Detlef Orlopp

Detlef Orlopp’s black and white photographs are not conventional landscapes and seascapes but moments of nature in two dimensions. Expanses of rock or water defined by light and shadow, texture and pattern, his images are virtually devoid of depth. There is none of the Sturm and Drang of the great outdoors, no plunging perspectives or distant horizons, not even the most rudimentary clues of scale to tell us that “here” is closer than “there.” What is left, once all the scenographic trappings have been cropped away, is nature as presence rather than setting: the grainy ridges of a mountainside, the sensual furrows at the foot of a hill, the endless varieties of ripples across the surface of the sea.

At first glance, many of these dense, depthless images look like drawings or prints, monochromatic projections of inner landscapes combining abstraction properties with (photo)realistic detail. Various shots of water, in particular, have been alternately under- and overdeveloped into stylized patterns of hatches and bands that look more like latter-day Op art than a meeting of wind and tide. Some passages of rocks almost suggest nudes drawn in charcoal and chalk. But when the photos are viewed together the gestalt goes to work, bringing out the precision, the range of tones, and above all, the sheer luminosity that inheres in the medium.

What emerges from the work is a sense of mission. Though there are no shop windows in his photographs to catch his reflection, like that of the indefatigable Eugène Atget lumbering through the streets of Paris under the weight of his outsized equipment, Orlopp has left his traces in other ways. They are apparent, for example, in the technical mastery, the rigor of every shot and each print, the intensity of the vision, and the imposing frontality of every composition. Orlopp’s presence is also felt in what is not there—color, movement, vegetation, living creatures—the particulars that would bring these emblematic fragments into the realm of representation.

The man behind these traces lives alone in the German countryside and until recently headed the design program at the Werkkunstschule in Krefeld. A student of Otto Steinert, one of the prime movers of postwar European photography, he has been tracking his characteristic natural subjects—rocks, mountains, and water—for just over 30 years. In the beginning, there was somewhat more information—more atmosphere, movement, as well as descriptive titles that revealed the extent of his travels through Spain, Morocco, Southern Italy, Norway, and Turkey. There was also a greater variety of subjects—portraits and postindustrial memento mori—old, rusty, and often flattened objects—photographed head-on, in a close-up, deadpan manner.

With three decades of hindsight, it is not difficult to follow Orlopp’s artistic itinerary from works with titles based on place names such as Morocco or Norway to the recent photographs identified only by date: 1.8.87 or 1.8.88. But as those early portraits and objects remind us, he could have gone another, more modish route via Pop, Conceptual, or Land art. Instead, he opted for a solitary path, a personal vision that he has been refining and consolidating ever since.

Miriam Rosen