ARTICLE BY SEAN 'O TOOLE - BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA
Friendship, it is this universal idea, as well as a mutual interest in photography as fine art that prompted Martin Osner and Koosvan der Lende to collaborate on the Fingerprint Collection. Asked about the origins of this portfolio of fine art photographs, they both refer to the profound sense of camaraderie that has developed between them over years – this and a photographic excursion they once made to a rural wilderness famed for its vast, atmospheric landscapes. “It happened many years ago,” explains Osner, an experienced commercial photographer and co-founder of the National College of Photography. “We were in Namibia shooting together and something gelled. You can talk to a lot of people about photography but they might not share your passion – Koos did. Basically, we have a similar outlook on art, on what we are trying to do,” At which point he laughs, “it took us almost a decade before we actually went ahead and produced this joint collection of collectable fine art photographs.” Unpretentiously described, the collection is a diverse showcase of work that juxtaposes the two photographers' contrasting styles. The portfolio collects Osner’s abstracted (and at times lyrical) botanical studies, including his ghostly studies of arum
lilies, pairing these with Van der Lende’s panoramic landscapes. The vivid (and at time monochromatic) quality of the latter’s lighting effects, reveals the flourish of a meticulous craftsman. According to the photographer, it is the product of years of dedication to both photography and the landscapes being imaged.
Trained at the School of Photography in The Hague, Netherlands, Van der Lende’s first encounter with Southern Africa’s rural landscapes was in 1977. “I came out of Holland when I was 21 to do a 10-month trip on my own, just backpacking through Southern Africa,” he explains, “it was then that I decided to do photography”. Five years ago, having established his reputation as a leading commercial photographer, Van der Lende opted to pursue his landscape photography as a dedicated full-time occupation. Every year, for a period of two months, he will travel alone across vast wildernesses producing his signature landscape photographs. “For me, it is the love of nature,” he says, “and photography certainly gives me a purpose in the bush.” However, Van der Lende is not strictly a pastoral photographer. Underlying his photography, he explains, is an intensely spiritual engagement with his work. He says his photographs are an attempt to describe “the essence of the moment of grace”. Stylistically, Van der Lende’s work is very distinct from that of his friend, Osner. “I shoot only landscapes on a camera, where Martin goes for the reality of a flower and straight landscapes to painterly abstraction,” explains Van der Lende. To which Osner adds, “anything is a subject to me, I’ll do whatever it takes. I get ideas and I will follow whatever feels right. I will shoot anything from true black and white prints on selenium paper to hand-painted photographs using multiple exposure techniques”. Although the pair might differ aesthetically, this contrast gives their collection a unique rhythm, they are resolute and jointly immovable on the issue of quality. This extends to the way in which their portfolios have been produced. Each photograph is printed using only the best archival materials. The edition size has also been limited to a small number, appropriate to the needs of the collector’s market.
For those still apprehensive about collecting photography, an abridged historical synopsis is instructive. In 1999, a seascape by pioneering French photographer Gustave LeGray sold for 507,500 pounds. The sale formed part of the famous Jammes auction sales, ideally credited for raising the international profile of photography as a collectable. A few years on and it is an incontestable fact that photography, in the art capitals of the west particularly, has mass appeal, easily rivalling more traditional arts like painting or sculpture. In February 2006, for instance, a moody photograph of a pond on Long Island, taken by Edward Steichen in 1094, fetched 2.9 million us dollars at a Sotheby's auction in New York. The photograph is one of three known prints, the other two are museum collections. While the examples cited are not South African, it is worth mentioning that a South African photographer, David Goldblatt, was recently awarded the prestigious international Hasselblad Award; also, exhibitions showcasing South African and African photography have garnered increasing attention abroad in recent years. Not that the two friends wish their photographs to be viewed purely as financial objects, to be bought and stored away. Photography is a mercurial art. Osner explains: “The moment you photograph something it loses its three-dimensional contact with the world. Because of elements like contrast, compression, depth of field, focus and exposure, things look different when they’re photographed.” It is a fact that delights, surprises and sometimes even frustrate the photographer. “Some people see the camera as a means of recording an end result, but the camera changes things”. To which one could add, it changes things in a way that illustrates the particular eye, worldview and expression of the photographer.
It is an observation true of both Osner and Van der Lende, whose collection materialises very different ways of looking at the world. The flourish, though, emerges from their decision to show these contrasting ways of seeing together, to present them as a dialogue – one between two friends.