Misha de Ridder is a contemporary photographer whose pictures create a world of wonder, pushing the boundaries of how beautiful a landscape can be before losing all meaning. His pictures have been exhibited at Juliètte Jongma Gallery, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Foam Amsterdam, and The Museum of the City of New York, among other venues. He has authored numerous photography books, including Sightseeing (De Balie, 2000), Wilderness (Artimo, 2003), DUNE (Lay Flat, 2011) and Abendsonne (Schaden, 2011).
Sallow Thorn, 2008
C-print, 63 x 79 in. / 160 x 120 cm.
© Misha de Ridder
Carl Gunhouse: What is your earliest and/or fondest memory of photography?
Misha de Ridder: When I was five I watched my father print and develop the vacation photos in our home bathroom. I remember the smell of the chemicals and the sudden appearance of the image on the photo paper in the red glow of the darkroom light. It was magic.
CG: What attracts you to the medium as a way of making art?
MR: Again, the magic. Light reflects, altered it enters the lens and is fixed in chemicals or electrons. Due to this causal relation to the world, photography suggests truth and objectivity, but most of time ends up establishing the opposite. The eye and the heart somehow get mixed up with reality in the dark insides of the camera. In a way, the camera is like Plato’s cave, reminding us that when we think we understand the nature of things, we are in fact only looking at mere shadows on a wall.
CG: How do you find your process of working with video differs from working with photography? Does one impact the other?
MR: Video opens up a world of possibilities. Landscape is always the same and always different. Nature is in constant change. When the light changes, the mood changes. Shadows move. When mist dissolves, the landscape slowly regains its shape. By making very minimal movies these subtle changes intensify and become perceptible. The major difference between working with still images and video is that with video your subject needs to be in process of transforming. When making photos, this is not necessary. And I also recently discovered the dimension of sound in the landscape, which can be a revelation for someone working with still images.
CG: You work in various kinds of terrain, from the American Southwest to Switzerland, yet your pictures always feel like they were made along the same wooded coastline. How important to you is it that the viewer read your work as a specific place?
MR: The landscape should be read as a metaphor, but the particularity of the characteristics of the location functions as a point of departure. The Dutch-made DUNE is a thought experiment in finding certain representations of the past in the present. In Abendsonne, I marvel at the wonders of unreal reality at a mirror-like Swiss alpine lake. And in the almost other worldly subarctic Nordic landscape of Solstice, the landscape becomes an existentialist metaphor.
I feel that I should tell you some facts about The Netherlands: it is about the size of the Greater Los Angeles Area and is flat, no mountains. The rural area consists mainly of fields and meadows and is rapidly transforming into city. With 17 million people here, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Nature, if any, is very scarce and fragile. This is one of the reasons I have this longing for wildness and the remote, and the reason I travel to make my work.
Nonetheless I very much like the idea that you had this fantastic vision of The Netherlands through my work. But the vision you had was not of The Netherlands, it was a vision of the land that is located deep within me, far beyond the realm of the conscious.
C-print, 63 x 79 in. 160 x 120 cm.
© Misha de Ridder
CG: The word ‘sublime’ seems to get used a lot when people talk about your work. Is it an idea you’re comfortable with in describing your pictures, and if so, what separates, say, an attractive landscape photograph from something more transcendent?
MR: Edmund Burke first used the word sublime in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful from 1757. He concludes that next to the common category of the beautiful, a second esthetic category exists, with a character of its own: the sublime. The sublime inspires terror and awe, but because this reality is not actually threatening us and only reminds us of possible danger, we experience great pleasure in experiencing this terror.
Sublime comes from sub limen: on the verge of, on the threshold of. Who stands before my pictures, experiences exactly that; the spectator sees a world he is not standing in, but is about to be ushered into. He has to re-learn to look, and to open up his other senses to what he regards.
The sublime invites the viewer to be in the present, to go to extremes of reading and understanding the essence of the landscape according to its own system: in that endeavor, my work is really that of a minimalist, a land artist, for whom the experience counts, not the object. I aim to explore the boundaries, the world beyond the threshold, the limits of the light, the limit of our presence, by observing, feeling, and to attempt to demonstrate what cannot actually be photographed.
CG: As someone who makes landscapes, have you ever felt a pressure or desire to take on social or political topics in your work? I somehow suspect you occasionally find yourself fending off questions about environmentalism or overdevelopment.
MR: Well, I think our identity as a modern urban dweller is only completely definable if there exists an intense relationship between our culture and the living world of nature and landscape.
We have arrived at a moment in history when we are asked to think in a new way about our relationship to nature and landscape. In an urbanizing world, the challenge for our relationship is that human intervention may no longer be denied because it is universal and makes landscapes what they are, but there is also need for a deep exploration of the meaning of nature and landscape from inside ourselves.
C-print, 71 x 89 in. / 180 x 225 cm.
© Misha de Ridder
CG: As a landscape photographer, how much do you find yourself taking ideas from painting? Especially with your tendency to create images that deal with the literal processing of the transcendencies of everyday moments, I would think on some level that the work of Impressionist painting might impact your practice?
MR: When I was printing my Solstice show at the Grieger lab in Düsseldorf, their master printer asked me if I did painting too. He noticed the terminology I used to communicate corrections for my prints drew from the vocabulary of a painter.
Recently, I saw a documentary on David Hockney about the making of his new work A Bigger Picture that is currently on show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Picturing the East Yorkshire landscape, he started making sketches of the undergrowth. He was amazed with the diversity he found in grasses. This enormous and infinite joy of looking at nature in detail is something I recognize.
At a certain point he states a landscape is never an empty landscape. The viewer always brings himself to the landscape. Sometimes I can be jealous that the translation of landscape to picture through painting is such a sensible process where you use your hand and body, and I have to cope with this unruly mechanical box.
Concerning Impressionists, recently I saw Monet’s Water Lilies in the MoMA and I found myself looking at it for quite a while. But maybe I prefer the more emotional expressive approach of Post-Impressionists like Cezanne and Van Gogh. What I like in Paul Cezanne’s oeuvre is his Mont Saint-Victoire series where he painted the same mountain more than sixty times. I can see why you would revisit a subject over and over. I find myself revisiting certain places and at some point you establish a relationship. Religions with an animistic view of the world, like that of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia, believe that all places and things in nature possess a soul. Out of respect, the Sami move through nature in silence. I like this idea.
In my bag I carry this pocket aquarelle sketchbook along with my camera. Occasionally, just to slow down and in order to examine the landscape on another level, I would spend ten minutes making a quick watercolor impression.
CG: That said, do you think there is a place in contemporary photography/art for a practice as steeped in tradition as landscape photography? If so, how do you think it fits into a contemporary photography/art dialogue?
MR: I think landscape, especially the natural landscape, is an infinite subject. One can always say something new about landscape and nature. The tradition in landscape representation is a bonus, rather then a burden. In the process of making a representation of landscape, one always has to construct in order to make an image. Landscape is a construction. In this way tradition helps, not only technically, but also in presenting meaning.
In my work I try to play with different references to create new meaning. It is one of the many layers that make up an image. With all this tradition, and with all this ubiquitous landscape imagery that daily floods our senses, what better challenge than to photograph a sunset anew? It might not even be a challenge, it is a task.
C-print, 71 x 91 in. / 180 x 230 cm
© Misha de Ridder
CG: How have your work and practice evolved from, say, your Wilderness book to your more recent DUNE book? And what is on the horizon for you art wise?
MR: Wilderness has been the departure in working with nature. Nature provides a good starting point for photography in such a way that a priori nature has no intrinsic meaning. In the built environment, meaning is already contained, and one ends up having to deal with that while making photographs. For me that feels as a restraint, as noise obscuring what really needs to be said. The next task was to find form.
Later, video and sound came in. Everything came together last year in my show Solstice at Foam. Here the photographs are presented alongside video, and my books Abendsonne and DUNE came out.
Currently I’m focusing on processes and transformations. Recently I was filming how the sun was burning away the early morning mist at a lake. At some point, a swimmer emerged from the freezing water. It was an old man and he was stark naked. He came up to me and inquired in a friendly tone, “Now, what can I learn from you?”