The global award in photography and sustainability

Awoiska van der Molen

Am schwarzen Himmelsrund

When I came across the phrase ‘Am schwarzen Himmelsrund’ in composer Gustav Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, it immediately struck me as the perfect title for a selection of my photo works. Himmelsrund, which literally translates as the heavens’ rim, was used in the Middle Ages to refer to the celestial firmament as a vaulted disc. This juxtaposition of the divine and the astronomic resonates with my process and my constant quest as a photographer, since my solitary journeys in nature resemble those of the classic pilgrim or anchorite. We share that sense of hope present in alchemist, spiritual, and even Christian beliefs, a conviction that there must be a higher plane of existence to which humanity once had access, but with which it lost substantive contact.

Since the start of my artistic practice sixteen years ago (at first photographing in urban settings, then more and more drifting into natural wilderness), my aim has always been to try to get as close as possible to some true, unspoilt core of a place. By peeling off all the many layers of today’s roaring world, I slowly eliminate all distractions in order to hear, see and experience my surroundings with clean senses. Due to cascading technological revolutions, our society has evolved enormously over the last few centuries. Our bodies however, have not evolved at the same pace, and we suffer when we are cut off from nature. Yet even as we are engulfed in this modern world, I believe that the human body possesses some deep internal memory, an unconscious instinct, that recognizes when we get closer to the kind of place from which we stem: the uncorrupted territory of nature. The experience of this return is what I seek to visualise through my images.

My black-and-white photographs of mountains, forests or bodies of waters thus become abstract representations of anonymised landscapes, the result of my urge to return to our origin. Making my photographs, I spend long periods of time in remote areas – in absolute solitude – so as to allow nature to imprint its specific emotional qualities on me. Only a few images travel back with me to be hand-printed in the dark room. Without titles or any indications as to their locations, the large-scale silver gelatin prints recreate my experiences of these secluded natural worlds, erasing boundaries of time and space between the viewer and the source.

The almost spiritual quality I look for in my subjects is one that transcends time. Together with light, it is the main constant of photography. The obscurity of my images is crucial: I am drawn to the primordial space that can be found in the shadows of bright days.

Like light, hope is subtle, intangible, elusive. It is something quiet and still. Yet at its core, hope also implies a sense of movement, a sense of direction, the kind that revives us, makes us look up and set off for better times. To me, hope’s unique and almost circular constellation of stillness and movement is what makes it so powerful.

Regardless of how personal the starting point of my work may be, in the end I hope my images touch the strings of a universal knowledge, something lodged in our bodies, our guts, an intuition that reminds us of where we came from ages ago. A memory of our core existence, our bedrock, unyielding certainty in a very precarious world.