Den Helder is an empty city. Surrounded by the sea. Beautiful light. … But empty, empty, empty the lighthouse scanned the city and sea with its circular light. Lynch-like feeling. The nearby thrift store and another crisis shelter with used stuff intrigued me to capture this flow of junk. I found on the street an old A4 printer of course with streaks, gaps and sputtering the disturbing output. I began to print the streets, the houses, the stuff of the city on that printer …. This produced a pack of printed A4 paper. … that pack of printed paper began to live.
In the aggregates trade, 6F2 is the name given to a coarse granular fill composed of the crushed remains of concrete, brick, and mortar recycled from construction and demolition sites. To qualify as 6F2, aggregates must be sourced, manufactured and used on site. This type of aggregate is often used in urban redevelopment projects for groundwork and the building of foundations. New modern cities are not just layered over the remains of older ones, but literally created from their rubble, constructed on a base of historic fragments.
This organised chaos beneath the ground is mirrored above, in the diverse engagements with space that characterise our experience of the city. Urban space rarely organises itself into the coherent form of a ‘view’. More often, it’s experienced through multiple glances, as a shifting pattern of margins and surfaces, some seen, some felt. Forms repeat themselves in time through multiple encounters, and in space, as archetypes showing up over and over again, similar but never the same. Historically, the most iconic images of cities have a coherence that is seldom perceived on the ground. Stephan Keppel’s practice takes shape around this disparity between representation and lived experience.
Keppel’s work is a study of cities and their making, of the incoherency of urban space and our encounter with it, of the forest of signs and symbols that the city comprises, and of the relationship between representation and the world from which it’s drawn.
Keppel makes books about cities. Since 2012 he has produced photobooks about five different cities: Graz, Paris, New York, Amsterdam, and Den Helder. Although they take the classic form of the codex, they’re not really narratives: they’re cumulative, like layers of sediment, and the images they contain are neither documents of space nor surveys of street life. Many of the photographs are traces of processes – construction, demolition, production, reproduction. Images are converted from one form to another. Prints are layered, scanned, reproduced multiple times, printed on different papers, condensed into motifs, smashed into particles … Keppel treats images in the same way that the aggregates trade treats the remains of cities, using them to reconstruct the fabric of a place, deploying them as building materials in a way that mimics the erratic, accretive growth of the city itself.
Keppel’s oeuvre is sprawling and labyrinthine, and I’ve spent a long time thinking about how to approach it. It’s a study of cities and their making, of the incoherency of urban space and our encounter with it, of the forest of signs and symbols that the city comprises, and of the relationship between representation and the world from which it’s drawn. Together with designer Hans Gremmen, it’s also an exploration of how to articulate all of this in book form without relying on text to furnish a conceptual frame. With each of his three most substantial book works to date – Entre Entrée (2014), Flat Finish (2017), and Soft Copy Hard Copy (2021) – Keppel digs deeper into the relationship between cities, space, and representation. Each volume resembles a stratified system, to be excavated slowly and carefully, like an archaeologist.
In Entre Entrée, Keppel moves through Paris’s suburbs, his camera trained on the mundane features of street-level architecture: pathways and pavements, walls and stairs. His photographs condense these elements to the basic geometries of line, circle, rectangle and cube – generic forms, common to cities everywhere. Set against this framework, plant life is depicted as a kind of unruly antagonist, swallowing and obscuring built structures. Together, they personify the way that the city both invites and refuses the gaze – a strategy that’s repeated on the page, where images shift back and forth between two and three dimensions. As readers, we’re constantly reminded of our own status as spectators, caught up in the act of looking.
We’re also confronted, over and over again, with the status of the image as an object. Only occasionally do Keppel’s photographs act as windows onto an external reality: in an ironic refusal of its own title, Entre Entrée is full of orthogonals and grids, but few horizon lines. Many of the pages – reflective surfaces that turn the gaze back on itself; marks, printing artifacts, halftone screens – make explicit reference to the processes of reproduction. So, although the work draws thematically on the close links between urban architecture and the instruments of vision that are historically used to represent it (the means and measures of Western representation) it also makes a sharp distinction between the movement of the body in real space and that of the eye on the page.
Keppel’s Paris is not the modern city, or the kind of urban experience, that the critic Walter Benjamin famously described early in the twentieth century.
It’s also a blunt reminder of the difference between the image as a historical idea and the image as it’s encountered in space and time. Keppel’s Paris is not the modern city, or the kind of urban experience, that the critic Walter Benjamin famously described early in the twentieth century. Benjamin’s Paris was packed with people and so overloaded with sensory stimuli that human consciousness struggled to brace itself against the shock. He used the term phantasmagoria to describe the city’s transformation into a landscape of fantasy and desire, a staging ground for an endless flow of images. There are few people in Keppel’s Paris. Rather than a stage for the spectacle or a breeding ground for ideal representations, the city pushes back against the enraptured gaze.
2 New York
Flat Finish pictures New York City as a place that doesn’t simply offer itself to the image but depends upon it for its very substance. If Entre Entrée suggested ways of moving through space, this volume embodies a static insistence on surface. The grid shows up again as an archetype – a template for the nineteenth-century layout of the city itself, and the model for most of its features, repeated in tiled surfaces, paving blocks, stacks of construction material, the identical windows of apartment blocks and the scaffolding that cloaks them.
There is something theatrical about Keppel’s depiction of New York – not so much a sense of pageantry, but of something illusory, as temporary and insubstantial as a stage set. Every surface seems to masquerade as something else. Paint on windows takes on the patterned texture of marble; plant forms are made of concrete and iron, marble looks like cracked plaster. Columns are emptied of their interior substance and transformed into voids on the page. Behind the deceptive solidity of their façades, buildings collapse into their component parts: a city composed of thinly laminated surfaces – vinyl, veneer, plaster and chipboard in a constant state of decay and disassembly. Even the iconic outline of the Empire State Building is reduced to a pixelated graphic set against a sour yellow sky.
Interspersed with photographs of the city’s fabric are paint charts, catalogue pages and other architectural samples harvested from archives: these printed indexes are given the same weight as the materiel of the city itself. I’m reminded of the way that critic Gus Blaisdell once described the industrial parks photographed by Lewis Baltz in the 1970s: tenuous structures, made of emulsified materials enclosing empty volumes. ‘So very thin are these subjects’, Blaisdell wrote, ‘that one feels that to enter them you would be immediately translated to the other side of one of Baltz’s prints.’ Keppel’s New York has the flimsy quality of a model assembled from a paper pattern; a modular landscape composed of multiple identical elements.
There is something theatrical about Keppel’s depiction of New York – not so much a sense of pageantry, but of something illusory, as temporary and insubstantial as a stage set.
Only occasionally do the forms in Keppel’s images suggest something more solid. An aerial photograph of Manhattan, decays, on the next page, into a pattern resembling lichen. Intermittent glimpses of organic material look weirdly tumorous, bulging out of their concrete restraints. There’s little in this space that could be called ‘natural’ – as the title suggests, New York is an assemblage of polished surfaces. Flat Finish is a comment on the superficiality of the city’s image, and a subtle indictment of the way that history has been incorporated, like a commodity-sign, into its fabric – a collection of motifs sampled and resampled, overlaid on a rickety framework.
The work in Soft Copy Hard Copy was made in Amsterdam, but the book opens with images taken in the artist’s studio – a figure that reappears throughout the volume. The architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has described modern architecture as a media form, ‘not just a set of buildings in the streets but … built as image in the pages of magazines and newspapers’. Keppel approaches Amsterdam in the same spirit, treating its fabric as raw material to be broken down and reassembled in the studio, reduced to its graphic equivalents, remade in spray paint and ink. The reflexivity that coursed through his earlier work is more pronounced here: the street furniture and other artifacts that he singles out in his photographs are compressed through the use of hard flash into the patterns and motifs they’ll eventually become.
Here, Keppel explores the city not as a volume in space, but as a surface for mark-making. His eye is drawn to forms that lend themselves to graphic reduction (blocks, tiles, grilles and frames) and to marks (lines, curves, blobs and spatters) that can be translated into gestures on the page, the pigmented traces of an otherwise absent body. There are few obviously three-dimensional spaces in the book: in a photograph shot through a glass storefront, the harsh reflection from the flash hides most of the boxlike space within. Reproduced on a scanner, draughting templates resemble the silhouettes of space-age architecture.
Here, Keppel explores the city not as a volume in space, but as a surface for mark-making.
For the first time, text appears – photographs of letters and numbers inscribed on walls and pavements. Here and there are longer fragments written in English and Dutch, and at the back of the book, a list of extended captions, where the only direct reference to the city is to be found. It’s clear that Keppel’s interest here is not just what language can tell us about a space, but how representation is embedded in space, and the ways that it transforms it.
Some thirty years ago, the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson observed that the volumes of the Modern city were being replaced by multiple surfaces that rendered our old systems of perception obsolete. For Keppel, the movement between volume and surface is cyclical; images become material to be inserted back into the fabric of the city. Draped over a wall, prints of paint mixing sticks mimic a row of columns. Photographs of a rain-soaked paper model of a building make the same point in a different way – walls and floors buckle, the paper sags and gapes at the joints, three dimensions slowly collapsing back into two. Even the book’s title – Soft Copy Hard Copy – echoes this recursivity, imagining a back-and-forth movement between the city as extended in space (a volume containing images) and as a codex (a volume containing images).
None of Keppel’s books are expressions of a culturally specific sense of ‘place’ in the conventional sense. Nor do they attempt to describe each city’s topography, the nature of its socius, the cultural habits of its residents, or even, explicitly, its architecture. I wonder if there is, perhaps, something a bit dark in Keppel’s vision of the space we share – captivatingly abstract, encountered as pattern and motif, reproduced through iterative processes of reflection, reproduction and repetition. Cities made of representations of cities, embodiments of a process of accretion in which the image itself begins to live.