Nicolai Howalt’s A Journey: The Near Future is miles away from his previous book, Old Tjikko—140 million miles away, actually.
Howalt’s Journey leaves behind Earth’s ancient spruces and settles on Mars, with its vistas of lithic tuff and desiccation. And the source material for this journey, much of which looks like oddly cropped collages of Yosemite, comes from NASA’s rovers (Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Perseverance). Few of us probably remember anymore the rover’s predecessor, the Viking 1 lander, that began retrieving onsite images of martian soil as early as 1976.
It’s worth recalling, though, if only to appreciate the changes. We’ve lifted our eyes since that first, shoegazing peek, almost half a century ago. Soon we might even be able to add our favorite frontier byline to the view: “as far as the eye can see.” Except that no human eye has ever seen Mars in person.
That’s one of the interesting tensions in this book. Though it’s a land survey, topographical in nature, it’s also a survey that belongs to an aesthetic tradition of scenic views going back millennia. And the photographic narrative of the book belongs to an equally familiar genre of literature called travel writing.
Here’s a good example of what I mean. This is from Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872):
“The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface—it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound—not a sigh—not a whisper—not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird—not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air. And so the occasional sneezing of the resting mules, and the champing of the bits, grate harshly on the grim stillness, not dissipating the spell but accenting it and making one feel more lonesome and forsaken than before.”
That’s a description of Utah. Now imagine a martian travelog! Most writers in this tradition, however, prefer more romantic subjects: sunset lakes, green hills, and blissful meadows—oh, and don’t forget the strong, happy laborer swinging his scythe. Of course, these Arcadian tales are just as tall as Twain’s (no real farmer ever lived in pastoral euphoria—ask around). But it’s the way-of-seeing, in both instances, that complicates the picture. It’s difficult to tell, in other words, whether what I’m looking at in these desolate images of a desolate planet is first and foremost the idea (i.e., the wasteland tribulation) or the reality.
It’s not a complication I want to solve, really. That would take the fun out of it. It’s just something that makes books like Howalt’s Journey so interesting.
Look at this image that covers pages 46-47 in the book:
To truly grasp what it is I see—a far, far off world with its own (as Emerson once put it) “solid angularity of facts”—I first have to journey through my own valley of preconceived notions and associations. I see Timothy O’Sullivan’s nineteenth-century wet-plates of Death Valley. I see a scene from Erich von Stroheim’s film Greed (1924).
It’s this sort of impression that stands in the way of truly coming to terms with the thing itself.
To help in that effort, Howalt opens his book with several texts. The first is his own personal statement. What moves Howalt about these panoramas is, strangely enough, the way in which they remind him of photography’s analog beginnings. It goes without saying, incredible advancements in digital technology have had to occur to make these images possible—advancements that seem to create more and more distance between the human experience of seeing and the machinery of seeing. But these are images that return to Earth still in need of human care and attention. I think that’s what analog means to Howalt. It’s something that replaces abstraction with a sense of contact.
The Danish author, Harald Voetmann, echoes probably what most people feel about Mars in his text: “. . . I’m buried in Ymir’s flesh [Earth], clutching at everything human.” Anja C. Anderson and Morton Bo Madsen, both professors at the Niels Bohr Institute, overview the history of Mars and Mars exploration, making detours into those questions we all want answers to about the possibility of life in some undiscovered, icy chamber.
It’s not true of all photobooks I come across, but the texts really do add something to the way I see and read the images in A Journey: The Near Future. That said, it’s hard to compete in words with many of the images in this book, especially this one (which Fabrik also makes available as a separate print):
Here again, I wrestle with conflicting feelings. What intrigues me about this photograph is so obvious it needs no comment. But I can’t help myself. After I’ve filtered out the imaginative parts, speculative fictions and alien romances, I am most captivated by this trace of us out there—a trace that is, at the same time, a false trace, since we’re not there. Yet we are there. Yet we’re not. Yet—
Yet, I’ve said nothing about the printing in this book, which is something I actually want to underscore, because I can easily imagine a scenario in which these reproductions might miss the mark, given the digital quality of the originals. But the images are beautifully printed in quadtone, black, gray, and silver. It’s the silver, particularly, that gives each print a slightly metallic sheen. And while striking in its own right, I sense something figurative in that delicate luster, as if part of the rover were also part of the image. It’s an elegant technique, and it lends itself to the book’s hybridity, its presence in two worlds.
A timely publication (as SpaceX static fires its 33-engine Booster 7) by Howalt and the team at Fabrik, and a photobook I’m excited to add to the shelf.—CB