Several years ago, the literary scholar and biographer Richard Holmes told the story of the “second scientific revolution” in Britain. Beginning with Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which departed in 1768, and ending with Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands, begun in 1831, Holmes described how enterprising figures brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work.” These men laboured in disparate fields—from astronomy to chemistry to biology—yet, Holmes claims, “the notion of wonder” united them. Reacting against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, they took exploratory voyages and dwelt in mystery and inspiration. By the mid-nineteenth century, this “Age of Wonder,” as Holmes called it, would give way to a Victorian science more recognizably modern—cooler and more restrained. Yet the notion of Romantic science Holmes explores is worth retaining, not least because it highlights the acts of imagination that are an important part of any scientific enterprise.
In a similar vein, art historians and critics have recently examined the “Romantic” side of Conceptual art, itself commonly understood as wedded to notions of logic and rigor. As Jörg Heiser noted in a 2002 article, Conceptual artists such as Bas Jan Ader attempted “systematically treating the unsystematic,” such as emotional states. In the course of exposing the tensions of modern art, these artists collapsed its primary distinctions—“analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire”—in what Heiser described as a kind of “alchemy.”
The echo of scientific inquiry in the term alchemy is apropos of German artist Jochen Lempert, who trained as a biologist before turning full-time to art making in the early 1990s. His seemingly casual photographs of flora, fauna, and ephemeral natural events benefit from his scientific training, though their analytical rigor is less obvious than their “poetry” (that other Romantic specialty). His images are unprepossessing when encountered individually: a pigeon on a sidewalk, a stick bug on an outdoor table, leaves swept upward by an unseen wind. Yet they are animated by a savvy observational acuity, one honed by Lempert’s years studying dragonflies. And his installations, for which he devises novel combinations of photographs, possess a quietly mesmeric force. By carefully controlling the progression of focus, scale, and other features, Lempert performs alchemical transformations in his own right, and makes of his modest endeavors something enchanting.
The first thing one notices about Lempert’s photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In a world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio lab. After a rigorous editing process, he hangs the finished artworks un-matted and unframed, taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of digital C-prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.
These photographs are recombined for each presentation of Lempert’s work. Pictures from the early 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. Some of Lempert’s sly juxtapositions are based upon formal allegiances. A subtle dark pattern on a butterfly’s hind wing is revealed more fully after Lempert juxtaposes it with a similar-looking tattoo on a woman’s upper back. An isolated piece of coral acquires zoomorphic attributes when placed next to an image of a flamingo’s body. Or consider, as in his recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which garnered him the nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize, the berry of a deadly nightshade plant with light bouncing off its spherical surface; the toxic specimen parallels the eye of a squirrel in an adjacent picture.
Other combinations and series perform different tasks. Some are homages to figures in his initial field, as with his photographs of the title pages of Charles P. Alexander’s research papers on crane flies. The papers span several decades, and Lempert’s photographs of them are a paean to the unheralded task behind such research: dedicated, long-term observation. That dedication, however, can admit whimsy. Several photographs of four swans floating in a pond, included in the series Constellation, never quite create a perfect square. In that imperfection, they bring to my mind John Baldessari’s inimitable 1973 work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).
Other photographs celebrate pioneers of scientific photography, as with his photograms made by pressing light-sensitive paper to a computer-screen display of images from Anna Atkins’s 1843 volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, considered the first book illustrated with photographs. In a further reference to Atkins, Lempert has also made his own photograms with algae, as well as with other subjects, such as lily pads and frogs. One such artwork tracks the path of a glow-worm across several sheets of light-sensitive paper; the image it produced was exposed solely by the subject’s own bioluminescence.
But whether observed in the field or produced in a darkroom, Lempert’s photographs can also raise vexing philosophical questions. One of my favorite artworks he has made comprises six photographs of waves cresting on a roiling sea, each with an identical horizon line. They hint at the unremitting and yet futile attempts we make to organize perceptual phenomena; the images are similar enough that a viewer is tempted to devise a category into which to slot them—a fundamental human impulse, and a linchpin of scientific inquiry. (Linneaus is famous today for regularizing binominal nomenclature and his pioneering taxonomic classifications, not his collections of specimens. That deadly nightshade plant is also known as Atropa belladonna.) But what category might these pictures of waves slot into? And once you’ve outlined its contours, how would you fill such a category with photographs? Photographing the sea with any systematic intent is a Sisyphean task. As if to drive home the point, Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water—two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, and then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.
By acknowledging those limitations, we open the door to doubt and uncertainty, for which we compensate with the poetic imagination. For all his training in science, and despite the scientific principles his photographs illustrate and the utilitarian information they may carry, Lempert’s pictures are also undeniably lyrical. In the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective, Frédéric Paul asserts that it is “a human error to see a poetic invention in the behavior of a bird”—yet I’m confident that, like me, Paul succumbs to the impulse when looking at Lempert’s photographs. Lempert’s photographs are not controlled experiments, but rather explorations, voyages of discovery.
It is another literary scholar, the late Guy Davenport, who describes what I take to be the impulse animating Jochen Lempert’s work. In an essay on the “amateur archeology” of family trips to hunt for American Indian arrowheads, Davenport writes, “what lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before. . . . [Thoreau’s] daily walks [had] a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty.” Davenport continues, “our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Foraging, that prehistoric impulse, has not been bred out of us. Lempert’s modest voyages of discovery—often no more than day trips around his hometown—result in photographs that give us twin pleasures: that of the hunt, of course, and that of attending closely to what he has found.
This essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition is on view until June 22. For more information, click here.