Water is an elusive essential to both man-kind and nature, without it you will certainly wither away and perish, and if by chance there is too much, you may drown. People have tried to control, manage and harness water, to force it to do what they feel is needed. We ultimately understand how little we know and can accomplish when we become aware of the futility of the task at hand when faced with drought or flooding. Felzmann looks obliquely at a place in an attempt to understand this subject. This place of his choice is fairly non-descript, an agricultural region inhabited by people who have strived, perhaps in vain, to harness the power and sustainability of water.
Similar to the awareness of the human presence with confronting the interior of a building, there is a palpable presence of water, whether it is the heavy humidity of a fog bank, lush grasses, looming rain clouds, flying waterfowl or a small boat hanging from a crane. The direct presence of draining dirty water, dark places throughout a calm mash, a partial lake view, flooded road, water puddles amongst the mud is easier to comprehend. Even an arid landscape, a dry wash or burning brush, conjures the thought of water even in its absence.
Over time, water can creates it own form, flowing to move mountains, change paths, randomly redirect itself and overcoming almost anything in its way. It has a plastic quality that becomes evident with longer exposures of film. Over a long enough time, water wears away a rock and can deteriorate metal, rotting vegetation and wood, wear away paint and in combination with sunlight, can eventually destroy plastic. The sun is another uncontrollable variable in the constantly changing the balance of water in nature, as it can evaporate what water that might remain.
Water can overflow the banks of a river and overtake, erode and flood all that is adjacent to it. Some who have misunderstand the flow of water and what force it is capable of having. Ask a fly fisherman who is standing in relatively shallow water of a strong flowing creek, how it can suddenly take your feet out from underneath you.
Likewise, water can also renew, refresh and revitalize both people and nature. It can cleanse and wash, taking away the surface grim. We observe that with the new green growth as well as the overflowing spring run off, a duality that can be daunting to try to control.
In one sequence, Felzmann photographs swirling water, with the flow of surface bubbles looking very familiar to the heavens above. Or the swirling current as it darts down a drain, appearing like a solar system drawn into a black hole. At first glance, it appears that he has captured the stars, planets and solar systems above. It gives cause to think that if in this small river a similar design of the universe is evident, what other universal patters are also surrounding us? I am left with awe and wonder in the possibilities.
A quote from the publisher provides these clarifying thoughts:
The photographer Lukas Felzmann was fascinated by the very thing that some driving past would find boring, flat, and disconsolate: the vast Sacramento Valley, located just a hundred miles from San Francisco. Felzmann discovers with his camera the hidden charms of that seeming nonplace. For him, exploring a place means both walking around and lingering quietly, until the valley opens up like a book, with stories that cry out to be read and discovered. With his camera he traces how time, determined here by the growth of the plants, slows on the plane, and how the horizontality of the surface becomes a reassuring balance to the hectic city of millions nearby. The photographs show the diversity of the plane: the original landscape in its natural state, the large swaths put to agricultural use, the modern provincial towns, and the transitional areas in between. Photographs of water in all its facets run through the book, just as water runs through and forms a valley.
In talking about this body of work, Felzmann states:
My intention has not been to produce an inclusive documentation, but to construct an empirical archive, to weave a story out of fragments, a sort of poetry of ruins. Transitory zones have been important in this collection because they reveal something about the essence of a place but can also point outside themselves. Whether looking for the geological edges of the valley, places that indicate the control of water, or photographing the luminous breaking edge of a fog bank, I was searching for structures that speak about nature and cultural conditions.
Generally I find Felzmann’s photographs to be somber with a hint of sadness and melancholy. He is drawn to decaying refrigerators, broken windshields, swampy and unlikable water, broken, barren and fallen trees, overcast and moody skies, abandoned and collapsing buildings. There are very few people within the photographs. The effect is further enhanced within the black and white images by a heavy amount of grayness in the tonality, creating somber tones. This may also be due the flat overcast lighting that he frequently chooses (or was available at the time). There are some exceptions, but overall I am left with a sense of concern and seriousness about the subject, to be wary and on guard and not take water for granted.
The book encompasses several general themed sections that require personal investigation; marsh, ghostpile, currents, machines, food, house, road, animals and crossing. Each theme requires your imagination to piece together the general connotations, with the section titles providing tantalizing hints. Although a terrible metaphor, nevertheless this book is truly like an onion, there are many layers of meaning that continue to revel themselves over time.
The book is unpaged and with a minimum of text, the individual photographs are without captions, with the exception of chapter headings. The photographer’s implied intent is for you to experience of the body of work with only a few hints and draw your own conclusions. There are a few short excerpts and essays by John Berger accompanying quotes from Angelus Silesius, a doctor of philosophy (1624-1677). The color and black & white photographs are frequently printed with a full bleed to the edges or provided with a minimum border. The effect is to imply that reality is extended beyond the limits of the edges of the page. Double page spreads loose little content as the lay-flat binding, allowing he book to fully open and divulge its contents, minimizes any image loss in the gutter. The book is case bound and has the unusually appearance of a text book.
Felzmann’s book is working its way up my list of favorites for 2009.
By Douglas Stockdale