The Austrian photographer took to the sprawling mountain ranges of his homeland to create an alternative representation of the country
Austria. The Art of Discovery is an exclusive British Journal of Photography commission supported by the Austrian National Tourist Office as part of their Austria. The Art of Discovery project. The winning photographer will travel to Austria to explore and document the regions of Linz, in Upper Austria, and Vorarlberg.
To mark the launch of the competition, we spoke to Vienna-based photographer Thomas Albdorf, who will feature in a group exhibition of contemporary Austrian photography showing at Photo London 2018.
For many, a mention of Austria brings to mind images of sprawling, snow-capped peaks. Its picturesque, alpine landscapes have long been a symbol of the country in popular culture, politics, and art. From the backdrops of classic 1960s Heimatfilmes to the snowy peaks on Milka chocolate bars, mountains have become a central part of Austria’s visual identity.
“We, as Austrians, construct our visual identity through those mountain cliches and, from the outside, we are also very much associated with them,” explains Austrian photographer Thomas Albdorf. It was this observation that led the Vienna-based artist to take to the mountainous landscapes of his homeland for the series I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before (2015). Albdorf’s work encourages us to question the way we see things, and mountains, he realised, provided the perfect canvas on which to explore our perception of Austria and life in general.
“The majority of Austrians actually live in urban areas and mountains aren’t really something they encounter everyday; the idea of Austria as this mountainous place is very much a cliche,” he says. For the Austria. The Art of Discovery commission, organised by British Journal of Photography in collaboration with the Austrian National Tourist Office, the winning photographer will be given the opportunity to explore and learn about two of the country’s most diverse regions – Linz and Vorarlberg – meet with local artists, and create a body of work that captures the culture, communities and creativity they encounter.
Albdorf began to experiment with a more conceptual approach to photography while working on his graduation project Former Writer (2013), completed during his final year at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. The series documents found objects he photographed and then, through the wonders of digital post-production, edited to resemble sculptures. “People would ask me:‘Are these sculptures or photographs, or photographs of sculptures?’ And I would reply: ‘Neither.’” Inspired by this ambiguity, Albdorf continued to work on projects that “explore the idea of what a photograph can be and how it can make us see things.”
The first image in I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before, an arresting panorama of a mountain range at dusk, resembles a classic landscape shot. But, as the series progresses, uncanny sculptural arrangements begin to materialise on grassy outcrops and strange rock formations emerge from cliff faces. Visiting different peaks in the Totes Gebirge mountain range, Schneeberg and Rax, during the day, Albdorf would return to his studio and appropriate the images using a variety of techniques. “It wasn’t about photographing specific peaks, but about capturing a certain atmosphere in those abstract spaces that are also depicted on milk boxes, in presidential campaigns and popular culture.” Rasterization, pixelation, multiple exposures, and the addition of constructions made in his studio, allowed him to transform these familiar scenes into visually unsettling photographs.
“You’re familiar with those kinds of images. They look like the kind of photographs you know but then they’re not,” he explains. This duality of experience extends to the work as it appears in book form. As the images themselves encourage you to question what you are seeing, so too does the physical construction and layout of the photobook. The dust cover is made of a cheap and flimsy paper stock, which immediately subverts convention. The book itself is divided into three sections – Prelude, the “Bootleg Section,” and Coda – with variations of the same photographs interspersed throughout.
“With all my work, I never have one version of the image. You see the image and then you see a repetition that is slightly different. Nothing is fixed, everything can be recontextualised,” explains Albdorf. This approach is encapsulated by the work’s title I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before. The phrase is a play on a line from perhaps the best-known cinematic depiction of Austria, The Sound of Music. “At the beginning of the film Julie Andrews sings The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, the most famous song of the entire movie, and there’s a line ‘I know I will hear what I’ve heard before,’” he says. “Flemming Ove Bech, one of the founders of my publishing house Lodret Vandret, suggested we change ‘hear’ to ‘see’ and found a phrase that sums up exactly what the project does.”
Growing up in a small village 25 miles from Linz, the third largest city in Austria and a former European Capital of Culture, Albdorf was surrounded by the country’s striking terrain from a young age. “There must be a reason I’m drawn to the Austrian landscape but it’s tough to pinpoint,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. One reason why I’m so intrigued by nature as a concept must be because I grew up around it and was confronted by those kinds of landscapes every day.”
Encouraging us to perceive places from new perspectives and, in doing so, asking us to question the way in which we see things, lies at the heart of Albdorf’s practice. In a similar vein, Austria. The Art of Discovery will give its winning photographer the opportunity to explore the country and, in the process, discover that there is much more to Austria than just its legendary snow-capped peaks.
British Journal of Photography is also excited to announce a group exhibition of contemporary Austrian photography to be shown at Photo London 2018, supported by ANTO, as part of Austria. The Art of Discovery.