Scientists have long used historical photographs of glaciers as a source of data. They provide evidence on the size of glaciers in the past, and in this way allow researchers to establish the pace of glacier retreat. In recent years, an Italian artist—who grew up among glaciers himself—has found a new way to work with these photographs and to demonstrate a different kind of meaning.
The painter Rudolf Stingel comes from the town of Merano in the Italian Alps, close to the borders with Switzerland and Austria. Since his childhood in the region, the glaciers on the high peaks near his hometown have shrunk significantly. Stingel has developed creative possibilities from this loss. He has blown up old black-and-white photographs of the mountains to an enormous size, up to fifteen feet wide, and used them as the basis for immense landscape paintings.
An exhibition of Stingel’s work was shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City earlier this year. These paintings capture the stern snow-covered peaks, and other details such as the folds and cracks and discoloring that have developed as the photographs age. Stingel let the paintings sit on his studio floor, so they aged as the original photographs aged, acquiring scuff marks, drips from other art projects, and bits of debris. The final products, such as the ones illustrated here, are striking and absorbing.
Where scientists treat photographs as a record of another object – such as a glacier – from the past, Stingel forces us to recognize that photographs themselves are objects. To convert a photograph to a set of data is as much as intervention as to transform a photograph into a painting.
Nothing can stop the progress of time; photographs age, just as mountains do. To work with an old photograph, whether as a scientist or as an artist, is to select a way to change it. This process involves the chance of fate, whether in the inevitable aging of an archival photograph, however well curated, or in the random events in an artist’s studio.
Stingel’s work has long played with issues of individual and collective memory. He has produced paintings from reworked personal photographs from different periods of his life and approached a geological kind of intervention when he covered the floor of his studio with Styrofoam and then walked across the surface wearing boots that he dipped in a liquid that partially dissolved the surface, leaving something like the fossilized trackway of a prehistoric animal.
In these earlier works, Stingel has shown us that no object can preserve the past, and that even our memories change, as we re-record them. And now he shows us how irrevocably the glaciers are vanishing. Neither photographs of them nor the paintings of the man who had walked among them as boy can preserve them perfectly. All we can see is their fading—and our wish to still be able to see them as they were.