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April 2005

High Clicks

A new photography exhibition sheds light on the magic of mountains by night

“Great things are done when men and mountain meet.” English poet William Blake could well have been talking about the latest exhibition at Munich’s Alpines Museum when he wrote these words. “Stille Berge” (Silent Mountains) features 20 pictures by acclaimed photographer Michael Schnabel and is a fascinating example of what is indeed possible when men, mountain—and camera— come together.

The first thing that strikes one about Schnabel’s work is that it’s, well, black. Enter the exhibition, and one’s faced with three white walls displaying what looks like a selection of plain black canvases. For unlike most mountain photographers and artists, Schnabel chose to portray his subjects by night. For one and a half years, in 2003/2004, he explored the Alps, looking for the perfect peak and waiting for the perfect weather to capture it. Again, instead of choosing the easy option of taking his pictures by full moonlight, Schnabel waited until the cloud cover was low, and not a star could be seen in the sky. He set up his camera by day, and then waited until darkness fell. For each shot, he kept his shutter open for an hour, hoping no planes would fly past and that the clouds wouldn’t lift, to capture every drop of the moon’s diffuse light reflecting upon the earth and illuminating the monumental rock structures. Indeed, by moving closer to the pictures, dramatic silhouettes, some with snow-capped peaks, others with terrifyingly sharp rock formations, begin to emerge. And as the eyes adjust to the darkness, much as in reality, more and more details can be seen. In fact, what first gave the impression of being a simple monochrome print, suddenly reveals numerous shades of black, gray and white.

The clarity of the pictures, according to Schnabel, can only be achieved because of today’s photographic technology. In fact, this is the only thing that reveals that the shots were taken so recently. Otherwise, there is a perfect timelessness about them. Similarly, even those familiar with the Alps would have problems identifying the location, as the sleeping mountains portrayed by Schnabel look very different from the ones that teem with climbers, walkers and skiers by day.

“These are not the mountains of postcards or romantic artists,” says Schnabel. “They have no memories, there’s no noise, no wind, no stories—at best they’re ideas in a surreal sphere.”

If you continue round the Alpines Museum and take in the various artworks featuring the Alps, there is little doubt that they all lack the drama and presence of Schnabel’s work, with its majestic, peaceful silhouettes inspiring awe and even fear. For although these mountains are, as Schnabel puts it, “sleeping,” they are nevertheless alive—constantly changing structures that claim hundreds of lives and demand total respect. As if to personify his subjects, on one shot, the photographer has captured a wind-swept mountainside, with the layers of snow and rock bearing an almost uncanny resemblance to the wrinkles of an old man.

So what inspired Schnabel to spend so many concentrated months, and long, cold nights, on his project? Little more than a fascination with the mountains, it seems. Born in 1966, he spent many years walking and climbing in the hills. But it was nighttime that Schnabel really found magical: the time when the mountains rest and prepare themselves for the human onslaught the next day. And a time that so few people have had the pleasure of seeing.

Until now. On show until June 12 in Munich, the exhibition will then cross the Atlantic and go on display in San Francisco, where Schnabel spent three years after carrying out his initial photography course in Darmstadt, aged 22. He has already achieved world renown, and has won various photographic prizes around the globe. Schnabel has also published three books, one of which accompanies the “Stille Berge” exhibition and is available from the Alpines Museum for € 59. It is in this catalogue that Swiss author Aurel Schmidt writes: “I now know that mountains couldn’t exist if there were no night. The night prepares them for their public appearance and gives them their meaning and their expression. And it is the reason why we find it so difficult to describe exactly why mountains are so beautiful.”

In words, perhaps. But in pictures, Michael Schnabel has captured that beauty perfectly. <<<

The Alpines Museum also contains exhibits charting the history of the Alps, from map-making equipment and early winter-sports gear to information about the region’s flora and fauna. Located on the Praterinsel, it is open Tues.–Fri., 1 pm–6 pm, and Sat. and Sun., 11 am–6 pm. See or call Tel. 211 22 40 for more information.

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