This past Saturday I went to a lecture and gallery opening celebration for Philipp Scholz Rittermann’s “Emperor’s River” project at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion. The talk and photographs were focused on Rittermann’s work from more than two months spent traveling along China’s Grand Canal, a millennia-old canal that runs 1,100 miles from Bejing to Hangzhou.
Emperor’s River focuses on telling the story of the people and places behind the recent massive expansion of China’s economy. He traveled the entire length of the Grand Canal, getting images of places that most western photographers ignore. There’s no Great Wall, few bright city lights, and no gorgeous mountain landscapes. But there are construction workers toiling, families working barges that follow the same routes people have have traveled for centuries, old buildings being torn down to be replaced with high-rises, and all the contrasts that come with quick industrialization.
I’ll be honest: during the talk I found the photographs to be good, but not addictive (except for the one at the top of this post, which grabbed me instantly). The images were being projected onto a large screen, but said projector wasn’t particularly detail-capable. The same goes for his website’s page on Emperor’s River – the pictures look good, but you might wonder “why should I go to a gallery for these, if I can just see them on the web?”
The reason you should go is that Mr. Rittermann’s speciality is to capture scenes that have many individual stories in them, and then to create giant prints that call out to the viewer to go over them inch by inch, revealing a bit more with every inch traveled. He does this by photographing each scene as a panorama, stitching together the individual images1 to create a cohesive whole that is insanely high resolution, and so can be printed gigantic.
When I say gigantic, I mean it: some of the prints in the gallery are ten feet wide, and most are at least five or six feet wide. And these aren’t intended to be viewed from five or six feet away (as many large photographic prints are); there’s almost no noise visible in any of the prints, and they call out to you to stand with your nose touching the glass, peering into the scene absorbing all the minute details.
This construction site image is probably the best example:
On the web, you’re probably looking at that and going “Okay, it’s a construction site. Um, yay?” It’s well composed and gorgeously stitched, but at this resolution it’s basically just a construction site. That’s essentially what I thought when I saw the image in the talk.
But when I saw the image in person, printed at more than six feet wide, I was able to see all the little details in precise, sharp focus. I could examine the stacking of individual bricks in each of the dozens of piles of them, I could look at how people were living in the lower floors of the mostly-completed buildings, I could look at the workers wandering the construction site, I could see the methodology of the construction in the background buildings, and as I spent more time I kept seeing more and more. And the same thing happened with all the other prints (another excellent example is the second image I included, “Overview, Night Fish Market”; it’s just amazing in person).
This isn’t your typical splashy modern photography. The images aren’t over saturated (so refreshing!), and they don’t necessarily have a single element that pulls your eye in and makes you click “like” right away. But each image has dozens of different scenes in it, and dozens of different stories to tell. These are images that need to be seen large, and when you do see them I guarantee that you’ll stand in front of each one for a good long time absorbing all the detail.
If you have the time, head over to the gallery and take a look (it’s free!). There are a few dozen prints of his up, and they’re all gorgeous. Just be sure to get your nose right up to the glass, and look at them in depth. You’ll be glad you did.
Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion: Mr. Rittermann’s show runs from April 7 through April 28, 2012. The gallery is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11-7pm, and Saturday from 11-4pm; it is entirely free. The gallery is located next to the Starbucks on OCC’s campus; the base address for the campus is 2701 Fairview Rd. in Costa Mesa, CA. The college has a map and directions page to get you to the campus, and the gallery’s website has a map locating the gallery on OCC’s rather large (and confusing) campus; I’d suggest printing the map if you’re unfamiliar with the campus. Parking is free on Saturdays in any campus lot, but during the week all spaces on campus require a permit except for those with coin-operated meters.