Photography: Axel Hütte

Focus, June-July 2006

Two years after a major retrospective in the Crystal Pavilion of Madrid's Retiro park, Axel Hütte is back in town with an encore selection of the photographic landscapes that have been his sole professional pursuit since 1975. The show at the Helga de Alvear gallery was styled North/South and that vertical slash  is enough to make one wary. Is it a tip-off that Hütte, who trained under Hilla and Bernd Becher and with them launched the "New German Photography" movement, has now become a disciple of Barthes? That would be like the cardinal archbishop of Boston suddenly switching to Scientology. But no, it is just a convention of the "duality shows" that seem to have become the flavor of the month for European curators, pairing works in twos, bringing together thematic opposites, b&w and color, old stuff and new -- this from veteran Spanish photographer Ramón Masats in a concurrent show across town.-- trying to achieve an effect greater than the sum of its parts.

In this case, the contrast is between wet and dry, hot and cold, lush and arid, green and brown. None of the very large pictures is identified, or readily identifiable, as a place, though a little research turns up the fact they were taken at the Audubon Swamp in South Carolina, Maui in Hawaii, the sun-baked salt flats of the Canary Islands and elsewhere. Focus, not locus, is the issue -- never do you get the feeling of a particular place or landscape. It's the difference between art and illustration (in the National Geographic sense), poetry and narrative. But as far as I can make out, the relevant juxtaposition is that which fuels the long-running debate (with no winner in sight) between the potential of painting vs. photography. 

Hütte seems to me one of the most painterly photographers in the business -- and that is meant as a compliment. He is especially good at capturing light altered by water, as when it distorts the reflection of a "woman wearing a print dress" just barely visible under a school of swarming tadpoles, herself a figure just as generic and indefinite as the "straight vertical poplar-like trees" that engulf her. His interest in nature is fixated on detail: pinnacles, rocks, waterfalls. In that respect, he is much like Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote in 1797 that "I can contemplate nothing but parts and parts are all little. My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible. And it is only in the faith of that, that rocks, or waterfalls, mountains or caverns, give me the sense of sublimity and majesty."

Speaking of sublimity, Hütte obviously beholds and knows his Caspar David Friedrich, though none of the photos on display actually looks even remotely like anything I've ever seen by the big cheese of German Romanticism. Moonlight or mile-high mountains need not enter into it, but the photographer's sense of mystery and awe is similar, as is the way he doesn't let you approach the landscapes too closely, in part owing to the image's huge size -- you have to stand a good distance away to take it all in. Paradoxically, the sensation of being left on the outside produces a visual dynamic that draws you in closer and closer. But in all of them, there's an invisible line he'll never let you cross.

Other photos, however, do bring specific works of art to mind, though not in the sense of being derivative. The waterfall that bisects one image down the middle, from top to bottom, recalls Manet's House at Reuil. And in the way drifts of powder-sugar sand cover two outcroppings so it is impossible to tell where the edges are or what their real shape is. Clouds engulfing a mostly unseen coastal mountain can't help but be read as a homage to Hokusai -- but this is just to give a rough idea. Hütte's work is not so much a reference to paintings as it is to painting, and that is why it will take considerable time for his photographs to exhaust their capacity for being looked at with pleasure and surprise.


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