Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Great Unreal

01 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

About midway through Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs's mysterious picture book The Great Unreal, resulting from a couple of fantastic road trips (an inexhaustible inspiration for great literature, cinema and photobooks alike) through the United States, there is a black & white photograph taken in a nondescript back corner of Las Vegas, possibly the greatest of unreal cities. In the upper right corner, a billboard can be seen hovering above a one-story building and a baby palm tree, announcing an exhibition called Ansel Adams: America at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, and next to the text showing one of Adams's grandiose photographs of the rugged American West.


02 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

I don't know whether Onorato & Krebs included this image on purpose, either ironically winking at the long tradition of serious and majestic American landscape photography or paying homage to the master (perhaps it's just there by happenstance). As pretty much everything that Adams stood for is inverted by Onorato & Krebs idiosyncratic, humorous, personal, and adventurous approach to translating the vast grandeur of the American desert into photographs and photomontages.

03 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

One's never sure about what one is looking at. Why are those power cables diverging from the poles as if to form a cobweb? Why are these tyres rolling down a hill? Why is there a fake road running in circles? Onorato & Krebs's version of America, devoid of people, seems to be on the verge of entering an eerie nightmare dreamed by daylight. It sometimes reminds me of Captain Beefheart's America of the late 1960s, when he is singing, in his very distinquishable growly voice: "The dust blows forward 'n dust blows back. / And the wind blows black thru the sky. / And the smokestack blows up in sun's eye. / What am I gonna die?"

04 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

The American landscape continues to be an inspiration to filmmakers and photographers. A recent example is the landscape photography of Matthew Brandt who soaks his prints in the water of the very lakes that he photographed, thereby literally converging the iconic with the indexical.

05 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

A similar concept was subtly and beautifully executed by Witho Worms in his book Cette Montagne, C'est Moi, in which photographs of coal mountains are printed on paper prepared with carbon ground from coal of the mountains depicted. Though both Brandt's and Worms's landscapes are of a somewhat gloomy character, they aren't as troublesome and alarming as the awkwardly assembled American landscapes of our fabulous Swiss duo (Swiss do duos well, we shouldn't forget that another Swiss whose photographic views of America turned out to be so influential, Robert Frank, formed an informal duo with Jack Kerouac. Kerouac couldn't have written On the Road without Frank, who drove him around the country.)
06 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Of all possible Americas, Europeans tend to imagine them a little less optimistic than Americans have done so often. The Frenchman François Reichenbach driven by a boundless curiosity went on a road trip through the U.S. He concentrated his experiences and findings into a wonderful film of both admiration and gentle critique (L'Amerique insolite, 1960). The Americans with all their funny inventions created a different world on this planet. "Do they themselves see America as we see it," asks Reichenbach, "[…] These frozen landscapes. Do they still smell this wilderness? Or do they share the impression that those vast horizons are still waiting for something? The invasion of Martians or the return of pioneers?"
07 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Strange things can happen in America and even stranger things happen when its houses and landscapes are confronted by the playful camera-eyes-and-hands of Onorato & Krebs.


08 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs
09 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

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