Olaf Otto Becker, Above Zero @Amador

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 color works (including one diptych and one portfolio of 17 images plus a map), framed in white, and hung throughout the gallery space. All of the prints are archival pigment prints, taken in 2007 or 2008, and subtitled with GPS coordinates. Each of the prints in the River 1 portfolio is 16×20, and the portfolio itself is available in an edition of 7. The other single images are either 26×30 or 44×52 (the diptych is a pair of 26×30 images); all of these are made in editions of 6. A monograph of this work has recently been published by Hatje Cantz (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: German photographer Olaf Otto Becker is a throwback to the intrepid landscape photographers of the 19th century. Like Muybridge, Watkins, and O’Sullivan before him, he takes his cumbersome 8×10 view camera out into the unexplored (and often dangerous) wilderness to capture its vast glories. Becker’s previous project took him to the coastal areas of Greenland, where he photographed monumental icebergs and glaciers via an inflatable Zodiac boat. This recent project finds him further inland, trekking out into the icy unknown to document the paths of newly formed glacial rivers.
Becker’s images are a complicated confluence of science, politics and art. Beyond the views of the research station itself, the details of the melt water pictures ask all kinds of scientific questions (mostly hows and whys) concerning the formation process of the holes and pock marks, the carving of channels, the layers and stratification of the ice, and the eventual gathering into large lakes, both above and below ground.
The politics of the larger climate change and global warming questions are also obviously embedded in the works: black dust and soot from industrial pollution blankets the landscape, capturing heat much faster than the reflective ice normally would, accelerating the pace of melting, and thus driving the formation of these rivers. And hordes of ecotourists taking pictures of themselves out on the dirty ice are a surreal reminder how intimately involved we actually are in transforming this faraway landscape.
In a purely artistic sense, the unexpected color palette of these images is what is most striking: there are no earthy colors at all, no greens, or browns, or yellows, even in the tiniest amounts. These are landscapes made entirely of white, grey and black, with pure strands of luminous light blue water winding through the canals of ice; in a sense, they are almost like negative prints – light where they should be dark and dark where they should be light. In composition, the works are relatively straightforward, carefully composed to heighten the grandeur of the gradual sweep of the rivers.
In general, in a time when images of the arctic have become a bit hackneyed, Becker seems to have found ways to keep the work fresh and unexpected, successfully mixing surprising beauty and serious commentary.

Collector’s POV: The prices for the works in the show are as follows: the portfolio of 17 prints is $18000 (sold as a single unit), the large 44×52 prints are either $6000 or $7000, the smaller 26×30 prints are $3500, and the diptych is $5250. Becker has virtually no secondary market track record, so gallery retail is really the only option for interested collectors at this point.

While we are not landscape photography collectors, we can certainly appreciate the decorative quality of these pictures, as well as the many subcontexts and connections to the issues of our times that they represent. I think it would be an interesting juxtaposition to dig up some similar long exposure images of rivers by O’Sullivan and other 19th century expedition photographers from the American West and hang them side by side with Becker’s works.

Overall, these images are particularly memorable as a group, and will therefore work well in book form where the individual images can play off each other. I can also imagine a few of the largest prints being hung dramatically on their own, the otherworldly blue of the water catching a viewer’s eye from across a room.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Interview @Conscientious (here)
  • Broken Line book review @5B4 (here)

Olaf Otto Becker, Above Zero
Through January 9th

Amador Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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One comment

  1. Todd Walker /

    I think its a great idea to bundle the entire show into a single unit. Quite a few shows only hang together when they, er, are hung together. But I'll be surprised if the bundle sells, not because of the work quality, but because its so unorthodox (isn't it?). And, then, what's to prevent the purchaser from eventually selling off the individual works piecemeal?

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