Peter Funch, The Imperfect Atlas

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by TBW Books (here). Softcover with four-color printed PVC dust jacket. 144 pages, 70 color reproductions, plus index of sourced reference materials. 8.75 x 12.25”. Includes a brief preface and forward featuring William Pym in conversation with the artist. Design by Benjamin Robin Graahede. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been a decade since Danish-born German-based photographer Peter Funch first made a name for himself with Babel Tales. The series featured candid photographs of people in crowded public settings, and thus fell loosely under the category of “street photography”. But they were street photos with a twist. Funch did not hunt for individual “decisive moments”. Instead he shot many exposures of one scene, sometimes over the course of weeks, then composited them into single frames using a computer. By focusing on particular patterns of urban life —balloons, gestures, ball caps, umbrellas, e.g.— he was able to highlight quirks of collective behavior in a way that was impossible with traditional methods.  

Funch described his style as “fictional documentary”, a phrase sure to raise the hackles of traditional street photographers. Indeed, Babel Tales met resistance there. Reactions ranged from outright rejection to grudging acceptance. Ten years later, his name remains anathema in some quarters of the street photography scene. Nevertheless he managed to land in the broad genre survey Street Photography Now from 2010, where his pictures ran alongside another goading quotation: “I’m not interested in being objective. I like playing with tools and playing with minds.” 

Funch wasn’t the first street shooter to play with tools or minds. But he was among the first—along with Pelle Cass, Chris Dorley-Brown, and Nathan Bett—to apply digital’s brute analyzing power to candid exposures. He seemed well positioned to join the next wave of street photography, and his credentials were burnished in 2017 with the publication of 42nd and Vanderbilt. As with Babel Tales, Funch photographed random pedestrians in one location over the course of years. But the focus this time was on individuals, not broad patterns. By sifting through thousands of images files, he was able to isolate the same people at different time points, often engaged in similar behavior or fashions. These frames—organized as chronologies, not composites—became the body of work. The photobook was well received and is now in its second printing.

Funch’s recent book The Imperfect Atlas dispenses with urban settings entirely, and with them any pretensions to street photography. Instead of cities, the book is set in the wild North Cascades of Washington state. The only faint sign of urban encroachment is one photograph of a distant Seattle skyline. At first glance, this would appear to be a radical change of course. But a deeper consideration slots The Imperfect Atlas nicely into the Funch oeuvre. It’s now apparent that his interests have never revolved around urban life. Instead his projects deal with the long reach of time, and how it might be represented photographically. 

As it happens, the planet is experiencing a broad time-based event right now: climate change. Global warming may be a cataclysmic process, yet its pace is still too gradual to fit comfortably within photography’s typical timescale. What to do? After some early conversations with Project Pressure, Funch put together a methodology. He began collecting old postcards of major Cascade peaks on eBay. As the most heavily glaciated region in the continental U.S., evidence of warming is right on the surface here. Funch used the old postcards as a baseline data set, and then sought to make his own contemporary record for comparison. Over the course of several trips between 2014 and 2016, he rephotographed the peaks from the same vantage points as the originals. 

Funch’s pictures—which comprise the bulk of The Imperfect Atlas—are focused around three major peaks: Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Shuksan. Each mountain is rugged, heavily glaciated, and, perhaps most importantly for the sake of historic comparison, relatively accessible by road. The original postcard photographers followed these roads too over the years, and Funch followed his predecessors to a variety of viewpoints. In broad outline, his photographs resemble the originals. But Funch has always enjoyed pushing the envelope, and The Imperfect Atlas is no exception. The book’s defining trait—and the reason it is an imperfect atlas—is that its photos are separated into red, green, and blue layers. 

Imposing such an aberration would be straightforward using digital tools. But Funch chose analog tools instead, exposing each color layer individually through its own filter, then rejoining them in a color darkroom. As explained in the short preface, the process pays homage to the early pioneers of color, James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton, and also to the period in which they operated: the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. This was the early infancy of the current warming era, as it eventually turned out. Funch’s convoluted method is outlined in an explanatory forward. Involving a mix of analog and digital tools, it’s quite laborious. But ultimately it proved just right for his purposes, the resulting photos straddling the cusp of natural beauty and ghostly foreboding. 

Seen through his RGB prism, Funch’s pictures operate at a certain remove from reality. Objects in motion such as birds, cars, and people become colored silhouettes when exposed momentarily through one filter. Lake ripples become rainbows, as does a peculiar cairn shot several times in the foreground of Mt. Shuksan (its western visage a common motif in photo history). A view of Mt. Baker from Skyline Divide takes on an unnatural magenta cast, along with a beautiful green edge created by a misaligned filter. A long glacial valley fractures into a snaking rainbow. Faced with such surreal scenes, the viewer is left unsettled. Which layers are shown and which are hidden? Which latent geologic processes can we see and which ones are invisible?

If distant vistas prove fickle, there is historic precedent. “Over two hundred years,” Funch writes, “humans’ perception of nature has undergone a major transition: from something unreachable, commanding awe, to a site for meditation, for considering beauty alongside the vulnerability and evident deterioration. We can see it all with our own eyes. I believe it is fundamental to ask yourself where you are in this relationship between humans and nature.”

To the modern viewer, the mountains in Funch’s photographs seem real enough, yet something is off. Like Babel Tales and 42nd and Vanderbilt, there are more layers of time here than immediately meet the eye. They force the viewer into a state of anachronistic confusion. Have we regressed to the turn of the century, to the primitive tri-color separations of Louis Arthur Duco du Hauron and Sarah Angelina Acland? Or is this something like Florian Maier-Aichen’s “Watercolor, 300 Feet”, rooted in the present? Bill Sullivan’s recent book Pure Country explored similar territory, reproducing and building upon the wobbly RGB layers of Prokudin-Gorsky, to wonderful effect. 

Funch was certainly aware of his predecessors, and they informed his work. But ultimately none proved more influential than his eBay finds. Many of the original mountain postcards—along with a few news clippings—are reproduced in the book’s thick appendix. They are organized by peak, printed in miniature, and arranged side by side over time to give the reader a gut-punch illustration of glacial decay. This section carries the nondescript name “Research Material”, but in some ways it’s the heart of the book, and it may be the best starting point to get quickly up to speed with Funch’s mindset. Whether one begins here or in the main body, there will inevitably be much shuffling back and forth as the reader compares scenes past and present. Fortunately, the softbound binding lies flat and pliant, allowing the pages to flip easily.

Measured by elevation, the Cascades are relatively modest mountains. Most major peaks top out around 7,000-9,000 ft. They are not huge by the standards of other mountain ranges. But their rugged topography and prodigious glaciation makes them feel taller. At 12.25” in height, The Imperfect Atlas has some of the same feeling. Its stature feels outsized compared to most photobooks, and finding the right shelf space may prove awkward. Such tight confines present a jarring contrast with the diminishing glaciers in the North Cascades. They have lost half their coverage since 1900, and lie shrunken in their basins. Funch’s book documents them with an even hand. His comparative chronology is fascinating as a geologic record. It will appeal to casual naturalists as well as photographers, especially those familiar with the Cascades. But don’t expand to be cheered. The message of The Imperfect Atlas is downcast. 

If one feels the need for rose-colored glasses, the book comes with its own translucent filter – a PVC dust jacket sits atop the cover. Illustrated with an RGB-separated image of Mt. Shuksan, it projects the mountain like a hologram onto the snow white surface below. The integration is so seamless it appears fused to the book when viewed afar. But when held in the lap the reader recognizes the dust jacket as a separate object. Once this outer layer is peeled back, the interior onions open. Readers will find rose-colored wavelengths within, along with all the others.

Collector’s POV: Peter Funch is represented by V1 Gallery in Copenhagen (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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