Isla Negra

Silvergelatin handmade enlargements

Fifteen million years ago an island rose out of the sea off the west coast of Africa. Again and again ash and lava shot into the skies and plummeted back into the waves of the Atlantic in an inferno of fire and water, smoke and steam until, layer by layer, a black volcanic cone rose above the water. Lanzarote, the ‘Isla Negra’. The island has never come to rest. The volcanoes remain active through to the present day and throw up faulted strata, whilst wind and water simultaneously break the porous rock from the cliffs, grinding it into black granulate.

Christian von Alvensleben has been acquainted with the island for a long time. He has been taking photographs here since the late 1960ies and for his clients in advertising and editorial offices has staged major photo productions against the backdrop of black beaches and bare landscapes. Helga and Christian von Alvensleben returned in 2014 and have embraced the island for its own sake.

They have captured its very spirit in stark black and white images: The black cliffs and the waves soaring as white horses out of the ocean, the radiantly white salt in the black stone salterns of the salt marshes, gleaming black cross-sections of geological strata at the breaklines of the cliffs, white clouds against a dark sky, the light reflecting in the fisherman's dark eyes... In search of the island's unique original characteristics, Christian von Alvensleben has created a self-contained series of works in a pictorial language as a photographic round trip of the island, almost akin to a novel recounting life in Lanzarote – not easy but authentic.

The photographs are clear and graphically structured, reproduced with precision and simultaneously created with a conscious angle, perspective and composition. The formal design is sometimes on the brink of the abstract and thus relates to the form idiom of subjective photography since the 1950ies. Lighting and light and dark contrasts contribute towards transcending the subjects beyond the quality of depiction. Thus each photograph is part of the series and an autonomous photographic work at one and the same time.

Since Helga and Christian von Alvensleben photographed the “Apocalyptic Menu” in 1992, non-commissioned, artistic series have become ever more important in their oeuvre. As shown in the retrospective, since then their series revolve around one central theme from various perspectives, complementing each other and building on one another: They focus on the strength of nature and the beauty of simple, archaic things.

Whereas the “Apocalyptic Menu”, with its disturbing sequence of courses recorded in sombrely staged photographs, once admonished about the consequences of poisoned food, the pictorial language of the series “GodTrees” concentrates on impressive, magnificent portraits of age-old olive trees, whose furrowed bark in finely nuanced grey gave the impression of character studies. And in “SeaFruit”, the perfectly lit studio photographs of the waste of civilised society sculpted into plastic jewels by wind and sand and thrown up onto Greek beaches, add a reflective note on human responsibility for our world. This critical examination was followed by the change in and destruction of traditional forms of life in “all inclusive”, which visualises the consequences mass tourism has on the Island of Rhodes. In the series of various works titled “Archaic”, Helga and Christian von Alvensleben then went in search of archaic forms of nature – studio photos of stones, shells, bones and cacti were mirrored and contrasted to the portraits of young men from the fishing village of Archangelos in Rhodes. Every year, they stylise themselves as creatures of the wilderness with soot and flour, clay and oil, yoghurt and fish for a pre-Christian tradition spring festival. Finally, “Finistère” shows an encounter with the colossal rock formations along the Brittany coastline, shaped into bizarre monoliths by the tides of millions of years.

When viewing the first photographic series that Christian von Alvensleben created in the early 1960ies, for instance the pictures of his visit to Hubert Fichte in Montjustin in Provence, they already give an inkling of the development his later series were to take. The portrait of Fichte, who carries a lamb in his arms across his bare chest, already speaks this almost archaic simplicity.

“Isla Negra” brings these narrations together in terms of its subject and visual power: The series encompasses photographs of cliffs and plants, sky and water, the portraits of the fishermen and their wives, the functional village architecture and the traces of human work in the fishing industry and salt extraction. In a simple and impressive manner, Helga and Christian von Alvensleben capture their impressions without any artificial lighting. Once again the images bear testament to the marvelling encounter with life's language of form. In their formal stringency and reduction, the photographs constitute a respectful convergence with the circumstances of a life deeply engraved in the faces of the island and those of its inhabitants.

Sebastian Lux
Management, F.C. Gundlach Foundation