We each in our esoteric ways have some deep sense of the need for escape from the confines of the city, which has become the de facto medium for social interaction as populations have grown rapidly and urban density has persistently increased. In America, the past century witnessed a profound reversal in the manner in which the majority of citizens lived, from a point at which roughly twenty percent dwelled in urban centres to a point at which roughly twenty percent remained in rural areas. As modernity and industrialisation have refashioned the very bases of social norms, the often scattershot accelerated development of cities has both produced and come to mirror our complex and problematic adjustment to this newly normalised social reality.
Writing in 1919, at a time when the majority of the American population still lived in broadly rural areas, Waldo Frank attempted to describe Los Angeles to a French audience in his commissioned book Our America. His bemusement and disdain for the frantic character of a city still very early in its century of expansion seems, in some ways, emblematic both of the difficulty of acclimating to urban sprawl, and of the pejorative sense of anonymity that such cities can produce:
“All cities speak. Some roar, some shrill, some whisper. Los Angeles has no voice. Its vast expanse of pretty houses and wide gutters and inept palms suggests the smile of an empty face. Los Angeles is not a city. It is a country town that has outgrown its rural voice and found no other. One has the sense, walking its myriad, well-paved miles, that there lacks the vibrance of real thought, the stir of passion. Los Angeles somehow has no direction. One feels that its crowded central streets are not a head, but a stomach. One understands that its inhabitants are rows of naughts made valid by no integer of purpose.”
— Waldo Frank Our America (1919)
Many decades after these terse words were published, Karin Apollonia Müller set about making first Angels in Fall (2001) and then On Edge (2009), as a recent European transplant to the broad and expanding metropolis of Los Angeles. As much as she necessarily turned her lens outward in her attempts to gain some purchase on this place she newly called home, her photographs equally mapped a more internal desire to draw together people’s relationships to the land with her own understanding of her membership of, and foreignness to the city. Convinced of the integral relationship between landscape and identity, or between environment and behaviour, she photographed an unfamiliar and often impenetrable space to unpick the interacting forces of individual and social aspiration as they are laid out in the patterns of the city and its surrounding areas.
In the photographs that resulted from these efforts, the location of those interacting forces is embodied in the placement of human figures and indices of human passage within the wide-angle frame of the landscape, and that placement frequently focuses on moments where we unwittingly and candidly express some underlying difficulty in our relationship to the immensity of that part of the world we find ourselves in. The images explore an immensity by turns rendered in the form of extensive reach of a sprawling city, the unending breadth of the stilled desert or the heedless repetitions of the oncoming sea, but always with some countervailing trace of our inherent dependency upon, and interaction with a material world both separate and integral to our way of life.
The paradoxical beauty that these images produce flows, in large part, from the profoundly unindividuated and repetitive landscapes that make up this image of the city. A certain fundamental indifference to individual aspiration is produced by its bordering enormities, an indifference perhaps accentuated or exacerbated by the apparently personal seductions of advertisements that everywhere seem to trumpet the virtues of individuality in deeply impersonal terms. The city in these images is ringed not only by deserts and seas, but governed by the profoundly inorganic and faceless forces of a ruthless economic logic, an indifferent ecology, and a vast media industry concerned with individuals only at the distant level of statistics.
This disjuncture is of course primarily rhetorical, but it is persuasive because over the extent of a sequence, the specificity with which it is articulated speaks to deeper general truths of urban life. If Los Angeles is in so many ways equated with the stage, a vast sprawling microcosm capable of reflecting all conceivable parts of the globe, then it is as much as anything a city of ideas – a place in which immaterial ideas have been and can (ostensibly) be transformed into reality. Among the more bitter notes of irony in these photographs is the illustration of the great extent of the mismatch between aspiration and earth, between conception and possibility. Just as the city seems to have run away with itself, constantly disappearing under the depth of fog and haze that blankets the fullest extent of its enormity, so the very plates on which it rest seem stretched beyond breaking point, soils exhausted, grasses lean and withered. Between the dream and the visceral fact there is a stubborn and implausibly broad gulf, a gulf which at repeated instances seems to be extending even as small labours seek to paper over the cracks, shift hedgerows back into alignment, blanket up-rushing flames in small tanks full of water.
“The world seems to be made more and more of stuff we’re not supposed to look at, a banal infrastructure that supports the illusion of automotive independence, the largely unseen places from which our materials come – strip mines, industrial agriculture, automated assembly lines, abattoirs – and where they end up: the dumps. Los Angeles consists mostly of these drably utilitarian spaces, in part because cars demand them, and it is a city built to accommodate cars. These spaces tend to be grey, the grey of unpainted cement, asphalt, steel and accumulated grime; and they tend to be either abandoned or frequented by people who are also discards, a kind of subterranean realm hauled to the surface. Or not.”
In a preponderance of these photographs, what we typically consider to be landscape (the framed and extensive view of the natural world) is treated with the same measured composition as the imagery of architectural and urban forms. No semantic distinction is acknowledged between the economic and political forces that produce architecture knitted together into urban space, and the geological and ecological forces that go together to produce the landform of the natural environment. Each are comprised of their respective monuments, their own inner logics and complex histories. Such an equivalence (which is in no way disinterested) strongly suggests a reading of each ‘type’ as similarly comprised of intersecting or interacting dynamics: man making over the land as it in turn shapes distinctly human possibilities.
Without specifying a social group or even a specific neighbourhood, the photographs cumulatively question the reciprocal impacts of the conventions that have informed the development of this city and its environs: as much on individual sociality as on regional ecology. Where Angels in Fall ends with a question in the form of a series of remote views that regress from the innards of the city to a point of distant elevation, On Edge, made in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, seems to end in more of a prediction: a cowboy riding the bucking bull after a series of landslides and minor quakes, the sequence ending with a muted image of flat sparse earth, and a cut down tree.
In each of Angels in Fall and On Edge, there is a foundational question about the nature of the individual human grasp of space and opportunity when considered in view not just of economic and social norms particular to this city, but to a logic that is both culturally diffuse and pervasive. Both works are cognisant of the risk of economic and ecological disaster that has, with time, taken on the character of an unavoidable if inarticulable backdrop to western society, but are also interested in and sensitive to a certain history of basic human folly, visible as much as anything in the anachronisms that urbanisation produces, and that the camera is so well suited to depicting. Ringed as so much of the city is by sand, it is hard not to think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which describes the re-imagined discovery of an ancient pharaoh’s statue alone in the desert, when picturing the manner in which these photographs may come to look some two or three short decades into the future:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Angels in Fall itself opens and closes with end papers covered in a faintly legible but broad and complex map of the city, a map rendered in sandy pastels that highlights districts such as Griffith Park, West Hollywood and Eagle Rock and Alhambra. As with so many early American cities, this one contains regions named for foreign and memorial places, names that assume the titular form of mementoes but also of incorporated histories, parts of the variegated past of those immigrants who settled and constructed the city. In symbolic terms, maps mirror some integral aspects of the traditional activity of landscape photography, and their inclusion here harks back to the early survey photography that first charted and then helped to open up the West for American opportunity, at the expense of those indigenous Native American and Mexican inhabitants who had long since discovered it.
For a foreigner to the city (such as Apollonia-Müller once was) a map is an indispensable tool for orientation, a means to resist the pressure of anxiety that can come from immersion in a terrain that remains unknown and complex. There is thus a certain resonance in such a map being furnished at the outset of a book of photographs by a European immigrant to the United States. The maps and attendant photographs in Karin’s book resonate with the long trail of frontier history in which the King Survey members returned to Washington DC with extensive landscape photographs and maps, in order to distribute them as aids and incentives to those who had intentions of setting forth into the west in search of a future.
My sense, within the context of this book, is that the figure of the map (perhaps perversely) moderates any sense of an essentially objective mission in the images that follow it: the map points up the difficulty of finding one’s own place, and establishes the sequence of images as being part of the effort that the photographer undertook to do precisely that. What the images themselves depict is thus both true to the place and time of their making, while simultaneously conforming to an internal register: the making of these photographs, and their orchestration in the book crafts a specific order of place for the city, and at the same time establishes one for the photographer within the same space.
A variegated pattern of dichotomies builds out of the landscapes in this work, made up of the strange conjunctions of minutiae and enormity that characterise the surface, if not the temperament of the city. But for the recurrence of small human gestures set against geological or commercial vastness, this would seem a deeply inhospitable or strangely empty place. But it is in the smallness, and the tenderness through which some intimate accommodation is made with the city’s unending sprawl and sudden verticality that some measure of mitigation is delivered in the images. Even as the photographs trace the long forgotten trackways of tram-lines that snake between warehouses across blank industrial spaces, pointing toward a forgotten and yet foundational history, we see a differing form of individual and urban memory in the manual gestures of graffiti, in small yet carefully maintained memorials, in half-forgotten fascia of stone churches and in the diminutive circular flower beds of cacti planted at a grassy cliff’s edge. These little corners do not add up to a sizeable refuge, nor, I think, are they intended to suggest some yet to be discovered resource or means of resistance.
The images unwaveringly clarify the slim odds ranged against the last frontiersman to traverse these ostensibly modern and often dilapidated streets. Those compelled to wheel their possessions around in carts, or store them up beneath tarpaulins in whatever lee they might find from the wind and rain are, in a cruel twist of irony, the last remnants of the westward drive through the frontier toward opportunity. Their clothing may have changed, but the arduous nature of their daily challenge to survive has in many ways improved little if at all, against the grain of history. What surrounds them now, however, is not the vacuum of the desert or the quiet rolling foliage of Californian hills, but raw commerce and pure utility – utility of a sort that produces often sharp and painful anachronism.
While the sense of space these landscapes construct is one that required and must logically be based on tremendous activity, apart from those relatively infrequent images of queueing traffic, the images themselves are remarkably empty of the bustle of the city. In one sense this is reflective of the primary mode of transportation that governs the logic of this sprawling metropolis – the private passage of automotive transport being essentially antithetical to the uncontrolled Brownian motion of pedestrian urban life. However, the consistently phosphorescent and yet colourless glow of light in which these images are sheathed, and the recurring moment of their making shortly after dawn, instead points up an emptiness we know to be more rhetorical than factual. This emptiness, as it is counterpointed by singular human figures, inverts the conventions of romantic landscape imagery while making astute use of some of its principal tools, and it does so, I think, in order to reflect the unrelenting callousness that characterises the most efficient means of navigating life in a major city. The quality of light in these landscapes disguises a presence we know to be numerous, and in veiling it thus, under a diaphanous fog, the character of isolation in which individual figures are photographed reflects back on a multitude we know to be both present in fact, and unreachable within confines of the view the image affords us.
There is a certain habit of diffidence toward our continual proximity to one another that can arise from the pragmatic anonymity that cities themselves produce, and this is both accentuated and exacerbated by the isolating role that the automobile plays in assisting individual passage through the unremittingly dense meshwork of LA. Where some reprieve is obtained from the overarching network of flyovers, highways, compacted buildings and lengthy streets, the photographs seem to suggest that a kind of loneliness is the privilege of those who can afford to isolate themselves from the densest depths of city, while those with little or no opportunity are bound together rather than separated by similar pressures, or comparable necessities. This inverted use of romantic form derives not pleasure but pathos from solitude, and suggests that while some moments of distance may provide welcome relief, its normalcy can be corrosive.
Beginning with the tipped-in landscape photograph of a handful of hikers perched at the edge of a rocky cliff fronting a turbulent and hazy sea, On Edge invokes more turbulent and less easily controlled forces of nature as somehow intrinsic to the interacting dynamics that shape the landscape its photographs seek to depict. Accident or even calamity loom large and feature more often, as the rolling shoulders of the land come to seem more like pent up pockets of long suppressed but irrepressible drives that seek at many points to penetrate the disordered surface of the city. There is evidence of powerful winds stripping the faces from new buildings, tipping storefront signs off their axes, while elsewhere wildfires paint the clouds in delirious shades reminiscent of Turner’s Eruption of Vesuvius. In contrast to the tenor of light in Angels in Fall, in these images some slender edge of colour is returned to the translucent haze of the sky, and its effect on the vivid colourings of squat buildings and rearing advertising hoardings only exacerbates the deep strangeness of such vigour being encountered amid so much subsidence, and such grim functional urban forms.
The rapidly alternating negotiation between controlled planning and unintended activity in these landscapes speaks to a more fundamental question of which forces will, in the final analysis, exercise authority over the development of the place in which these inhabitants (and by extension we ourselves) live. Amid the squalid drabness of a back alley connecting a parking lot with a disused and decaying warehouse we see a monochromatic mural of a budding flower blossoming in the gloom in proportions so large that it seems to threaten a good third of a city block. On the facing page, a skeletal skyscraper, draped in plastic sheeting, depicts an inverted pair of advertisements for a cellular phone, the smooth surface of the upside-down image tattered and punctured so widely that the image suggests the entire building could have been grasped and upended in a storm.
Proceeding from a point far closer to its subjects than the images in Angels in Fall, these photographs fasten their attentions on miniaturised labourers scaling improbable heights, tending to minor repairs, remedying individual complaints. All the while, the city itself has been seeded with an underlying edge of tempest by these early tumultuous images, so that these small labours seem utterly heedless of the scale of forces arrayed against them. While the city is often renovated or rebuilt by the activities depicted in these images, it is not in the process of being reconceived, or fundamentally remodelled. In the face of foreclosure, expansion; in the face of demolition, rebirth; in the face of collapse, extension; in the face of drought, greater thirst.
Beyond the foreshortened distance from which these newer photographs are made, there is a concurrent increase in the overall sense of human activity figured by the sharp increase in images of labourers, most often photographed in the process of performing repairs, engaging in demolition, reconstruction, fire, police and paramedic services – reconstituting those damaged elements of an intricate and seemingly accident-prone city. On Edge seeks to look more closely at the material record of human activity that Angels in Fall observed more from a distance. Viewed from within rather than far above city blocks, a similar sense of relative scale is produced, along with a feeling of placelessness: the miniature human figure compressed against the immensity of rearing bluffs and squat, grey tower blocks, as though an intersection of immense economic and ecological forces were indifferently toying with some basic human folly. The Marxist geographer David Harvey often quotes turn of the century sociologist Robert Park’s thoughts on the city – Park having been an influential voice in the developing field of urban studies. In a book published over twenty years after his death, Park writes:
“The city is man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.”
The character of the world imaged in these photographs, one that we discover in a continual process of reclamation and reconstruction, is fragile, scattershot, distended and anachronistic: both bucolic and urbane, both suburban and ruthlessly bureaucratic. It rests upon an earth riven with fissures both figurative and metaphoric, cracks that seem to to threaten most acutely the blitheness with which the normalcy of the city’s conventions is accepted. Los Angeles here is a western-most outpost of the Frontier, one in which industrious energy is no longer invested in the creation of a new paradigm, or a differently imagined future, but rather in a process of conventional repetition that bears no trace of seduction, or prospect of even the possibility of transformation. It is a gamble, a wager between the probability of accident and the possibility of distant riches. A wager that masks its anxieties beneath the thin veneer of desire, underwritten by small labour, and ultimately circumscribed by vast and largely invisible forces.
“Here was the remotest reach of pioneering, where it fell westward from the Sierras. It had to stop. There was no farther way. The Orient was not a gate but a bar. In the North, newer incentives were already there to transform the balked energy of the frontiersman. The industrial incentives: mining and lumbering and the bridling of great rivers. Not so in the South. Industrialism was still beyond. The pioneer was left to his own resources. And he had none. His energy could not transform, so it drooped. For it is and ever was resourceless, save in the following of a horizon. The air of Southern California is dry. The Pacific surface is not as saline as the Atlantic Ocean. No Gulf Stream murks the sky. A preservative air is that of Southern California. And in it, like the corpse of some vast animal, the pioneer lies supine but in good condition: isolated from all hostile agents, a pretty specimen for the social student. His one activity, the hewing of roads beyond the hills, is gone.”
— Waldo Frank Our America (1919)
“I think it is essential to recognize the probable result of what we have done and are doing, but when we have seen that and its roots in human motives, the menaced world may seem more to be treasured than ever. Certainly the anguish and anger we feel at the threat to it and the sleepless despoiling of it can lose their tragic complexity and become mere bitterness when we forget that their origin is a passion for the momentary countenance of the unrepeatable world.”
The photographs across both Angels in Fall and On Edge cumulatively build up a powerful sense of fragility at both a civilisational and individual level, and they cohere in their episodic articulation of a profound sense of incoherence. There is an unabashed romanticism to the quality of light in both bodies of work, by turns soft and hazy, by turns heavy and portentous, but what emerges from the romantic quality of that light is not a cry for solitude or a celebration of individual sensitivity so much as a deep-seated need for community. So often the small individual figures in Karin’s landscapes labour at their connection to the earth – they trudge more often than they walk, or equally often stand somewhat bemused, and in some essential way at odds with the textured surface of the land. It is in this sense that they seem suspended not merely in the photographic instant at which they were photographed, but also suspended in a more metaphoric sense: captured at an extended interval between self and world. In this way Karin’s images trace a pattern of small human pacings across the improbably enormity of a landscape that both dwarfs and mirrors our own fragility.