Anne Bergman

How to Build a Mountain
Graduation project


‘How to Build a Mountain’ is a visual research on how our perception of the mountain landscape has changed through innovations in photography, and with this, our affinity to the mountains itself. The research is on how humans changed the perception of the sublime mountain landscape through photography. Once was the mountain a sacred and sublime place, now mankind and the traces it has left behind are inerasable. How did it come to this? What role did photography play in this change?
What is in store for the future? Will mankind be able to recreate the mountain’s sublimity, or do the mountains reclaim what we took from them?

How to Build a Mountain -Publication

This book was printed in edition of 50
Design by Matthias Batzli

How to Build a Mountain -Exhibition

NOWSHOW Graduation Show, 2020 St. Joost School of Art & Design, Breda 7/16 October

How to Build a Mountain -Essay

Written by Anne Bergman, 2020 Translation by Derk Bergman
When the industrial revolution took place in the nineteenth century and many people started to work for over twelve hours a day under appalling conditions in factories, the desire for nature in order to escape the daily routine grew stronger and stronger. Mankind started to long back to tranquility, beauty, and nature. As an answer to this, Romanticism was born. It was present in literature, philosophy, and all forms of art. It would be a genre that inalterably changed the Western way of thinking in the first half of the nineteenth century.

During this period, emotion and desire had a central place in art and the idea of the Sublime came to be. A feeling of pleasure, beauty, suffering, and fear, which lead to profoundly differing emotions. This also found its way into pictorial art. For instance, the painter Caspar David Friedrich depicted the untouched and frightening nature, in which emotion and the surrounding experience had a central role.

Romanticism, with its emotional depictions, was also a reaction to the growing popularity of photography, a medium which was then seen as an objective depiction of reality. It was excellent for researchers to document their field research, discoveries, and locations. The use of photography to capture nature itself however, found criticism from painters because of the way the Sublime was captured or wasn’t captured.

Our modern-day society would be unimaginable without images (of landscapes). We make paintings, take photographs, and even let our computers generate images. Considering all this, we as humans are incredibly rich. But can a modern-day photographer still capture the Sublime? Even more important, does the Sublime still exist?

In the Alps, researchers traveled through the mountains with their heavy large format cameras and entire studios. All their research projects and discoveries were captured on film, focusing on the shape, structure, and light. It was a new and honest view on a previously obscured part of the earth that unexpectedly got an artistic value. From its earliest hours, mountain photography was an artistic and aesthetic battle which found itself on the border of science and art. Photography as a medium developed at a rapid pace, while at the same time the curious researchers turned into photographers and mountaineers. The mountain became a part of, and symbol for identity. Furthermore, through the urbanization and industrialization of society, the mountain gained a political character.

The mountain and photography were at the forefront of major changes. Photography was a practical medium, and also a medium that developed rapidly. Where before only researchers and photographers used cameras, now everyday people and families had access to the medium. They started to capture the important events of everyday life, from birthdays to vacations. These people wanted to see the vast and colossal Alps with their own eyes. A way to escape the city, but also to show off their wealth. Mankind and its traces, literally and figuratively, crept into and over the mountains. Tourism arose, and with it hotels, sanatoriums, and gondola lifts. They were erected to make this Sublime place as comfortable as possible for the new and curious visitors. The cabins high up on the alps ceased to be a resting place for farmers and instead became one for lost travellers. Paths and panorama points for the inexperienced hikers became the backdrops for many family portraits. With all this, humans drove out nature’s Sublimity. The mountain turned into a landscape, shaped by man, for man.

Nowadays the Sublime is a notion that is used both truthfully and untruthfully. Because of this it has lost its original value and meaning. Edmund Burke, a romantic philosopher, opposes the Sublime to the beautiful. The beautiful is associated with love and pleasure while the Sublime is associated with fear and awe. “It is about two opposing esthetic experiences, of which the Sublime moves the human emotion by far the most”, said Arnold Heumakers. But why do we nowadays call everything from videogames to radio stations Sublime? Heumakers also describes this in an article where he reflects on Edmund Burke’s book. “Also, with Kant the Sublime leads from pain to pleasure, as long as there is no real, inevitable danger. Romanticism would not be what it was without Kant, but the Sublime didn’t benefit from it oddly enough. Because the romantics got rid of the classic meaning of beauty and redefined it as ‘the eternal that is depicted to be ending’. The Sublime didn’t need its own category: it could dissolve into the new beauty.” That is the reason why nowadays the Sublime is a rather broad concept and not just the awe-inspiring.

When we hold on to this broad concept of the Sublime, we may very well be able to depict it using photography. The beauty, the immensity, and the eternal are all concepts that, in my opinion, can be depicted in a photograph. However, if we talk about Kant’s description of the Sublime, the description I adopt, I do not believe that fear and awe are emotions I find in landscape photography. I can empathize with what the photographer felt when the photo was taken. Thus, with that the photo becomes an image and registration of the moment when its creator felt the depicted sublimity.

This has largely to do with our current network society, in which images are everywhere and we have become saturated with them. Susan Sontag wrote a passage in her well-known book ‘On Photography’ (1973) about photography and the sense of in the images, just as what Sublime images would do to us. “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised—partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.” Nowadays images rarely show us something new or original, while in the seventies people were exposed to an ever increasing number of new imagery. It would be compelling to hear what Susan has to say about today’s never-ending supply of images.

In spite of this, the Sublime experience is still very much subjective. Kant also wrote about this in his book ‘Kritik der Urteilskraft’. Even though something does not touch me anymore, it can still touch someone else, no matter how often they have felt the feeling that is connected to a certain image. However, I am still curious how I can experience this feeling, and more importantly, how I can capture it.

An experience can be Sublime until the camera and the hands which control it interfere. Could it be that, whenever man interferes, that the sublime disappears? Photographers like Drew Nikonowicz and Joan Fontcuberta seek to escape this using digital simulations. Mountains that look unfamiliar, unnatural even, they might be more sublime than real mountains. Will we be able to create these mountains ourselves in the future using an algorithm. Will we be able to create the ultimate Sublime landscape? This raises a question: “If we can create everything artificially, then what is the use of photography?”

A mountain landscape born out of an algorithm will gain sublimity when it starts to turn on us, when we lose power over our own creation. At the same time, it is as far from sublime as it could possibly be, because we have fed the algorithm with our own images. Fiona Tan’s ‘Ascent’ or the well-known shape of the Matterhorn are examples of this. When we supply the algorithm with the mainstream perception of mountains, it will produce the same images we have now. The Sublime has yet to return.

The final road to recovering the sublime is to completely distance ourselves from it. If we do not do this, eventually nature will do it for us. When we started to pollute and deplete the world of its resources at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the Sublime slowly started to fade away. Mankind always has had the urge to explore, but hasn’t the time come that we let go of these urges? The mountain will once again take care of her own sublimity and will take what we once took from her.

The Sublime landscape and the experience it evokes, is a complicated subject in our modern-day society. It is something ambiguous because it is something on its own, but at the same time a representation full of symbolism and history. The photographer, writer, and tourist all approach this concept from a different angle. We humans have formed a parameter around everything in our vicinity. Nature has become a characteristic of culture, an interpretation of itself, something that floats between reality and imagination. If our image of the landscape is something cultural, then so is our interpretation of it. The depiction of the landscape forms the way we look at nature. Before we start to build a mountain, we have to learn and understand that every image is of equal importance.

Sources: Heumakers, A. (11-3-2005). Over het Sublieme en het schone. | NRC Handelsblad.; Sontag, S. (Nederlandse vertaling 1994). Over fotografie. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.; Kant, I. (1790) Kritik der Urteilskraft. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.; Tan, F. (2016). ASCENT.