“The forest” may seem a strange concept in and of itself to city-hardened minds, when the only tree-studded refuge within reach is equally tourist and pretzel vendor-studded. That romantic, glittering, dream-shrouded fantasy realm where nymphs frolic in enchanted bark kingdoms or felt-capped innocents explore bucolic splendor might seem more like any other pedestrian-choked opportunity to trip over backpacked European tour groups clamoring over homeless bodies to reach that photo op mentioned on page 16 of the N.Y.C. guidebook. The awkward balance of city life and human energy, insistently inflicting itself upon our archetypal concept of a forest’s impenetrable stillness, provides the tension just palpable beneath the quiet veneer of Andreas Gehrke’s FORST.

The specific locations of Gehrke’s landscapes may not readily proclaim themselves from within the frame, but each quiet thatch, inscrutable rockface, or impenetrable thicket’s proximity to some form of human intervention is apparent. Garbage dots the perimeter of a neglected fence; handwritten code scrawls across a ragged plastic orchard tag; a garish sign interrupts a muted clearing’s monochrome; and a vast pipeline divides a treeline in mocking, metal simulacra. Yet nothing about these restrained prints screams “environmental holocaust,” or “man’s hand raping the earth.”—In fact, nothing about this series screams at all. From the soft, unobtrusive sheen of the watercolor paper to the subdued color scheme and almost unerringly gray skies, it is as though each image is specifically crafted to lure the viewer inward with the enchanting promise of some visual respite or pastoral eye candy, but delivers instead a refusal of the viewer’s gaze, some intangible sense that trespassers will be shot on sight.

Particularly alienating is Gehrke’s view of an overgrown forest in his native city of Berlin, here seen as muted, dense, menacingly fence-ringed, and impervious to intrusion either by casual explorer or curious viewer. There is no mawkish or crude evidence of humanity, no proof of any barely-tolerated transition toward the safe uniformity of asphalt and metal—the human impulse to insert oneself is far from novel to nature photography (or art, or civilization, etc., etc.), after all. Rather, this work is remarkable in its ability to alienate and deny the viewer. Unlike the awe and conservation-inspiring natural displays, best associated with names like Ansel Adams and Carlton Watkins and available in poster form at any classy dorm and art supply house, Gehrke’s exploration of nameless slices of nature form a visual and psychological wall, as though any life existing just past the tightly packed trees, or endless rocky expanse, is somehow unrelated to this bleak forest. Each stone, leaf, and twig, in sharp focus, seems to deny entrance. It is not as though humanity has recently left these plastic twist-ties, footprints, wrappers, signs, and pipelines just to step aside for the photographer’s entrance; it is as though nature itself has swallowed up its intruders and now dares the viewer to enter next. How curious, to produce an image of nature that actually repels the human gaze.


OCT 2010

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