Jochen Lempert

Domaine De Kerguehennec

Capturing a moment and capturing a specimen are not so very different: Both acts take an acute eye and some cunning; and in either case there’s a chance you may kill what you mean to preserve. If the flora and fauna in Jochen Lempert’s photographs escape such a fate, it is because he photographs nature without making nature photographs—no small achievement for a photographer who depicts wildlife in abundance, from cormorants and gulls to sponges, flies, and plankton, who shows us both the North Sea and the full moon. “Field Work,” a remarkable body of recent photographs by the German artist (and trained biologist), continues to resist the label of nature photography, which might be one reason for Lempert’s relative and almost criminal obscurity to date.

Often depicted amid human society or in moments of curiously hominid behavior, Lempert’s animal subjects appear at odds with their own naturalness. A pair of pigeons strolling through a park in Cromagons, 2006, looks far more self-aware than the people in the background, while three grids of “portraits” of variously plumed, taxidermied avians seem ennobled with individuality, both comic and poignant. Other works capture nature’s sublime abstractions: The white silhouettes of birds over a black sea in Untitled, 2004, suggest darting, Larry Poons–like tracks; a spiderweb rigged in the right angle of a twig becomes the square canvas for an allover abstraction of flies and snagged chaff in Pour la Forme (For Form), 2007. In the triptych Formation (Swans), 2000, four swans float on a lake, drifting in a series of rhomboid patterns. Like an ornithologist’s riff on John Baldessari’s Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square, 1974, the sequence of images sportively maps a formal trope over its natural subjects, which seem, by turns, complicit in the photographer’s abstractions and unwitting of them—unwitting as the pencil is to the sketch.

While there is nothing sketchy about Lempert’s photographs, they often embody issues of drawing: composition, grade, economy. In place of the lurid spectrum of contemporary nature photography, Lempert’s silver-gelatin prints offer not the illusion of Eden but the presence of a surface. Printed on thick sheets of paper left unpressed so that their edges buckle as if careworn, his grainy, almost textured photographs seem to live out an organic life of their own. Thus they can hardly serve as windows on a wild world, in the mode of documentary, and still less can they function as hands-free evidence of that world’s untouched and enduring fixedness. Such fixedness is exactly what Lempert’s work contests. Works like Castor and Pollux, 2009, an aerial diptych of rain-constellated asphalt, its panels identical save for a couple additional drops that fell between shots, reflect almost compulsively on the instant the photograph was captured. For Lempert, that instant is multiple and potentially innumerable. In being simultaneously specific and arbitrary, it resists contemporary art discourse that focuses exclusively on the circulation of images as opposed to the construction of them, yet without settling for merely comely formalism. For those still looking at images, Lempert’s photographs are a generous reward, whose epiphanic beauty pins down nothing so much as the viewer before it.

Joanna Fiduccia