Olaf Otto Becker: Reading the Landscape

IN: (May 24, 2019)In Depth

Primary Forest 02, Lake, Malaysia, 10/2012


Primary Forest 02, Lake, Malaysia, 10/2012

Olaf Otto Becker’s photography documents the changes inflicted on natural landscapes by global consumerism. In his previous work, Becker has photographed the fragile landscapes of Greenland and the Arctic, making careful studies of icebergs and glaciers. This photograph, Primary Forest 02, Lake, Malaysia, however, is part of his 2012 series, Reading the Landscape. In this series Becker spans a range of Asiatic geographies – Malaysia, Borneo, Singapore – travelling further afield to capture habitats in all of their various states – natural, manmade, lush, destroyed. The series sees dense, unmitigated vegetation fill every picture plane: leaves swarm all visible structures, vines curve across picture frames, and tree-tops ascend above the jungle space.

Taken individually, this work appears to be an objective investigation into Malaysian geography: a mist descends upon dense forest, with a visual symmetry emerging between the lake, on the left, and a tall tree on the right. However, placed in series, Becker’s photographs allow us to consider the passage of time. In his interviews, Becker frequently uses the word ‘primeval’ to describe the jungles he explores. Indeed, with their dense vegetation, lush greenery, and lack of any signification linking the thick plantation to the present day, these photographs could easily be read as timeless.

Instead, Becker’s forest-scapes take on a strange temporality: the future anterior, the expectation of looking back. In this sense, his compositions are imbued with a sense of nostalgia. He has said in interview: ‘In the future we will probably only experience ‘primeval forests’ as the remnants of a completely subdued nature, surveyable […] from a single vantage point, easily accessible by conveniently laid-out roads, laybys and parking lots, and with comfortable hotels to stay in nearby’. As such, Becker’s photographs can be understood to memorialise a landscape that is not yet gone, but one which is diminishing daily. They speak to an anxiety for a world in fluctuation, and his compositions force the viewer to consider their own complicity in the destruction of natural landscapes such as this.

The title of the series – Reading the Landscape – particularly with its emphasis on reading, points to the way in which Becker’s practice not only seeks to record, but also to critically analyse the landscapes which he photographs. As such, Becker’s series are not inert or apolitical, but take on a fraught, political message about the immediate and devastating consequences of climate change

(By Emma Sharples)

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