Rudolf Steiner, Ricochet

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Vexer Verlag (here). Hardcover (33.3×24.5 cm), 264 pages, with 175 color reproductions. (Includes a short text by Trmasan Bruialesi. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For much of the early history of photography, long exposures were a non-negotiable part of the technical bargain of image making. Niépce’s first photographs in the late 1830s had exposure times of roughly 8 hours, and as the years passed and the technologies improved (starting with the daguerreotype, moving on to the paper negative, and later to wet plate collodion), necessary exposure times were reduced to just a few minutes. Aesthetically, long exposure times brought with them skies and seas turned to flat expanses of grey (the motion essentially smoothed out and erased), and wind through trees and people moving on city streets captured as unavoidable but artful blurs.

As shutters, chemicals, and now computational algorithms have gotten ever “faster”, the technique of the long exposure has evolved into an artistic choice rather than a grudging necessity. Contemporary photographers like Matthew Pillsbury, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Chris McCaw, Darren Almond, and others have used long exposures to document everything from the motion of crowds and the light emitted from movie theater screens, to the slow movement of the sun and moon across the sky and the low light conditions of night.

The images in Rudolf Steiner’s photobook Ricochet fit into this recent long exposure genre, albeit in an unexpected manner. Steiner’s landscapes (and a few interior scenes) were made using a camera robot that generates several dozen (or several hundred as the case may be) contiguous shots over a period of roughly ten minutes to half an hour. These images are then stitched together and assembled by Steiner on his computer, the mass of raw image data transformed into aggregate photographs that essentially collapse time into a single frame. Of course, like any long exposure photograph, Steiner’s images are subject to the changing light and weather conditions in front of the camera, so tiny drifts and digital aberrations pile up from one exposure to the next. Perhaps we can think of Steiner’s resulting images as faint descendants of the stop motion multiple exposure works of Etienne-Jules Marey and Harold Edgerton, but assembled and synthesized in a 21st century manner.

Steiner’s project began in 2013, and has now grown to several hundred landscapes taken of the forests, hills, and industrial areas near his studio in Switzerland. When he chooses a subject that doesn’t inherently move much (a farmhouse, a rock pile, the dusty roads of a mining operation), or picks a time when the midday light doesn’t shift noticeably, many of his images can appear essentially straight. But the real interest in Steiner’s work lies in the pictures that examine the landscape in subtle collapsed motion, where the passing of time has introduced visual distortions of one kind or another.

Given that there are no people in any of Steiner’s photographs, the most common form of motion to be found in his landscapes is the kind activated by wind: the movement of clouds through the sky, the wafting of smoke and mist, the ripples and waves on puddles and streams, and the back and forth swish of branches and leaves. And since he is working digitally, those minute moment-to-moment transformations manifest themselves not as smooth continuous blur (as they would in an analog world), but as the fuzzed and sometimes blocky distortion of pixelization. In many cases, most of the image has stayed largely constant, so the distortions are isolated in one area of the composition, creating an intriguing aesthetic dissonance between simultaneous areas of crisp sharpness and dissolving approximation. This is particularly noticeable in areas of sky, where blocky indistinct clouds pass above otherwise standard views of tree stumps, waving poplars, snowy hillsides, and undulating valleys.

Things break down even further when Steiner deliberately picks situations where the changing patterns of light activate his compositions. Strange and wonderful color effects occur in his images when shadows wander across hillsides, light dapples through leafy branches, sunlight momentarily flares on water, or colorful flowers are intensified by strong light. The same is true for his few interiors, where shadows dance and intersect across ceilings, and the play of light on and across walls creates layers of overlapped color change. In these pictures, there is a sense of enhanced, hypersensitive observation, as if we can see more than we usually can. We might even call Steiner’s results painterly or Impressionistic, if those words weren’t so inappropriate vis a vis the technologies at work; we could also think of them as a kind of digital Cubism, where the competing facets of time and vision have all been collapsed into one plane.

Steiner’s painterliness is amplified in three sections of full bleed enlargements placed at the front, middle, and back of the photobook. In these groups of pictures, hazy light, falling snow, and berry bushes are seen up close, the colors fragmenting into all-over compositions that verge on abstraction, especially when the digital effects kick in creating additional warps, shimmers, flickers, and cut throughs. Time feels like it has broken down in these photographs, the colors turned into delicate washes and fogs, the swirling mood interrupted by disjointed edges that remind us we are, at least for the moment, living in the matrix.

Steiner’s pixelization is a different conceptual approach than that found in Thomas Ruff’s jpegs. Ruff’s effort used pixels to veil parts of images, creating uncertainty and interruption in images we had seen before or that had already generated an emotional reaction (atomic bomb clouds, the burning World Trade Center towers etc.). Steiner’s approach is fundamentally time and vision based, centering on the process of restacking the evolution of a picture through time into one aggregate representation of that complex optical experience.

Ricochet is an amply-sized photobook, with an ingenious graphic element on the cover referencing Plato’s view of the mechanism of vision as emanating from the eye, bouncing around, and striking objects out in the world. The photographs are generally shown one to a spread on the right or divided across the gutter, the variations of size and the full bleed enlargement sections breaking up the monotony of the flow. As an object, it feels hefty and substantial, and its size ensures that even small areas of pixelization in the individual photographs aren’t overlooked.

While Steiner’s spirit of experimentation and can-do technological risk taking would normally be enough to get my initial attention, what has stayed with me as I’ve spent time Ricochet is a subtle realignment of my own view of pixelization. The first stages of the digital age have taught us that pixelization is inherently an error, a mistake, or a breakdown in the process of constructing or displaying an image. Steiner’s images invert that negativity, turning pixelization into something unexpected and almost magical. The best of the images here simmer with digital lyricism, that is if we aren’t too afraid of using such a term. They lead us to stretch beyond the decisive photographic moment, to a broader representation that includes time as a not only a modifier, but as a vibrant animator.

Collector’s POV: Rudolf Steiner does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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