“Why on earth am I photographing a mountain?”
I’m standing outside on the deck of the ferry from Rab to Stinica, breathing in that salty sea breeze, The sky is blue and the sun feels warm against my skin. Two weeks have passed since I arrived at Vidova Dorica, to the family house under the holly oak. The small house hidden behind olive groves and fig trees. On the island where I have spent many summers together with my father. Biking through pine tree forests and diving in clear blue waters. I’m just about to walk back to the car deck, while Velebit grows before my eyes. That special feeling spreading inside me as I glance over the Adriatic Sea, up towards the bold formations of the mountain peaks. Velebit stretches along the coast, framing the lively waters. The pungent rocks and the lack of vegetation giving the mountain a solid facade. The strong sunlight casts shadows that land along this solid surface of the mountain, adding to the dramatic vision that resides, there on the mainland. Clouds slowly floating around the mountain, like lost souls searching for memories of times that passed. The closer I get to the coast, the better I hear the sound of the cicadas’ as their song becomes clear. Constant and pervasive.
– Oh Velebit, the rocks of the fairies’. Where are you hiding?
– Are you flying among the misty peaks? Or, perhaps you transformed into clouds.
One of my cameras hangs around my neck as I carry the other over my shoulder. Another camera is inside my backpack together with both color- and black and white film. I have photographed Velebit from that same place many times before, yet without thinking of it any further, I’m about to do it once again. When all the other passengers has left the ferry port, I stand alone on the side of the winding serpentine roads below the mountain. I bring the camera hanging around my neck, to my eye. Now I see, through that small rectangular viewfinder only the mountain – and nothing else. With the help from the camera I may easily limit my own gaze for a moment, as everything that does not fit within the frame of the picture disappears. It’s me and the mountain, together in one kind of room, holding only us two.
I imagine “the room” as the photography itself, i.e. what exists between me and the mountain. The meeting between us, illustrating a process of something that happens which is not always easy to describe with only words, but possibly together with the camera. Then I reflect upon those many photographs there must already exist of this mountain. Or of mountains in general. I’m thinking of what Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida about how photography mechanically repeats something that will never occur again. I wonder how that thinking process works in relation to a photograph picturing something as consisting as a mountain: Something which historically has and most likely will remain nearly unmodified. In other words, a landscape that seems permanent. So, how come that I’m again standing here with my cameras? How can I be fueled by such wonder and reverence, driven by the mere sight of this landscape? What is my relationship to this mountain and what do I wish to get right, along with my camera?
– Vila Velebita, the creatures of the air and heavens, I followed you and now I’m lost.
– Last night as I lay sleeping I thought I heard you call my name.
I set the focus and hold down the shutter
On the sea side dominates a powerful and barren bedrock stretching above the landscape. The other side of that mountain is covered with trees which then fade out into the main land. In regard to this, its said that Velebit has two different faces. “Two different faces” I myself say that quite often. Meaning, I too give attributes to a so-called non-human thing and personify it with characteristics of the human nature. When I point the camera at the mountain, I believe I can trace different faces in the varying textures of the mountain’s surface. Perhaps it’s more about me finding reflections of myself in the landscape? An example of how we may project our feelings onto nature, as well as onto different weather conditions. When the sun shines, the weather is happy, but when it rains, the sky cries. When the surface of the sea lies calmly it seems peaceful, whereas when a volcano erupts we say it is angry.
When I photograph Velebit I think of the mountain as a place, but also as a figure of constant presence. This is one aspect which particularly affects my photography more than I would think: Me seeing the mountain as if it were another person. Similarly to the unpredictability I find in another human being, may the mountain also overpower me with capricious winds and sudden thunderstorms. The difference is that almost every time I’m photographing another person, I find an uncomfortable feeling in my body. A feeling I don’t have when photographing landscapes or other subjects that do not look me straight in the eyes. Or rather, straight through the camera eye. I have always found it easy to get in touch with my own feelings through an actual place. Especially a place that holds so many of my memories, which connects me to my background and the family history.
– Vila Velebita, where did you go?
– Can you tell me about the past? Or will you show me what the future holds?
The highlands is located between the mountains and the sea, an area where two aspects of freedom meet; including both the political unruliness of the mountain as much as the culture and the cosmopolitan view among the coastal inhabitants. Similar to the meaning of Olympus for the Greeks, Velebit also has great value for the Croats. As for the Balkans, the mountains particularly symbolize the importance of national myths and fantasies. From the first centuries of Croatian history Velebit was a sacred mountain where fairies were said to live. It makes me think of pre-Christian traditions and life before the nature was more or less demystified. Perhaps, the mountains serve to defend the mythologies concerning these nature-beings. As it becomes a place that makes it possible for people to get further away from civilization and authorities. A place where faith relies solely on nature itself and what my eye actually sees. That is, for me a magical terrain full of traditions, which certainty affects the whole perception of my surroundings. Through photography, I intend to translate my impressions into the visual, as it’s one of my primary languages. Shaping my own narrative as generations before me once did.
A man once told me he saw a fairy through his window at the slopes, behind his house. When he opened the door and went outside to take a closer look, she was gone. On the spot where she sat there were traces of her presence in the grass. Myths and legends have had different functions throughout history, frankly they still have today. Among others, they have been used to warn, or to foreshadow something that is about to happen, but also to witness something that has happened. Historically, we’ve been using these types of stories for a long time, long before the photograph itself. I thought of the collective memory of these myths, especially those concerning the mountain range which I stand in front of in this very moment. The myths preserved in both text and the folklore, but not yet much in photographs.
The photographer Ansel Adams devoted much of his time to depict mountains and a reviewer once wrote that Adam’s photographs resemble portraits of those massive rock pieces, which in turn seem to be inhabited by mythical Gods. While standing below the cliffs of Velebit, when the light is just about to set, my surroundings become almost spellbinding. I think of what Adams once called his ‘visualization’, i.e. not what his eye, but the inner lens of his imagination could see. His intention was to transmit the mountains emotional quality onto the photograph itself and he knew exactly how he wanted the actual print to look like. There was a moment when the light was failing him and he was down to only one or two glass plates. He then came up with the idea of using a deep red filter to turn the sky in the photograph almost black, which created a great contrast between the snow and the mountain. His decisions resulted in one of his most admirable photographs called Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.
The sun is about to set, as I turn my camera towards the shimmering heights.
– I heard you singing below the rocks as the sun went down.
– I think saw your beautiful hair, flowing in the swaying wind.
Roland Barthes once wrote about the thoughts he had of landscape photography. For him, photographs of landscapes must be habitable. According to Barthes, one must desire to feel that one can not only visit the place in the photograph, but might even be able to settle in inside of it. For him, it is about seeing phantasmic reflections in the photograph itself. As a type of dream image, or a revelation that brings him back to somewhere within himself. When Barthes watches these landscape photographies, it gives him the feeling he has been there or that he is going there. I look at my own photographing and my photographs in a similar way, but for me the inherent feeling lies in the images of the mountain as a form of escaping reality for a moment. It represents my experience of being on top of the mountain, looking down at the rest of the world, which signifies a getaway from everything else. I think about the Japanese term Ma (間), which has been described as a break in time, an interval, or something aiming on the actual space in the room. A concept in which I recognize myself and my photographing: That very process in which the mountain and I are currently in. That so-called “room”. The photography itself functions as some kind of filter and sometimes I wonder if art is a need to find just such a limitation. Since the world as a whole seems completely impossible to confront, perhaps artists in particular, through their specific limitations, can go out into the world and face it.
It’s getting dark and through the lens I see the contours of the mountain in soft moonlight.
– The night-wind rocks the bellflowers to sleep and I can hear your footsteps by the opening of the cave.
– Vila Velebita, I will leave you now, knowing that we will meet another time.
Usually, I imagine how my photograph will turn out. Of course, there is an uncertainty and doubt whether I have exposed it right, because I never seem to trust my ability all the way. Whether I’m photographing a person or a landscape I know how I want the subject to be positioned within the framework of the image. Nevertheless, I have no desire to control how my subject should behave and I cherish the moments when the unexpected is allowed to happen. Once I wandered around the limestone rocks of Kamenjak, the highest point on the island Rab. Without further thought, I followed a group of wild sheep on their way across the moon-like landscape. The second I had set up my tripod, the group of sheep were gone. Leaving me with just the sight of Velebit, behind the mists across the bay. That memorable moment made me think of the sheep as my very own perception of fairies, but also of the importance for me to get lost.”…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery” as Rebecca Solnitt wrote in “A field guide to getting lost”. For me, “to get lost” means making my very own discoveries about the area in which my relatives grew up. Without having someone else telling me what I should see. Along with my camera, together with my personal fairies, I seek to reconnect with the mountain and all the stories it bears with it.
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