standpoint of author-photographer Olaf Schlote. His method comprises a kind of cinematic handling of the medium. The individual image in his photographic-artistic oeuvre is not the reflection of a whole world - in nuce -, in other words an image with a claim to universality: instead, it is open structurally to the interaction of photographs taken earlier or later. But here, by contrast to narrative cinema, it does not lose any of its formal independence - meaning that the images, even if they reproduce different times, places and even types of motif, reciprocally influence and occasionally intensify each other. At the very least, they complement one another and even disclose ways of viewing the other image which might remain hidden without the aid of the previous or following photo. It is no coincidence that Schlote gave one of his exhibitions the title In Transit. The conditions are unstable: every “that is what it was like” reveals a wealth of aspects.
As the order of each of Olaf Schlote’s photographic sequences points in two directions at least, forwards and backwards, the viewer’s role is not restricted to a passive physical component. On the contrary, he is called upon to act. Viewers are required to move back and forth continually. The physical process of perception discovers its physical-corporeal expression quasi as a side effect. In one specific group of works, the artist-photographer also formally injects the act of movement into each individual image by moving around as he takes the pictures. This leads to blurring, which has an effect on the viewers in turn, triggering a physical impulse in their efforts to get to the bottom of the objects shown. Often, physical impulses cannot be distinguished from psychological in the viewers’ reactions; a fluid transition takes place. This transition is also inscribed into the artist-photographer’s aesthetic concept.
But Schlote’s image sequences also evade a compelling system, so permitting a wealth of possible associations and visual links, quasi as a necessary and thus legitimate creative contribution by the viewer. In the book, this corporeal activity, so to speak, is reduced to our dexterity while turning the pages - in both possible directions.
Viewers can thus undertake a journey face-to-face with, and stimulated by the images. They need make no commitment to fixed routes in the process. In this way, quasi en passant and subcutaneously, they experience the thematic dimension of Olaf Schlote’s work; entering into it involuntarily, physically completing it in a sense, because nothing underpins it but the phenomenon of the journey. However, the phenomenon of the journey proves a considerably more complex matter than it may seem in newspaper travel supplements or in so-called traveller-magazines.
Schlote’s pictures display a wealth of facets: the physical aspect of a change in place, the metaphorical aspect of a journey through life from birth to death, and also a metaphysical level. The artist-photographer expresses the latter with the aid of several decisions relevant to staging. Firstly, there is his deliberate use of triptychs, i.e. forms of three-phase image which are reminiscent of an altarpiece. Secondly, he sometimes uses light-boxes, which are capable of providing the photographed motifs with a specific light of their own (highlighting). And thirdly, he gradually pushes away object-forms in favour of a diffuse, atmospheric, contourless lack of space and location, which not at all obvious, but in the final consequence reduces the optics to pure visibility.
In such images, the journey unfolds as a journey into the light, towards the absolute, which erases everything physical, being nothing but seeing per se. Ladders and stairways symbolise this insatiable longing for light. The viewing point of many images moves from the centre upwards, towards the light. Birth signifies the human being’s first encounter with light. To this extent, an automatic emotional affinity does arise to Malevich’s Suprematism, to his striving for transcendence and a reality beyond empirical reality; ultimately, for a reality in which the transitory is finally abolished in the silence of the eternal.
But the physical side of Olaf Schlote’s images has little to do with the common notion of travel, and nothing at all in common with today’s mass tourism. Here, travel is an event calling for curiosity about the unexpected and a charged kind of attention; in other words, it is an attitude that is necessary before a simple change of locations can be transformed into a journey - a journey as an adventure, regarding time and geography. Schlote’s picture-journey provides many unexpected motifs, at least measured against the customary tourist expectations. There are very few spectacular moments. “The only people who cannot travel are the nomads,” was an aphorism coined by Franz Baermann Steiner, Elias Canetti’s spiritual companion until his early death.
The spectacular in Schlote’s images is manifest in the absence of both spectacular and utilitarian aspects, to equal degrees. A subtle correspondence to the character of photography beyond propaganda develops. The artist’s attention is focused on the apparently trivial; the first light of morning that gives an incomparable intensity to the landscape, things which have fulfilled their purpose, thrown away, functional objects which are still of use - and in addition, a rather unusual world of animals and plants, like his birds, the owl - perhaps a pilot and key figure in the artist-photographer’s work, especially as it sees better at night than human beings, and in many cultures it is a symbol of wisdom.
Many of Olaf Schlote’s pictures also reflect the theme of travel in an indirect way, so that a meta-level is opened up, shattering the apparent directness of photographic images. Beyond human nature, by the way, is the title of a wonderful monographic publication by Olaf Schlote and an exhibition of his entire oeuvre to date. Crystallised in the “beyond”, one finds all those components that distinguish his photographic images from the mainstream of contemporary gallery art - beyond the mainstream of art fashion, as it were. Their author’s artistic-aesthetic attitude is one of the most decisive reasons for this. It is characterised by empathy, by an intuitive ability to see the world behind superficial appearances. Schlote photographs this world, opening it to us via his images.
Artistically, Schlote works on a thin line between emotional grasp and cognitive judgement. When taking photographs, he allows himself to be guided by his feelings rather than by a previously defined concept. These emotions are identified in the humanities as “emotional aspect-perception”. He adopts an attitude towards the visible world that provides the motifs for his images, and he demands this attitude from the viewer of his works as well. That is why our contemplation of the photographs is not exhausted in a final aesthetic judgement; it constantly seeks emotional impulses, so that more and more fresh layers of perception are disclosed. These emotional impulses spring over to us when we become, and for as long as we remain, truly involved in the images as viewers.
All at once, correspondences also emerge between the artist-photographer’s aesthetic attitudes and the specific nature and themes of photography per se. Photography according to Olaf Schlote’s standards is characterised as a journey, into both the external world of the visible and into our own inner world. Outside and inside do not develop - and are not presented - as different, but rather as two sides of the same coin. As Diane Arbus confided in her diary, things are not visible because they exist; they only become visible when they are seen. Making them visible has been art’s most noble task since time immemorial, and when we have learnt to see the world through art - or today, perhaps re-learnt how to do so - we, as viewers, see it through different eyes. And so we recognise that the pictures taken by artist-photographer Olaf Schlote centre on the elementary - in every respect and on every level. It is not surprising, therefore, that the four elements, earth, water, fire and light, play a dominant part in his photographic images.

Klaus Honnef