When I walk along a shingle beach, my focus is seldom on the view out to sea, but on the stones beneath my feet. I always pick one up to take away with me, and the one that I choose always has a special quality that sets it apart from the rest: the pattern on its surface, its texture or hue, the way it fits into my hand. I’ve never really thought about why I pick up stones, why it feels so necessary. Part of it is surely a sense of wonder at the way the world is made, and a desire to become the temporary custodian of a tiny part of the planet. But I’m equally drawn to the inscrutability of stones: each one is a perfect microcosm, a fragment of something much greater than ourselves.
A similar fascination is at work in Claudia den Boer’s To Pick Up a Stone. The book’s premise is simple enough: it includes photographs of various sites – the Moroccan Sahara, Tibet, Catalonia, the Georgian Caucasus – and of the stones that den Boer collected there. As she explains, the work emerged from a longing to get in close contact with the earth, and to give visual form to the correspondence between stones, rocks and mountains. But To Pick Up a Stone is also a study of perception itself – of the nature of our engagement with the world, of the way that photography mediates this engagement, and of the way that the camera, the image and the book form can act together to capture the full intensity of perceptual experience.
Since the Renaissance, vision – the sense most closely associated with reason and scientific knowledge – has become the primary portal through which we know and understand the world. Touch, by comparison, is said to be unreliable, delivering subjective judgement rather than objective reckoning. But touch is the bedrock of all our experience. The skin is the interface between the world and every sense organ in the body – even the eye’s thin membrane is a kind of skin. If vision isolates us from the world, touch unites us with it.
To Pick Up a Stone is a study of perception itself – of the nature of our engagement with the world, of the way that photography mediates this engagement, and of the way that the camera, the image and the book form can work together to capture the full intensity of perceptual experience.
For the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining of sight with touch was the focus of his life’s work. He argued that the historical privileging of sight was profoundly unnatural – a fracture, imposed by science, in the richness of perceptual experience. In his famous essay on the work of Paul Cezanne, he wrote of the painter’s extraordinary ability to capture the whole-body fullness of perception, ‘the insurpassible plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.’ For Merleau-Ponty, painting was not just a representation of reality but a powerful expression of the painter’s embodied experience of the world – a fusion with things, a practice drawing on all of the senses.
We may well imagine, as Merleau-Ponty did, that the photograph is a poor instrument for capturing this fullness. The camera is, after all, a machine that works from a distance, organising the world into the visible qualities of point, line and plane. It’s counterintuitive to think that a photograph might also register other, more subjective sensory information – the so-called ‘secondary qualities’ of taste, sound, smell and touch. But den Boer uses the camera in exactly this way. ‘Photographing is like an intensified act of observing to me’, she remarks. ‘Observing and looking at the landscape is an almost tactile experience; it’s like I can feel the material of the landscape (or stone) by looking intensely.’
The subject matter of To Pick Up a Stone may be narrowly defined, but the photographs themselves take many different forms. Vivid panoramas of sun-washed hills and mountains emphasise the vast scale of these landscapes, enfolding the body in an almost architectural embrace. Other images are shot through mist so dense that only the barest traces of detail can be seen. There are photographs of heaped rubble, of cracks and fissures in the earth. Some images have the haze of objects seen through deep water, or the velvety quality of skin; others are as pin-sharp as scientific illustrations. Extreme enlargements meld the pebbled texture of the film’s grain with that of the rock and the paper itself, transforming modest stones into monoliths, their jagged edges looming as large as mountaintops. Selective focus and tonal shifts between foreground and background alternately exaggerate and collapse space. Colour spans a gamut from acid-bright to monochrome; sometimes, images are rendered in tones so subdued that the eye struggles to pull them out of the paper.
The book’s design is both an enticement – an invitation to engage the work with hands as well as eyes – and a provocation, working against the order that the camera creates.
The book’s design is both an enticement – an invitation to engage the work with hands as well as eyes – and a provocation, working against the order that the camera creates. Full pages are interspersed with half sheets (distinguishable, at times, only by running a fingertip over the page) which can be lifted to reveal the image beneath, breaking up the outlines of individual stones and altering the character of photographic space. A range of different paper stocks are used throughout the work: some photographs are printed on creamy translucent paper that reveals the page beneath; others on a more textured stock that mimics the almost organically degraded character of the Japanese paper negatives that den Boer used for certain shots. The pages rustle and snap as I turn them, texture transformed into sound. Elsewhere, high-gloss sheets echo the slick surface of Polaroid film – a reminder that we are, after all, looking at photographs. But the information that we take in with hands (and even ears) cannot easily be distinguished from that which we take in through the eyes, and this synthesis is vital to the work’s meaning.
Sensory contact with the world is the source of creativity. Rather than standing apart from the world and creating representations of it, To Pick Up a Stone uses the camera, the photograph and the book form as ways of reaching beneath its skin, taking it apart and remaking it in different forms. These forms, for their part, are not simple substitutes – replacements of one sense by another. Each one draws out something entirely new and unique to the reader, as though it has been placed there just for us, like a stone on a beach.