It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador a greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal
I’ve never seen war photographs like Jo Röttger’s. The structure of his project Landscape and Memory is familiarly photojournalistic — Röttger accompanies a German military unit as they train in Saxony-Anhalt, deploy to Afghanistan and return to Germany — but the work is an unusual hybrid of genres. Rather than the fast and portable handheld cameras typically used in war photography (from the Leica to the cell phone), Röttger works with a 4×5 view camera, a slow and cumbersome piece of equipment, unsuitable for capturing moment-to-moment action but loved by landscape and architectural photographers for its exceptional detail and depth. With this camera, he applies the syntax of landscape photography to a subject that is traditionally the domain of photojournalists.
Röttger is not concerned with documenting the action of war or the details of the soldiers’ missions; rather, he seeks to understand the relations between landscape, cultural identity and conflict. His project takes its title — and its epigraph, the Thoreau quotation above — from Simon Schama’s 1995 book examining the effects of landscape ideologies on the course of Western European and American history. Schama argued that Western mythology about the natural world has defined national and cultural identities from Roman times through the Third Reich, and thus lurks at the root of many wars. Underlying this mythology is a tension between nature as a familiar, protective force and nature as unknown, uncivilized, pagan, wild.
These themes pervade Röttger’s project, which opens with a pair of images from the Afghanistan war. In the first, we see the silhouette of a soldier atop a vehicle, his machine gun pointed toward an implausibly starry sky; another soldier is sheltered inside the vehicle, illuminated by a red light and the glow of a monitor. The machinery of war is set against the infinite unknown. The second image shows a standoff on a rocky road between a military utility vehicle and a shadowy figure — likely an Afghani but it’s hard to say — obscured by the dust and sunlight. The man seems barely real, an apparition in the glare of the desert.
After these introductory plates, Röttger begins the story arc in more familiar territory, as the soldiers prepare for war on the Colbitz-Letzlinger Heath — a military training ground developed by the Nazis. Expanses of grasses and purple shrubs are dotted with trees and filled with soft light, and the camouflaged soldiers blend in seamlessly. Of all the book’s images, these are the most like “war photographs”: we witness ground maneuvers, smoke from (simulated) explosions and ordinance trails in the sky. The war scenes are fake, but they seem purposeful and directed.
The heart of Röttger’s project is the central section of photos from Afghanistan. Here the German soldiers are seen alone or scattered in small groups, isolated figures in a vast, open landscape, with no shelter except that provided by their own equipment. The scenes lack the apparent sense of purpose of the training exercises: in one picture, two soldiers stand near an unmanned abandoned artillery gun, looking out across the valley at a small structure on a distant hill; in another, three soldiers on an open plain stare blankly into the falling dusk. In photos that include Afghanis, the German soldiers’ dislocation is even more acute. A burly, red-haired soldier stands guard in orange sunglasses and thick camouflage fatigues, wired with communication devices, weighed down with an enormous gun, while a small boy dressed in pink does a delicate dance with a kite, seen as a green blur separating the two figures. Elsewhere, a soldier sizes up an Afghani walking his bicycle down an empty road, carrying flowers, but the man and his bike are only partially visible, blurred by motion.
The 4×5 camera forces Röttger to take time to set up for each picture, which results in compositions that are precisely seen and framed, but that can feel a little staged. Röttger is not after documentary realism, though, and the subtle sense that his subjects could be playing a role for the camera is an important element of the pictures. The soldiers often seem like figures in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, confronting the sublime. In Schama’s telling, Westerners value a sylvan or pastoral nature, and Germanic identity in particular is tied to the primeval forest. The desert exists as a symbolic place more than a real one — somewhere beyond the threshold of civilization and comprehension. In one of Röttger’s images, a soldier waits in the shade of an unseen shelter, next to the silhouette of a barren tree. Beyond that lies the harsh desert, and the soldier’s gaze seems to fall on another trunk, stripped and dead. While undeniably a real scene, it is loaded with myth and metaphor.
The final section of Landscape and Memory takes us to the German Alps. Tight-knit groups of soldiers march through alpine meadows or pose contemplatively in picturesque mountain scenery. These are archetypically sublime landscapes, but here the key ingredient of peril is diluted by a sense of familiarity. In one group portrait, the men are dressed in full mountain camouflage, their faces painted black, obscured by moss-like wigs. They are reabsorbing into the homeland, but the images are troubled by a self-consciousness not present in the earlier training photos. They read somewhere between high Romantic painting and commercial group portraits of a summer camp or corporate retreat.
Landscape and Memory mostly evades the documentary duties normally expected of war photography. Röttger’s work instead confronts the Afghanistan war in the context of broader cultural attitudes based in mythologies so deeply engrained that they can become invisible. He opens the question of how place is intertwined with identity, suggesting that even in our era of globalized and technologized conflict we are bound by the history and physicality of where we come from. While Landscape and Memory asks more questions than it answers, one lesson it offers is that our ambitions should be tempered by the fact that we can’t understand what we don’t already know.