The following notes on Der Baum by Erik van der Weijde (self-published, 2010) were read aloud for a short presentation on zines at the 2011 NY Art Book Fair, at PS1.
How many photos make up a typology? Does the accumulation of pictures of a given subject necessarily amount to a greater understanding of that subject? In this case, the subject would be trees–or, rather, the tree, der Baum. There is a way in which the more views are being offered to us, the less we understand, and the more alien their purported subject appears to us.
The typological approach is predicated on a somewhat delusional notion: that knowledge results from the study of types, in which variants of the given subject’s outward form, in being recorded, become the exclusive vehicle for information about that subject. So classification of these collected forms amounts to a deceptive kind of pictorial order, one to which photographs happen to be especially well suited.
The proper, by-the-book photographic approach is meant to yield a negative rich in detail, and detail is synonymous with “information.” There is information in the shadows, we say. Expose for the shadows.
But each exposure also conceals. Divorced from its attendant caption, the photograph remains mute; it is indifferent to history, to humanity and ideology, as are the trees that are the purported subject of the pictures in question. So naturally, we ask: where was this picture taken? The index reveals that we are looking at a street in Milan, at a parking lot in São Paolo, at former SS barracks in Nuremberg. Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, a park in Kassel, a residential block in Le Havre. The cover image, we learn, depicts the street where kidnap victim Natasha Kampusch was held for almost eight and a half years.
With each tree an indifferent witness, the pictures seem to say: we are, all of us, implicated. We have developed machines ever more suited for pictorial clarity. In our drive for precision, resolution and detail, we have printed books in which to publish our findings.
But the application of a system is an ideological function first of all. No system is ever impartial, despite the objectivity of the camera’s gaze. Where does that leave us? We look for the incidental details: a security camera on a building facade, a gate barring entrance to a driveway, a Burger King sign, the austere facade of a museum, gravestones and mausoleums.
The trees in these pictures now appear as sentinels, as guards preventing entry into a past too distant to know first-hand. Each of them lies more or less centered in the frame, forming a barrier–and the effectiveness of these photos lies in this refusal. The discovery that one or two images conceal a traumatic history casts suspicion on them all. The neatly trimmed hedges and lined-up cars, apartment blocks and rows of municipal buildings, all seem suddenly part of the same suffocating impulse. Every detail is loaded, each scene becomes the location for some potential crime. Der Baum depicts a world that is permeated by doubt.