Light and Time in Kay Kaul's Photographs
by Thomas W. Kuhn
[...] Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, Kay Kaul systematically explored the creative possibilities offered by digital computer technology and subsequently replaced his analogue equipment with high-definition digital cameras.
Among the works which result from these studies are his interiors which have a thematically tripartite structure. They can be characterised as “roomscapes” and describe the progression of a work of art from its production and distribution to the customer. The three stages are the “studioscapes”, then the “galleryscapes”, and finally the “collectorscapes”. Apart from providing a view of these places of living and working – a view which is anything but voyeuristic - which were sensitively described and put in their art historical context in Blazenka Perica's catalogue text from 2004 – these works show an extremely high degree of technical precision. Both the photographs of a total of 12 room-segments, each shot at an angle of 30 degrees, and the computer-aided merging of these individual images to form a seamless panorama testify to this precision.
This technical precision is also a vital precondition for his current photographs which may be classified as landscape photography. Technically speaking, they are works each composed of six photographs shot in rapid succession. Each of these shots was digitally filtered – on the one hand using the basic colours red, green and blue of the additive colour spectrum as on a TV screen, and on the other hand using the subtractive colour spectrum used in colour prints, namely yellow, magenta and cyan. As a result, each individual image representing moments taken in quick succession has a different colour value. In the subsequent editing process, the six filtered images are positioned precisely one upon the other. All the areas which were static while the sequence was being shot regain their original colour values in this process, while the areas where the movement of water resulted in changes are characterised by shimmering iridescence, not unlike the prismatic effect of a rainbow. It is precisely this prismatic kaleidoscope of colours which captures the passing of time. Light and time are revealed by the natural medium of water and subsequently by the medium of photography.
The various different images created using this technique also reveal the multitude of manifestations of water in natural environments. One of the first photographs shows the river Rems in Swabia, its surface gently ruffled by a light swell. The waves spread upwards, their strength decreasing, in parallel lines from the bottom right edge of the picture. Below the surface, the light is very well reflected by eddies and the air bubbles they contain, while on the surface, the light is mainly reflected by the troughs of the gentle waves facing the camera. The filtered colours reflect the movement both along the crests of the waves and in stripes which appear between the troughs and the crests. The wave, a seemingly simple natural phenomenon, is revealed as an amazingly complex structure in Kaul's work. A wide variety of different manifestations of waves are presented – ranging from intersecting waves with white crests near Oostkapelle on the North Sea, to the Rhine near Düsseldorf shimmering like gold in the evening sun, its surface turbulent as if churned by some vibration emanating from the depths. One image gives a vividly detailed picture of the River Düssel, which resembles a mountain stream as it cuts through the Neandertal valley, while another shows the profound serenity of a pond in the Düsseldorf Volksgarten. It is only in the latter picture that human intervention plays a role. A stone thrown into the pond has caused ripples which spread slowly in concentric circles. The photographs have in common the fact that they focus on the surface of the water without showing vegetation or details of the shore or bank. Each picture shows particular colour effects which highlight the highly individual character of the different stretches of water.
Occasionally, some areas of the surface of a stretch of water are not moving, but are still and remain static during the brief duration of the exposure so that they reflect the light in the familiar way. Other pictures include elements of the surrounding area which also remain static, and thus their colour values are in line with our everyday perceptual experience. These static areas may consist of vegetation at the edge of the water, river banks or rocks. Such elements feature in photographs as diverse as those of the small river Düssel with its rapids, and the boulders and cobbles over which the water flows, and the great falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen. In both cases, the observer is confronted with a peculiar phenomenon: the technique used by Kaul makes the most dynamic areas appear exactly as they would to the human eye, namely white. It seems to be a paradox of human visual perception that if there is too much movement, it simply disappears. The effect is comparable to the perception of a patterned hub cap. Initially, as the vehicle accelerates, the pattern accelerates as well. At a certain speed, however, the perceptive faculty of the naked eye fails to see any details and the area becomes diffuse as if it were immobile. There are usually only small areas within these highly dynamic photographs where different colour values reveal that the water is in motion. In one picture, a front-on view of the cascading Rhine Falls, it is only a delicately iridescent mist hovering over the foaming, turbulent waters, a prismatic light, which might be visible to the naked eye if, under ideal conditions, it were refracted in such a way as to become visible from the position of the observer.
These works with their landscape details are almost classical in their pictorial composition and are reminiscent of traditions in European landscape painting and also of Asian art, which, from the mid-19th century onwards or even earlier, opened up new perspectives and sensitized European artistic perception. The places depicted are also reminiscent of topics and motifs in art history. Gustave Courbet and Johannes Brahms relaxed at the Geroldsau waterfalls at Baden-Baden and Kaul's Rhine shimmers like the hoard of gold of the Nibelungs. Before its partial destruction as a result of limestone quarrying in the 19th century, the Neandertal valley was a magnet for a host of painters from Düsseldorf who took the short trip so that they could work on landscape studies for paintings depicting mountain areas without having to go to the trouble of travelling to the Alps. [...]