The 19th century witnessed an abundance of experiments with the new medium of photography to create visual imprints of our world. The new representation of nature that resulted from this medium had the most intriguing impact on our visual senses. Although men were always interested in the image of landscapes, parallel to photography 19th-century romantic painting explored to a great extent the emotional impact of nature. Nature was expected to express feelings in these paintings and was fully charged. But photography was the first medium that could represent the dramatic effect of nature in its real extension. Contrary to painting the image was not loaded intentionally with a dramatic effect, but the recording itself carried out the drama. The visual documentation extended the universe and changed our relation to reality.
In the same time, there were parallel experiments with the application of the medium. One in which a camera was used as a tool to relate to reality. And one without a camera, which was purely based on experimentation with photographic techniques and chemical processes that did not necessarily aim at registration, but explored the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Although abstract photography exists since the 20th century, 19th-century experiments already show imprints of abstraction which was caused by the nature of the medium itself.
While photography was engaged to fix the imprint of the world, it established an aesthetics of its own. This often led to abstract and experimental images that revealed other qualities of the medium. Since then, the tensions and contradictions between the two applications have offered an inexhaustible challenge to photographers and artists working with the medium up till today.
Similarly, Dora Kontha’s work brings together different photographic approaches that have their origins in analogue applications. Besides taking documentary images, ranging from landscape shots to portraits and snapshots of everyday situations, she experiments with a variety of photographic processes in the darkroom. Sometimes she presents them side by side, sometimes she overlays the images on top of each other so that the layers in time and place merge into a distorted abstract image. She embraces chance by relinquishing control over the final result, adding an extra dimension. The result and aesthetics produced by this way of working are like a generous gift from the medium.
Above all, photography offers Kontha a key to escape everyday reality, sometimes literally, but mostly as a form of a mental journey, as escapism of her subconscious. From her home in Copenhagen, she likes to head out to explore the rugged, extreme and raw nature that abounds in the far north of Europe, but she also travels to faraway, exotic countries. Particularly she feels attracted to landscapes that are overwhelming in their presence and beauty, which she transforms into almost unreal landscapes in her works. To enhance the visual power of these landscapes, Kontha uses an analogue film camera and expired 35mm film which can result in unexpected effects. She calls the resulting images of these remote places of mesmerizing beauty Emotional Landscapes. No attempt at objective documentary here, her manipulated images transcend that identification with nature and are given an extra dimension by the title that appeals to feelings. This idea of an image being able to stir emotions within the viewer is an important pillar of abstract art, but can also be traced back to the theories on abstract photography by Alfred Stieglitz.
When it is not possible to travel, Kontha creates her photographic works in the studio, with the working process taking the form of an inner journey. The abstract photographs in the Dreamlands series consist of layered images of multiple negatives that she has superimposed on each other. She then subjects the images to treatment with chemicals that create an uncontrollable effect on the work. As a result, the images become even more abstract with extreme colours and shapes in which, at best, only a few details remain visible from the photographs that formed the basis of the image. These works end up becoming projections of a kind of inner world or dream world, in which fact and fiction merge, sometimes in a literal sense through the degradation of chemicals. The interventions serve to charge the layering and visual experience of her images, inviting us to look at the world around us in a different way. Her works are like stages in a journey through technical variations on the theme of photography distilled to its matter.
The publication Dreamscapes unites Emotional Landscapes and Dreamlands. The two series which contain all kinds of mutual tensions and contradictions are combined on the spreads with sensitive care for colour and form. In fact, they result in new images and make the landscapes and abstract images almost interchangeable. With the parallel representations of these subjective realities, Kontha celebrates the potential of analogue photography, but perhaps even more so, the power of imagination.
Texts by Claudia Küssel
Book design by Dora Kontha & TOBE Gallery
20 x 25 cm
89 color photographs
Published by 89 Books, Palermo