Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mist by Niels Stomps

Since my last post generated so much debate I thought I’d follow up with an example of a book that sits in close relation to the Wassink Lungren work but provokes much more thought and response from me. The work is by another Dutch photographer who is working in China -- his name is Niels Stomps and the book is called Mist.

Mist starts with a Harper’s Index type series of statistics regarding the effect of the Three Gorges Dam project on its surrounding environment. 172 fish species no longer able to reach their spawning grounds, 1300 archeological sites submerged, and the biggest cost of 1.3 million people displaced by 39.3 billion cubic meters of water.

Now I know that starting a book like this (and my description as well) leads one to automatically think this is a documentary project in the form of a protest against a humongous industrial project. Mist is not that protest book; it is more than that as it really is about the powerlessness of people in the face of overwhelming force. Whether that force is environmental or political, Mist is a book about being pushed to adapt your life around those forces that are presented in the light of ‘this is bettering your life so you should see its goodness and embrace the outcome.’ Mist happens to use an example found in China but this book metaphorically could be speaking to Americans against the war in Iraq or any other situation where the people are powerless to prevent the change.

The aforementioned statistics are followed by four chapters of photographs, the first of which is preceded by the words A window is a hole in a wall.

The Three Gorges Dam project submerged several villages with its gigantic river basin reservoir and new cities were built further up the mountainsides for people to relocate. These brand new cities did not evolve over a long period but sprung up quickly. They are planned out not to reflect the personality of the occupants but for an image of modernity and forward progress with little reflection of past history. What drew Niels’s attention in this first chapter were the small acts of defiance to this overwhelming city planning -- the most curious of which are the ‘rogue’ windows that were punched through walls of the high rise buildings by the new occupants as they saw fit.

The second chapter Climbing stairs like long-distance skaters refers to how these new environs change the flow and rhythms of life. These new mountainside cities are constructed on slopes so steep that sets of stairs need to be transverse in order to get from place to place. This constant ascent and descent takes its toll on the populace and forces them to establish a slower but steadier pace of life.

Chapter three for me is the most engaging as it so simply and poetically suggests the multitude of conflicting feelings about the dam project. Water for air, fish for birds is a series of people photographed from behind as they stand at the edge and overlook the basin reservoir.

Water tends to attract visitors but this body of water is loaded (quite literally for the submerged towns) with personal history and memory. These visitors seem detached from one another even if they appear in groups. The few whose faces can be seen in profile stare out at the water with what seems to be a mix of curiosity, remembrance, or resignation. Their body language doesn’t read as defeat so much as a longing to understand what has happened.

The last chapter, A landscape is not wide or narrow until somebody shows up is all about the confusion of scale. The sheer expanse of the natural landscape sitting alongside the magnitude of the newly created cities makes it hard to have a strong sense of scale within this man-altered landscape. Niels presents a small series of images that reflect this difficult perspective and as the preceding words suggest, it is not until the human element shows up that we understand not only the scale but the vantage point of the photographer. The humans act as literal measuring devices just as a yardstick does in Timothy O’Sullivan’s image of graffiti scratched into Inscription Rock in New Mexico.

Stomps medium or large format photography works as a string of images but I doubt I would have the same response to them on the wall as opposed to this form. The book feels like an entire work that can be revisited for further contemplation. The design is very well conceived as a horizontal book with the spine at the top and a mix of different paper stock. I like most all aspects other than I think the words preceding each chapter can be a bit heavy handed and lean towards pretension. Mist was published in 2007 by Veenman Publishers of Rotterdam.

With Mist, Niels Stomps has presented a complex book which is about modernization and the severing of emotional ties of people to their former comforts. It is a book that can be perceived as a warning of complacent attitudes or of the complete population control of states of power. The vision he presents shows those who may resist in the face of such overwhelming force will be crushed (or drown) in the name of progress.

Buy online at Veenman Publishers

Buy online at Schaden