Lost, found and seen – Black & White Photography Award 2021 Winner | | Essay by Magali Duzant

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Using photographs from various archives, German artist Peter Franck’s meticulously-crafted digital landscapes build a sense of indeterminate time, drifting somewhere between past, present and future.

In The Nonexistent Knight, Italo Calvino writes about a specific time of day; “the hour in which one is least certain of the world’s existence.” A related dreamlike time of uncertainty seems to float across the black and white landscapes of Lost, found and seen, a series by the German artist Peter Franck. At first glance one feels compelled to ask: are we looking back or forward? Is this earth or elsewhere?

“What will remain from our here and now…light and shadow and stories that will never change?” asks Franck in Lost, found and seen. Photography is a medium well suited for the question of remnants. The photographic process is in and of itself built to depict this, and the resulting image is in essence what remains on the film—a physical trace of an optical phenomenon, a comprehension of time. Throughout his images, Franck plays with questions of time and light as well as perception and projection, as he builds a surreal but deeply recognizable world of possibilities.

“These pictures represent the question of what remains of cities, what persists,” Franck says. Landscapes are bathed in deep blacks and burning whites, velvety grays trace the progress of roots and ripples in water. Franck’s background as a painter shows as textures and patterns are depicted with care. The image Parking Lot is like an x-ray, stripping away the superfluous, focusing on the delicate bones of an otherwise banal place. The photographs manage to steal between times—here is the past and present rolled into the future. One feels as if they are exploring an eerily familiar planet. Here is a haphazard fence, there is the indentation of a crater (or is it an anthill?) that is a ship in the distance, but what is that structure floating in the sky?

parking garden © Peter Franck
The Flying Dutchman © Peter Franck
glass boat © Peter Franck
esuoh © Peter Franck
hours © Peter Franck
the perfect volcano © Peter Franck
science © Peter Franck
ark © Peter Franck
battlefield © Peter Franck
water lilies © Peter Franck

The series is built with images from various archives, such as the Library of Congress, the Digital Commonwealth, and the archives of Zürich’s public research university ETH, alongside Franck’s own photographs. These collages become “a game between analog and digital, a one-time jump which creates a surreal world and generates a gaze into a new reality.”

This new reality plays with perception using the endless tools that digital imaging has to offer. The viewer is led through scenes that are slow to unravel, that ask for and reward longer viewing. In Battlefield, as a glowing bar floats across a field, a bare tree stands sentinel. The sky appears filled with forms, locusts or lightning bugs or perhaps something more sinister. The Flying Dutchman ship suspended in darkness is ghostly, hovering in a sea of black as if seen through a buffed-out window pane. In Water Lilies, the plant of the title could be mistaken for flying saucers, a constellation of stars spread below their pads. They are electrified, dangerous within the photograph’s inky depths.

Moving through the series one is pushed back and forth between the recognizable and the foreign. We can place ourselves within these scenes but something is always just a bit off, just a bit out of reach. The power of the images is in their demand on the viewer to build a narrative themselves, fleshing out the uncanny. Franck describes the spaces of these photographs as “a stage for stories of the past through the present and into the future.” The images are devoid of people; they are hushed. He suggests that this means “each viewer then writes the piece themself. The viewer is the person in the picture and plays their own piece.”

In writing the piece for myself I could not help but connect these images to earlier ones, building a bridge from this collaged, indeterminate time as an imagined future to a known past. In Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s first photographic image, View from the Window at Le Gras, (1826 or 1827), one can just make out the shape of buildings amidst the countryside. In Louis Daguerre’s first daguerreotype, Boulevard du Temple, (1838), a Paris street scene is stripped of movement, the lone figure is frozen, having his shoe shined. All other traces of humans or animals in action have escaped the shutter. This is a matter of the technology of the time—exposure times were simply too long for what we now consider street photography—but it is hard not to read more into it. We as individuals will not remain; instead it is the structures we have built, the landscapes we have touched and marred, the light and shadow of the day that will outlast us.

Franck’s photographs explore the elemental and expansive qualities of the medium, picturing a world aglow, one that feels known but is rarely seen. Photography’s past restrictions meet the unlimited possibility of its present and in constructing his photographic world he proves its existence.

This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Black & White Photography Awards 2021. See all of this year’s winners.

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