Roads throughout the landscape
Photographs of roads are nearly always by definition, photographs of landscapes, because the road and the landscape are so closely intertwined. However, Wout Berger’s photographs are not only landscape studies, they also illustrate the passage of time.
A landscape without a road is like an ocean without ebb and flood. Conceivably, a sea is still a sea even without tides, but the quintessence is adrift. The road makes it possible for one to make one’s way through a landscape. One does not actually have to physically make the journey down the road; one can just follow it with one’s eye and by merely looking penetrate the landscape.
The road does not only fulfil its function as a guide in reality, but also in a photographed or painted landscape a metaphorical landscape it is the road that absorbs the beholder and bears him off into the distance. The road transforms the landscape into an absolute landscape; without the road it is just scenery.
Environmental/landscape philosopher Ton Lemaire defines a landscape as ‘the depicted link between nature and culture, where culture is made subservient to nature’. Lemaire expresses this broadly as: if one can see the horizon on a photograph or painting there is already the insinuation that nature is dominant because the horizon’s line nullifies all human products.
Lemaire hardly mentions roads he has a strong aversion to vehicles and tarred roads nevertheless the road is an important profile in the landscape. A road is an insignificant demarcation, a harsh score within the magnitude and breadth of the landscape and simultaneously it is a line which competes with the powerful line of the horizon and vies for the glory.
In Wout Berger’s photographs the road is consistently the heart of the landscape. He was searching for the ‘photogenic’, but just as a landscape is nothing without a road, so too is a road nothing without a landscape. Therefore, his photographs are at the same time beautiful landscapes, and landscapes which are in character with the countries in which they were taken.
Searching for the ideal combination between road and landscape.
By reason of the fact that you are able to perceive the sublimely ideal landscape, crystal clear in front of your mind’s eye, Berger had to look long and hard to find the undeniably perfect combination between road and landscape. Take for example the classic but disorderly Belgian country road, one of which you would imagine there are there are thirteen to the dozen until you try to find one. There is invariably too modern a house in the way, or the road has just been tarred, or markings have just been made to delineate the cycle path. In the countryside around Groningen a number of locations had to be discarded due to an inopportune lamppost or barn which spoilt the composition.
Easier to find were the panoramic roads such as those in the undulating, idyllic English countryside or the motorway through the Belgian Ardennes. These photographs rely heavily on the horizon; the details do not contribute a great deal. Nevertheless these images provide sufficient explicit information that give away the road’s nationality so that one knows exactly where it runs. Romantic, hilly vistas are also to be seen in France, but not with the same inspiration as those in the English Midlands. The lampposts along the portrayed motorway are unmistakably Belgian. In order to guess where the photographs have been taken you are made aware of sparse details which jointly constitute the ornamentation of the road. You have to scrutinise the road that floods at each high tide. Such roads are to be found in nearly every country bordering the North Sea. Then, all of a sudden you notice the two traffic signs; they are on the left-hand side of the road. It is a road in the United Kingdom!
Timeless roads through the absence of vehicles.
In all the photographs, the vehicle is very much in evidence. The roads are therefore timeless, because vehicles, with their annually changing models, are an inexorable sign of the times. What is very much apparent is the cycle of the seasons: from the abundance of summer to the bleakness of winter.
A secondary time-phase is also visible in the photographs: the road’s age. Through the years, as a concession to the demands of both safety and speed, roads have continuously been extricating themselves from the landscape. The Belgian country road makes it easy to recognise the ancient rural paths which led from one village to another. Contemporary maps clearly illustrate these criss-cross connections, the only difference being that some of the rural paths have been widened and others have not. An age-old image shimmers through the photograph of the winding road alongside a Dutch dike: as soon as a dike had been raised, people made a road in the lee of it because there one had some protection from the biting winds.
On the road through the northern Dutch grain fields one can detect the rise of the compass and ruler: the polder drainage workers had at their disposal steam and diesel pumping machines and were therefore able to draw long, straight lines through the landscape, lines which were also used for the roads. On the English hill road one can furthermore see the influence of modern times: this road does not follow the earlier sheep trails or the old paths between farms, but is designed for the through traffic to the cities which lie beyond the horizon.
The most modern road in the sequence is obviously the Belgian motorway. Engineers drew a line through Europe, from Amsterdam to the Mediterranean and started building bridges and flattening hilltops. This was because motorists needed to be able to hare down the road without distraction at one hundred and thirty kilometres an hour, on their way to the sun at the end of the Route du Soleil. According to philosopher Hans Achterhuis the vehicle changes our perspective of space and time, just like the pill changed our sexuality, the printing press literature and gunpowder the art of war.
Motorways have no bond with the landscape. This is literally due to the fact that they do not follow the undulations of the earth’s surface but utilise bridges, flyovers, road-cuts and embankments. Moreover, figuratively, the motorway is unconcerned about its environment, nonchalantly ignoring the towns and cities around it. The motorway has become a landscape in itself, with its own signs, lighting, parking areas, petrol stations and hotels. In Wout Berger’s photograph one can clearly see the antithesis between the road and the landscape: the world of light, speed and progress against a sombre and cold background.