Category Archives: Peru

Another Kind of a ‘Huh?’

My latest self-published book, Twentysix Hydrocarbon Blocks, explores some of the consequential effects hydrocarbon extraction activities in the Peruvian Amazon are having upon biodiversity, languages, and indigenous peoples. Featured below is my own short introductory text. The book also includes an essay by anthropologist and Peruvian expert, Miguel Alexiades.

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“In 1963, the American artist Ed Ruscha released Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a photographic publication now widely considered the first modern artist’s book. As the title suggests, it contains banal photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations taken along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma. The work has generated much discussion around its significance within conceptual art and the meaning (or otherwise) of its content. This includes religious sub-texts, nods towards the American road movie genre, and Duchampian allegories to the ‘ready-made’. Absent from the discourse, though, has been any serious discussion around gasoline or oil, which is surprising in view of its historical and ongoing importance to the United States both culturally, economically, and geopolitically.

Picking up on this oversight and in the spirit of Ruscha’s original, this artist book explores the issue of oil and gas extraction within the Peruvian Amazon, alluding to the consequential human and environmental effects it is and will increasingly have upon the region. Over the past thirty years, successive Peruvian governments have pursued a path of national development focused on hydrocarbon extraction, which in large part occurs within areas of high biological and cultural diversity. Western Amazonia, which includes a significant portion of Peruvian territory, is the most species rich part of the Amazon basin and is home to high concentrations of indigenous ethnic groups, including some of the world’s last uncontacted peoples living in isolation from mainstream society. Unlike Brazilian Eastern Amazonia, it is still a largely intact ecosystem, but one where the underlying substrata contains huge reserves of oil and gas, many yet untapped. The growing global demand is leading to unprecedented exploration and development of the region threatening biological and cultural integrity (often within protected areas) driving forest clearance, causing interethnic and civil conflict, and the colonisation of hitherto sparsely populated areas.

This book utilises spectral species density imagery from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and NatureServe; hydrocarbon block and protected area Geographical Information System (GIS) shapefile data produced by hydrocarbon promotion agency, Perupetro; and indigenous territorial mapping data produced by the Peruvian civil society group, Instituto del Bien Común (IBC). The data has been combined, arranged, and passed through seven separate cartographic and creative software packages and manifests itself in the double-page spreads that follow. Each of these spreads contains a visual representation of species concentration and indigenous presence within twenty-six active or soon-to-be active hydrocarbon blocks located throughout the Peruvian Amazon. Also included is a text by anthropologist, Miguel Alexiades, a leading expert on biocultural diversity and the political ecology of Western Amazonia.

During numerous interviews, Ruscha has described Twentysix Gasoline Stations as “simply a collection of facts”. In a 1982 interview with Art News he declared it a “training manual for people who want to know about things like that”. This succinctly summarises my own intentions with this book.”

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Representing Amazonia

Even though Amazonia is now the focus of much international attention, and is often considered in a metaphorical sense as the embodiment of humanities assault on the natural world as part of the globalisation frenzy, it is fair to say it remains pretty much off-limits to all but the most committed of travellers. Lingering metaphors of “green hell,” including rampant caricatures of wild Indians and apocalyptic images of environmental devastation are such that whilst there is a greater interest in the region than there has probably ever been it is still a place few people would endeavour to spend much time in.

Amazonia is of course much written about in both specialist and non-specialist publications but much of how people perceive the Amazon is as a direct consequence of the imagery that has emanated from the region during the past century or so. This blog post aims to briefly discuss the history of such imagery, including some key examples from the realms of anthropology, photojournalism, travel, and the fine arts.

Probably the earliest serious attempts to render the Amazon visually came via mid-19th century Victorian naturalists such as Bates, Wallace, and Spruce, independent explorers and commercial scientists focused on the regions flora and fauna. Bates’s 1863 publication, The Naturalist on the River Amazons contained “…a record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life and aspects of nature under the Equator during eleven years of travel.” Based upon their extended periods in the field, such naturalists provided the first systematic and widely disseminated accounts of “green hell” the legacy of which remains popular.

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Beat Presser and the Conquest of Dreams

In Werner Herzog’s 2004 journal, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, photographer Beat Presser is described as a “long-time Herzog collaborator.” In view of the length of Herzog’s career and the sheer amount of films and documentaries he has produced it’s a significant statement. Spread across the books 300+ pages, in and amongst descriptions of the projects infamous day-to-day problems, including the frustrations of working with Klaus Kinski and grappling with almost every perceivable catastrophe one could imagine, Beat Presser crops up regularly. It’s clear he was an integral member of the Fitzcarraldo production team as well as the ensuing Herzog films he was associated with.

As with Peter Beard, the subject of a previous post, Beat Presser is a photographer less well known in the UK than he should be and like Beard once you become aware of him it’s surprising how often you see his images and hear his name mentioned. Born in Switzerland in 1952 he trained as a photographer and film cameraman in Basel, Paris, and New York and in the mid-seventies became editor of the magazines Palm Beach News and The Village Cry. In 1981 he began his collaboration with Herzog hooking up with him on three major films, two of which I include amongst my favourites of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, both starring the famous German actor and hothead Klaus Kinski. The author of more than ten photography monographs on diverse subjects he remains highly active as an international photographer producing and exhibiting almost constantly.

Via a long series of coincidences and events I first met Beat Presser in Cambodia during 2008 having been given the opportunity to work with him on photographic workshops for local students, which formed part of the educational program supporting his touring Oasis of Silence exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. We quickly became good friends though our shared love of photography and adventure, activities central to our independent beings, and have remained in regular contact. It’s true say he is a constant source of inspiration to me through my unfolding knowledge of his prior work and travels and also his continued striking out in search of new horizons. Approaching 60 years of age, he seems to be speeding up and it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of his various projects and activities.

He is perhaps best known for his work on Fitzcarraldo, acting as both assistant cameraman and still photographer, producing striking images of Herzog, Kinski, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, and Matsiguenka and Campa Indians that have become some of the most iconic in the history of cinema. In view of the projects grand scale the production unit and budget on Fitzcarraldo was only a fraction of what they should have been which occasionally shows in the films low key lighting. Not so with his images though which he consistently gets absolutely bang on. And what about THE seminal image at the start of this post? Few photographers would have had the courage to position the  aggressive  and egocentric Kinski in miniature to the bottom right of the frame.

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But there’s much more to Beat Presser than his Herzog work, which within the context of his career equates to a small proportion of his output. The majority of his personal photography is grounded in travel and his experiences of heterogeneous culture and elemental nature. His Oasis of Silence project for example was produced in monasteries in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, and Korea where he travelled extensively over four years capturing the essence of Theravada Buddhism with his trusty Leica lenses. His ALPenTRAUM work (arguably his best book) is a documentation of the wild winter mountain landscapes of Switzerland. His most recent endeavour is an exploration of Dhow history and culture in East Africa, which involved six months sailing one of the ancient ships along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania.

Much of Beat Presser’s work is bound up in chance in so much that though he carefully chooses the places he travels to and carries with him outline ideas of the possibilities available to him (often as a result of extensive prior research) when he is insitu he lets fate/karma run their course embracing the opportunities that present themselves and developing them to the full, normally over extended timeframes. This is a method of working I mostly adopt myself (albeit less ambitiously) and is the primary method of almost all the great travel photographers and writers. Whilst his work is broad and varied he mostly considers himself a travel photographer, which I find refreshingly unpretentious in view of the cynical connotations often associated with the term.

The photobook is central to his output where through sophisticated design techniques, often in collaboration with his wife Vera Pechel who is herself a highly regarded book designer, he produces thematic monographs often shot over many years. He’s on book eleven and counting which is a fair return when one considers how much time he invests in obtaining the actual images.

I like Beat Presser. I like his books, I like his photos, I like his method of working, and I even like him as a person. I hope that through this post you’ve discovered something about a photographer you may previously have known little of but who has had the kind of rich and successful career all but the best photographers can really only dream of.

You can view Beat Presser’s website here, which is a combination of commercial and personal material. You can see his dedicated Klaus Kinski website here.

All images © Beat Presser.