Chicago

Walter Niedermayr

Walter Niedermayr’s wall assemblages of panoramic photographs record both the spectacular profile of his native region of the Italian Alps and the results of its relentless colonization by late-twentieth-century tourism. As did painters like Turner and Friedrich, Niedermayr exults in the sheer drama of the place, where nature takes on a frosty and inhospitable grandeur. Always from a distance, his camera records much of the standard repertoire of chilly Romanticism—the juxtapositions of ice and stone, the deep fissures, the rocky crags scurried over by infinitesimal human figures inevitably dwarfed by their encounter with nature. But while the grand tradition of Romantic artists showed nature relatively untouched, perpetually abiding, and impassively impervious to its occasional contact with humankind, Niedermayr offers the residue of a curious domestication: the Alps as just another day trip for the expenditure of late-capitalist leisure time.

Almost lost amid the rocky and snowy vastness of Felskinn I, 1997, a few bulldozers crawl about, their splash of yellow color making them seem like tiny daffodils clinging to life in an otherwise inhospitable clime. But live they do. Like the ubiquitous spidery cable lines, ski lifts, and people-movers that appear in almost all Niedermayr’s work, the machinery is a reminder of a scarring, inescapable human presence. While skiers themselves almost never appear in his photographs (many of which are taken during the off-season), skiing’s encumbering infrastructure is everywhere. Plumed in their brightly colored jackets and sunglasses, the tourists transported from below for a glimpse of nature’s majesty are little dots of mod fashion. They suggest well-heeled scavengers taking possession of this now-tamed habitat. Niedermayr photographs from such a distance that the people consuming these sites never become individuals, remaining instead anonymous upwardly mobile integers who mill about aimlessly observing this occupied territory, subjugating a culturally privileged destination. The intensity of brightness in Niedermayr’s photographs, with sunlight almost parabolically intensified by the thin air and dizzying reflections of the snow, practically washes the tourists out of existence. The light is so blinding and the terrain so dramatic that the visitors amble about as if concussed.

Petrarch’s decision to climb Mount Ventoux (“My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer”) is sometimes cited as a fourteenth-century harbinger of the modern spirit, an expenditure of effort and energy for the sole purpose of enriching consciousness. Niedermayr proposes a shallower version, as if Petrarch were now clad in trendy ski gear amid timeless mountains that are slowly becoming entertainment and investment opportunities indistinguishable from the mercantile lowlands below.

James Yood