Two Fields Brought Together
Jochen Lempert is doubly open to the world around him. Early in his life, he trained as a biologist, conducted field work in Europe and Africa, and wrote academic papers on various subjects, including dragonflies. A 35-mm camera aided his research. Then, during the early 1990s, he began using cameras as a tool for more creative pursuits, collaborating on experimental films and making artistic photographs. This hybrid background influences many of Lempert’s artistic decisions today. It also makes him a unique figure among contemporary artists: he is as familiar with the ideas of scientists Carl Linneaus and Charles Darwin as he is the work of photographers Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Bernd & Hilla Becher. The result is a photographer of nature who is not a traditional “nature photographer,” and a Conceptual artist whose subject matter, techniques, and guiding principles distinguish him from nearly all his peers.
Let’s take two examples. Lempert’s diptych Belladonna (2013) pairs a photograph of the plant, otherwise known as deadly nightshade, and a squirrel. A central dark sphere — the plant’s berry, the squirrel’s eye — links the two photographs formally, and many artists would be content with the juxtaposition. But for Lempert, this is also visual proof of an evolutionary concept. The plant’s berry gleams to attract the fruit-eating animals who can disperse its seeds; each species sees a face in the fruit according to its particular capabilities. This juxtaposition asks us to imagine what the squirrel sees. In other works, such as Formation (2005), Lempert encourages viewers to impose human aesthetic order on non-human species. The triptych depicts four geese seen from above as they float on water. In each picture they form a diamond pattern, and the repetition makes the result seem like the birds intended it. But geese don’t understand geometry, and the impression derived from their relationship is entirely a human projection. By suggesting logic in what is derived from chance, Lempert also nods slyly to John Baldessari’s iconic and self-explanatory 1973 artwork Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). In both Belladonna and Formation, the intermingling of scientific and artistic thinking creates a rich set of associations.
Lempert is a photographer of nature who is not a traditional “nature photographer,” and a Conceptual artist whose subject matter, techniques, and guiding principles distinguish him from nearly all his peers.
It’s a wonder that more artists, and more photographers in particular, don’t come from scientific backgrounds. Science is a shifting, evolving discipline — it is never complete — and observation is the scientist’s most important skill. These two facts apply equally to art and artists. Jochen Lempert’s art demonstrates this congruity with quietly spellbinding results.
In the darkroom, in the gallery
Lempert is an analogue man in a digital world. The first thing one notices about his photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In an art world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio’s darkroom, and a picture may be printed in four different sizes before the artist settles on which works best.
After a rigorous editing process, during which photographs may sit in his studio for several years, Lempert hangs the finished artworks in a gallery un-matted and unframed. They are taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of color prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.