Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Colombia: A New Vision by Santiago Harker


This is a rare book by a rare photographer.

If you are lucky you will see it in front of you one day, unexpectedly, as I did. I always check my library's new book section for anything on photography. One day in the early 1990s I saw this book. "Colombia, a new vision", said the title. So who cares?

But the cover, the cover. So strange somehow. A gray blankness. A wall, and on it a hanging photograph, an ordinary and uninspired grassy, tree-stuffed landscape hinting at a nondescript building hiding in the back there somewhere behind the trees. So what?

But I noticed that this picture had an odd frame, with rough edges, and not square. I looked more closely. My mind defocused and then focused again.

Oh!

A wall, yes, a wall, but no photograph on it. A wall with an unglazed window, and behind the window a scene, still an ordinary scene but now intriguing and full of wonder.

This book's real title, in Spanish, is "Colombia inedita". I think that might be "Unknown Colombia", "Colombia Discovered", or maybe "The Unexpected Colombia". Inedita seems to refer to money. Maybe it's "The Undervalued Colombia". This is a book of unexpectedness, of startlements, one after another, from beginning to end.

An excerpt from the first edition photographer's note: "The word reality is most often used as if there were only one reality, as if we all perceived it the same way, as if reality did not stand for an endless succession of moments in continuous flux, out of which we choose those that mean most to us. In one of Colombia's highest regions, where the wind holds sway, a river of light is born -- the Luz. The photographs in this book are of places and towns along the lower reaches of the Luz, a river in unending search of the crystal sea, whose depths are a looking glass that tells no lies and mirrors only the deepest truths."

I can't say if this is literally true because available maps show me no Rio Luz. And the images in this book seem to come from everywhere in Colombia, not just one region, but they are all close relatives of one another. That is true. They are a family. Some inspire wonder. Some make one ache with unresolved emotion. Some bake in summer heat. Some bear the smell of muddy riverbanks and spilled motor oil. But they are a family. They belong.

Harker has created a work of mastery not by collecting another hundred and fifty-odd pretty travelogue images from an unfamiliar land but by setting among a collection of great images some blinding gems of startling surprise. First the cover caught me and then the book held me, has held me, my thoughts, for over 15 years. I am still startled by this book. I am. Startled.

It is a bright day. I see silhouetted an old man shuffling out of the frame. Behind him is a shimmering whitewashed wall, and above it a tile roof. But as I continue scanning upward my mind stops working. The sky is filled with hedged green fields. Somehow. As with the cover, several long seconds fight to reshape my mind. Oh!

I understand.

This is three images in one, layered vertically. First the old man with his cane, then the building behind, and above the clay roof, then the hillside fields beyond, higher still. It is a genius of a telephoto shot, without telltale clues. No depth. All together. One. Harker does this over and over. He is not a lens jockey. He is a seer.

Pages of semi-abstract street scenes. People. Daily life. Coming and going or pensive standing. Then a street view through an open doorway into a building, but there is no inside beyond the doorway. Through the door I see distant hills. Are we inside or out? Was this a building once, or has it always been a painted wall with one door and one shuttered window and no inside or outside? And how can it make sense?

Another street, another day. Foreground: packed red earth road. Background: a stone and concrete sidewalk then a stone and stucco wall. Frame right: four large baskets against the wall, precisely placed at the photo's point of interest. An abstract. Interesting but...

Oh! The feet!

A small woman is now hurrying out of the image, one foot blurred by her movement. Her skirts flip. Hidden behind the huge woven baskets she bears she is on her way elsewhere. This is no longer a still life but one moment of a real person's real day.

An odd, almost photo-realistic mural. Like a doorway somehow, vertical and narrow. A plank leads up to it and then stops. The mural shows a propeller and engine cowling, one pontoon, a section of wing, muddy water. Oh! It is a real doorway in yet another wall. One reality on this side, another on that side. A tethered float plane waits patiently opposite the doorless doorway and this is not a mural. The plane is outside. Are we inside something? Too bright. It is not decided.

Near the end of this book, in the back, among the seaside images, there is "Wayuu woman, Manaure, Guajira". Leaning her back against a crooked post, she is lithe in a dress of purest flowing blue. Her black hair hides beneath a plain red cloth. I will never know more of her than the curve of her cheek, the quiet grace of her dark brown arm, lifted to touch her forehead, because she looks away. But she is perfect just so. Just exactly so, this goddess.

There is magic here, and much more of it than I can put words to. To try would only prove how inept I really am, and how feeble my words. Find this book. See it with your eyes. Be startled. If not today then when you can. It will wait for you to come. And it will not disappoint you.

Colombia: A New Vision by Santiago Harker
English edition at Amazon.
Spanish edition at Amazon.

List Price: $55.00
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Villegas Editores; Second edition edition (April 1, 2005)
Language: Spanish
Language Notes: Text: English (translation)
ISBN-10: 9588156556
ISBN-13: 978-9588156552
Product Dimensions: 12.2 x 9.3 x 0.9 inches

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