Friday, 27 June 2014

Cold Mountain

The mind has a fundamental ability to accommodate the extraordinary, simply in order to let us get on with our lives.  You can watch the process happening to a baby, which starts life in a permanent state of goggle-eyed gobsmackedness, but quickly gets things sorted into the "ordinary", the "ordinarily amazing", and the "amazingly amazing".  It's hard to tell how pleasurable or terrifying this process is, but to watch a baby figuring out that it is attached to its own toes but not to its mother or its teddy bear is deeply fascinating.

I mention this, because for the first couple of days after arriving in Innsbruck I was wandering around like a 60-year old child, with my mind boggling every time I saw the mountains  -- proper mountains with snow in summer -- looming at the end of every street.  I was still in a state of dazed enthusiasm when I picked up my hire car.  The guy who signed it out was from north Germany.  "Yeah", he said, "For the first year after moving here I was permanently looking up and going Wow!, then I got over it, but they are amazing, aren't they?"

They are indeed.  But then so is the ordinary blue sky beyond them, and the ever-changing clouds, and the way the rotation of the earth causes the sun to appear to cross from one side of the view to the other, only for everything to go dark every evening, etc., etc.  It's all amazing, if you allow yourself the luxury of experiencing it, rather than -- of necessity -- ignoring it as background noise most of the time.  The tricky bit -- especially with something as intrinsically amazing as a mountain -- is finding a way to photograph it that will convey how amazing it all is.  Of all the tasks I set myself in my recent residency, this was the most challenging, and the one I felt I failed in most conspicuously.

The least successful approach, for me, was to get kitted up and stride out in in Happy Wanderer mode (val-de-ri, val-de-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha...).  I had a great time, and did get some useful photographs, but on the whole they look just like every other photograph of a mountain landscape you've ever seen.  Yes, you can try some radical composition and juxtaposition of elements, especially those "hand of man" elements that a typical landscapist would carefully exclude, but the inescapable fact is that your typical mountain range is either too big or too far away to be anything other than decorative background.  Mainly what you can see up there is trees.  Lots of trees.

In the end, I decided the only way to express "mountains" photographically, without resorting to the tropes and techniques of landscape porn, was to find suitably ironic stand-ins.  Surrounded by overwhelmingly real mountains, I could nonetheless find convenient surrogate mountains and representations of mountains pretty much anywhere I looked.

Those recently-posted images of the red-and-white bordered mirrors to be found at every rail-crossing were one approach I liked; like a nineteenth-century tourist with a Claude glass, it seemed one could best render the landscape as a "landscape" when reflected, framed, and simplified.  Another variation on this approach was deliberately to include reflections of those ever-present looming background shapes in urban windowscapes.  I also rejoiced at every mountain-shaped heap of rocky rubble and road chippings I came across, which, if you think about it, stand in relation to a mountain in the same way sausages do to a pig; essentially the same thing, only less troublesome and easier to consume.

In the end, this photograph, taken from my hotel balcony on my last day, may come closest to the feel of what I was after. It says "There is a beautiful, mysterious, inaccessible mountain, just down the road; now try to forget about it, if you can, and get on with your life".

When men see Han-shan
They all say he's crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don't get what I say
& I don't talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
"Try and make it to Cold Mountain."

Gary Snyder, Cold Mountain Poems 24


Gavin McL said...

I once was involved in purchasing several million pounds worth of valves from an Italian company based at the Northern end of Lake Como. The conference room in their office had a view of the mountains that surround the lake which they let the customer see, after my attention wandered for the 3rd or 4th time I began to think it was deliberate.

Mike C. said...

Lake Como! That is (or was) a beautiful place. I once stayed at Cadenabbia, and fell in love with the shabby genteel atmosphere of all those 19th century lakeside mansions.

Apparently it's so deep they test submarines in there.


Gavin McL said...

It's still a spectacular place despite the industry that surrounds it; on the West side is the Cagiva factory (they make motorbike engines) to the North is the Franke sink factory, beloved of many a middle class kitchen and the Galperti Complex nearby, they make Valves and Flanges. The whole arrangement always struck me as odd, like having Sheffield Forgemasters on the shores of Ullswater, but I guess it keeps decent jobs in the countryside. By the way the posts over the last couple of weeks have been excellent, I particularly liked the one about visiting the site of your last family holiday, very moving. Lake Como is deep (425m according to Wikipedia) but I suspect it's a lacustrian myth, getting a decent sized submarine there and back from the Ocean would be a pain, given the often excellent Italian metal working skills in the area maybe they manufacturer components and test them in the depths and the myth grew?

Mike C. said...

Yes, I had wondered about hauling a sub in and out of there... Maybe they depth test Franke sinks, which are built to a similar spec...


Kent Wiley said...

I think you got it on the last pic, Mike. Indeed, there is a serious mountain just a short hike out of town. "But ignore that, I've got a really nice pretzel here for sale."

Mike C. said...


What I'd forgotten, on my one serious attempt to get up among the rocks and snow, is how thin the air gets -- stopping every 100 yards for a breather... It's not a friendly place!