A heap of broken light
An artist book, 2023
24 x 30 cm, 96 pages, tritone printed in deep black, Pantone Cool Gray 11 U and Rehm Gray on Munken Pure
A journey into the black and white of pictures
A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience. (Mark Rothko)
Where are we? In a desert? On a glacier? At any rate in landscapes, void of people, with few clues to help discern size and distance. Is something flowing or is it the reflection on ice? Are these small piles of debris or entire mountain faces? The materiality of what we see here is not always clear, especially not at first glance. Bizarre dark shapes fragment the picture. Many a black area of the image appears to almost absorb the beholder, while bright white is virtually blinding in contrast to the darkness. Christof Rehm discovered the subjects of these images a long time ago. In 2016 he approached them afresh, culminating, for the time being, in a selective photo campaign in 2021 to produce a new series of photographs.
Iceland, the destination for these trips, is a magical island. The earth’s core comes to light here daily, forming the shape of its surfaces. Over time, both the weather of the polar circle and the sea warp the formations in a quite unique way. Today the island attracts hordes of tourists, relativising the experience of nature. For decades however artists, too, have come to Iceland, enthralled and inspired by the quirks of the island. And for a long time, the moderate number of Icelanders has bred not only fishermen, but, in relation to the total population, a surprisingly high number of writers and artists. Evidently life – subjected to the forces of nature – amidst the starkly changing seasons at the Arctic Circle is particularly inspiring.
The pictures in this book are no travel reportage about the island, nor do they deal with the country and its people. It could be anywhere at all, but then again it couldn’t: the shapes we see could not have formed just anywhere. These images could only have been found on Iceland. Christof Rehm addresses the impact of the images and not their provenance. The island, its structures and its light proved to be especially suited to his way of taking photos and his interest in photographic images. He didn’t make it easy for himself. He set off across the island with a large format camera, tripod and the necessary equipment for this somewhat antiquated technique, not forgetting the appropriate walking gear and just one assistant to look for his subjects off the beaten track. For this reason alone, the pictures thus generated are anything but spontaneous impressions.
The photos were taken using an analogue, large scale (4 by 5 inches) and chemically state of the art black-and-white negative film. By digitalising the films and editing the resulting files, the photos were optimised for printing to paper. From the outset, it was clear that – for exhibiting purposes – two picture formats should suffice: on the one hand, prints corresponding to the dimensions of the films, and on the other hand, large scale prints of up to 153 x 214 cm, to fill entire walls, thus giving the observer the feeling of standing within the landscape shown. This multi-stage process was chosen because the negatives – developed by the artist himself – contain much more information than a simple exposure developed using traditional methods could reveal.
While developing the films or scanning the negatives, random marks creep in, which, in Christof Rehm’s view, enhance the picture. Such flares, scratches and markings, that could be put down to photographing water, complemented the photos so much that the artist wanted to include them in his picture, being as they are part of its individual genesis. The decision to include the entire film with the edge of the negative in the picture is familiar from historical photographic practice. This form of presentation, then and now, shows that these are technically produced pictures and simultaneously ‘artificial’ objects; they are not merely prospects offering a glimpse, as if through a window, into another room.
“A heap of broken light”, is a photo book. The images you leaf through here exist in this form only in this book. Christof Rehm not only selected and arranged them for this book, he also digitally edited them specifically for letterpress printing, which was exceptionally laborious using three special colours. The pictures he exhibits are edited for different paper and printing techniques. This effort is to ensure that for each image and type of presentation, the ideal result is achieved: the plethora of grey tones and deep black should be optimally reproduced for each medial manifestation. So, while the exhibition visitor, facing the pictures, has a physical relationship to the landscapes shown, the reader of the book gains a more manageable insight. From page to page, the views of the individual images change with details corresponding to the original size of the wall-filling images in the exhibition. And so, the contemplator of the book is able to look into sections of the pictures in their original size, just as the visitors to the exhibition can step closer to the largescale image. As well as providing an overview of the series, the multitude of details in the individual images comes to the fore.
And thus, new pictures emerge that would not necessarily be noticed in an exhibition, for these consciously selected double-page sections show structures and surface segments which can confuse our perception far more than the subjects themselves. Time and again it is impossible to say if a black area shows a deep recess or precisely the opposite. Over and over, it is unclear which image area is on which level. These confusing observations are otherwise the preserve of the artist as he processes the pictures; through the book they become apparent to us too.
In contrast to artworks for an exhibition, images have emerged which – due to the dissolution of the relationship between the subject and its copy – have led to a further transcendency, which in turn renders the copy of the landscape a picture and that picture permeable for experiencing the wholly other. Depending on technical aspects, there are various ways to interpret the photos, although one might believe them to be captured with no ambiguity in perpetuity by the singular exposure of a film.
The artist has shown interest in outward appearance in his earlier projects and series and analysed them with his pictures, for example with the historic photos of August Sander. And while these pictures at a first fleeting glance apparently seek to convey a natural phenomenon, in fact they compel us to effortlessly consider what a photographic image is, what has occurred during the technical process of its creation and how a subject becomes a picture and in turn the experience of a sense of the wholly other.
“A heap of broken light” is a photography book in the sense that existing photos were arranged and edited for print in a book; that together they became a new separate work. Moreover, it is a photography book in that it shows the pictures in a way the artist would not present them in an exhibition. It is not a documentation of the campaigns in Iceland and it’s not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense, that reproduces the exhibits or emulates their impact in the exhibition halls. In the early days of photography, when there was no scope for exhibiting, books were the most important means of sharing photos with the public. Today photography has every freedom yet can still be assembled in a book as a work in its own right, as is the case with Rehm’s “A heap of broken light”. That’s why the pictures are accompanied not with explanatory text but with poems and excerpts from literature to imbue the impact of the pictures with a linguistic resonance. Just as the pictures are not reportage, so the linguistic accompaniments are not an explanation of what is shown, as might be expected of a normal book.
As Mark Rothko demands of paintings, this book is no account of the experiences of the artist. Indeed by suggesting a vague notion rather than presenting a visible entity, “A heap of broken light” can become an experience for the reader.
Essay by Dr. Andreas Strobl, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich
translated by Lesley Forner
Book and exhibition are made possible by
Pavillon am Berghof