Essay on Ocean Photography by Laura Stoop

Laura Stoop


The sublime and the beautifull in the
photographs of Dolph Kessler


Desolate and vast. Wild, indomitable and terrifying. The ocean is multifaceted. The earth is seven-tenths water. And the underwater-world is dark. There are mountain ranges and plains beneath the surface of the water that we have no knowledge of. Animals, plants and reefs are hidden from our view. Below the transition point where the sky touches the water there is an absence of oxygen and here, human life ends. Dolph Kessler’s photos honour this demarcation line between air and water. A divide so definitive that we often overlook the world that lies beneath the waves. Our thoughts instinctively do not cross that border. In this book we see a series of photographs composed of sky, water and light. Our thoughts and feelings respond to the magnificence of nature and to the concealed world beneath that evokes our curiosity and fear. What is it about the ocean that fascinates us so? Has philosophy an answer? And how in the visual arts do we relate to the sea and the ocean? Let us start with philosophy.

Infinite and wild. The words we use to describe the oceans can also be found in the philosophy of the ‘sublime’. During the Enlightenment, a great deal was written about this concept for the first time. The sublime is considered to be both great and terrifying. The beautiful is seen as pleasant and harmonious. Compare the rough waves with the tranquil ocean. The work of two philosophers stand out: that of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. For Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) the sublime represents fear and self-preservation. Confronted with high waves, we experience our own minuteness in the presence of an enormous force. We could be annihilated. But when we realize that this threat is not tangible, since we are at a safe distance from it – i.e. looking at photographs – then this relieves, according to Burke, our feelings of fear. This produces an emotion of delight. He calls this sublime feeling ‘a delightful horror’. One would probably prefer to look at the photographs in this book, than be at the centre of a storm on the ocean. Much more comfortable. Dolph Kessler’s book bridges this distance to the reality of waves, so that we can enjoy the wildness and vastness of nature.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is the most famous philosopher of the Enlightenment. He too writes about man coming face to face with something great and wild. And in these circumstances in particular, people revert back to their own core. In the presence of the immeasurable ocean we as human beings hold our own. We feel insignificant. But there is also an awareness, according to Kant, that we are stronger than death. And stronger than the fear of the infinite. Our reason understands, that which can overwhelm our senses. This is the intense, free feeling of the sublime. Every now and then, this experience can be so dramatic that someone’s life changes course. That is naturally not the case when looking at the photos in this book. Nevertheless, Dolph Kessler’s photographs capture an essence. They hold our attention. His photos show, also by of the absence of human influences, both the stillness and the imposing boundlessness of the ocean. And the wild power of the waves.

Let’s go further back in the history of philosophy. The philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BCE) worked from a starting premise that there is a divided line between two worlds, the visible world and the world of ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’. In this lies the essence of everything on earth. The arts do not occupy a prominent position in Plato’s work. A work of art is – according to his philosophy – an imitation of reality, so therefore it is double the distance to the world of forms. A work of art is like a shadow of a shadow or like a copy of a copy of a form. Plato does acknowledge however that the arts have the power to stir people’s senses. For better or for worse.

Plotinus (204 – 270) is the father of Neoplatonism. ‘Unveiling the essence’ is central to his thought. On earth, the closer we get to the world of ideas, the more beauty we shall find. Let us carry on reasoning along these lines. The ocean could be considered as a direct expression of the ideas of ‘infinity’ and ‘power’. The ocean, as an almost perfect embodiment of abstract ideas, is a thing of great beauty. Also the importance of light in Kessler’s work reminds us of the work of Plotinus. Together with the idea that the arts are connected to another world. Art seems to be able to unveil underlying truths. A vision that you also encounter in today’s secular society.

As you have read above, before the eighteenth century, a considerable amount of thought had already been devoted to the impressiveness of nature and the arts. But ‘aesthetics’, as a philosophy of taste, only became an independent philosophical discipline when Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714 – 1762) put the notion on the map with his work Aesthetics. The word ‘aesthetics’ derives from the ancient Greek ‘aísthēsis’, meaning ‘perception’ or ‘experience’. Baumgarten’s magnum opus depicts the beautiful as a bridge between all philosophical disciplines. For a long time, the term ‘sublime’ described an elevated style of oration. And was not used so much to describe art or nature. These domains of philosophy were described as ‘beautiful’. For Baumgarten, who was a great influence on Kant, the artist is someone who extricates the beautiful from concealment. Like a sculpture that has been concealed within a block of marble. Art reveals both the beauty and the truth. We experience this also in Dolph Kessler’s work. His photographs display a world that normally would remain hidden to us or that as such would not be noticed. By focusing exclusively on the ocean during his travels and by considering all the rest (people, ships, whales, birds, etcetera) as distractions, he extracts it from the ‘chaos’. As a consequence, his insight deepens and thus he unveils the ocean’s beauty.

Let us now focus on the visual arts. Kessler’s work has a longstanding tradition. Marine art covers a variety of themes such as naval battles, shipwrecked people and vast seascapes. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1832) by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) is an iconic image of just one single wave. This wave has been engraved upon our collective memory. Kessler’s work therefore always refers, intentionally or unintentionally, to Hokusai’s wave. We see on Hokusai’s woodblock print an enormous wave in the bay of Tokyo. Although it is not immediately noticeable, there are people in the picture. These people in their small boats are at risk of being engulfed. This contrasts strongly with the images in Dolph Kessler’s series of waves. In his photographs there is no sign of any human or animal presence. This is intentionally so. Kessler’s photos exclusively convey – as has been stated before – the ocean itself. This is unlike his previous books. Reference in particular his book Around the North Sea, which emphatically emphasises human interference with nature. In that book, architecture, industry and landscape together form a geometric spectacle. In his photos of the Atlantic Ocean, Kessler has omitted everything that is man-made. We merely see water, sky and light in all its manifestations. For this book he took a short break from his usual line of approach as a photographer of the human condition.

Another famous example from the visual arts is the series The Wave (1869) by French painter, Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877). He took the next step in the development of western art history. Instead of a large seascape he painted only a wave. Dolph Kessler also leads us into this pure image of the ocean. For this, he sometimes chooses an overview photo. At other times the lens focuses solely on one single wave. Kessler has given long consideration to the order of photographs in this book. The resulting arrangement has a natural feel to it. The unruffled surface of the water changes into a swell. The breeze quickens. Now there are real waves like in Courbet’s painting. A storm rages. Foam shoots up and sometimes all that is visible is wave and no sky. The senses are on edge. There is not a moment to lose. Then all is quiet again. Now there are icebergs on the horizon. This flux of events repeats itself in nature. Waves come and go. Always different, but within the same cycle. That too is a fascinating – perhaps even sublime – fact that becomes evident in this book. It is the ultimate snapshot in time. Of all the millions of waves that are to be seen on earth every single second, and this for many millions of years, we only get to see a few.

Another photographer who has recorded a series of photographs of waves is Clifford Ross (1952). His book Wave Music includes three segments: Hurricane, Horizons and Grain. Hurricane displays the wildness of the sea. Horizons shows an almost smooth water surface. Grain consists of photographic abstractions in a black, white and grey tonality. Throughout the series the force of the water is gradually scaled down in a linear fashion. In Dolph Kessler’s work however, we see a cyclic movement. Ross shot his pictures while he was up to his chest in the surf. He was tethered to the shore with a safety rope. Kessler sometimes stood on the bridge of the ship, and sometimes on deck. The photos taken from the bridge are in a descriptive style. They present an overall view of the immeasurable sea. We find the sublime here in the size of the ocean. It is too enormous to take it all in at a glance. But our minds understand the concept of ‘infinity’. Therefore, we can hold our own. In the infinity we experience Kant’s ‘mathematical sublime’. When Kessler stood on the afterdeck, waves towered high above the photographer. A terrifying position. The power of the water is tangible in these photos. They show less sky, more water and foam. This is Kant’s ‘dynamic sublime’. Here the essence is not infinity, but the force of the water.

The attraction of the ocean lies in its boundlessness, immensity and mysteriousness. In art we look for confrontation and fundamental experiences. Our reaction tells us a lot about ourselves. More than we sometimes know. Is the ocean for us a thing of beauty? Do we feel insignificant? Or do we like suspense? Philosophers have written about strong experiences that are both terrifying and delightful. Some constants keep reoccurring. A certain distance. The feeling of freedom. And the pursuit of the essential. You might, in a little moment, look at these photographs with such thoughts at the back of your mind. Or perhaps you will jettison all your baggage. Whatever you do: immerse yourself in the Atlantic Ocean.


14 oktober 2016
Laura Stoop