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Book of the Week: Selected by Sarah Bay Gachot

Book Of The Week Omatandangole Photographs by Aapo Huhta Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot Aapo Huhta's pictures from the Namibian desert consider what might be left when all we think we know about ourselves, about human society, has been stripped away. The place itself, a vast emptiness that threatens to engulf everything it touches, is both the catalyst for this loss and its final manifestation.
Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.
Photographs by Aapo Huhta

Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2019. 100 pp., 9¾x10¾x½".

OMATANDANGOLE — I had to write the word down. Was it a place? Or a name? Or a feeling? At that point, it was thirteen letters in white on the blue and red cover of a handsome photobook by Aapo Huhta. The only way I could get to know this word was through its parts.

In a short text called “Exit Plan” toward the end of Omatandangole (but not quite the end), Huhta writes that these images were made between 2016 and 2018 in the Namibian Desert. He also defines the title, a word that must have lodged itself in his emotional landscape as he traveled.

Huhta left his home in Finland in 2016 because he was “anxious to get away as far as possible....” In Namibia, omatandangole refers to a kind of mirage summoned by heated air from afar. The heat of his getaway called forth a mirage of “completeness,” “bliss,” and “pristine” moments in the form of photographs. A dark figure undulating in the light of a swimming pool; a black horse nearly lost against the background of a black asphalt road; a brown fur seal far away on a beach (as the desert stretches all the way to the Atlantic Ocean)—these are patterns pulled from the chaos of wanting to be anywhere but where one actually is. They are distillations of light and shadow in a world where the atoms are unruly.

Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.

The first image in the book shows a sun rising—or setting?—over a hillside, with a second sun double-exposed higher up in the sky; two suns irradiating the page through a cloud of dust with all the haze of a particularly acute hangover. Other landscapes remind me of Roger Fenton’s salted paper prints of the Crimean War, most prominently Fenton’s image The Valley of the Shadow of Death, from 1855. The cannonballs have been thrown, the bodies dragged off the road, Psalm 23, rambling and sonorous, echoes over the pressed dirt through Lord Tennyson’s poem. But Huhta’s images also have the whiff of the intimate grit of Daido Moriyama’s vintage photographs. There is even a very particular dog, like Moriayama’s Stray Dog from 1971.

Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.
Like bad memories, things disappear into the shadows. Huhta’s brand of camouflage is about invisibility, merging with dark, staying still, soaking up all light. These photographs seem to have fingerprints, or brush strokes. There’s an anachronistic pictorialist feel to them, like the rubbing and pushing of gum bichromate. Rather than recording the space before a lens, they pay homage to paint, sacred geometry, dream logic, and the weather system of emotions within the artist himself. But it’s a weather system with enough charge to blow across the reader as well, like heat on skin, sand in the eye, and dry darkness from the far recesses of the soul.

Huhta writes in “Exit Plan,” “There was a notion of a location that was as distant as could be, and if I only ran fast and far enough I could escape my own past and self, eventually arriving at the remote, moonlike place.”

Having just returned from several months of travel, I identify with this feeling of getting away. I encountered similar thoughts along very long highways butted up against the mind-bending landscapes of the Colorado Plateau in Utah, burnt-red mesas so extreme and otherworldly they seemed like parodies of themselves.

Huhta’s short text, which faces a blank white page, feels like a caesura, as if, suddenly, he has said too much. There are ten or so more pages after the text and, for a moment, I wonder if they might also be blank. But the pages are not blank. They show several pictures of children walking over the desert, small figures climbing the dunes, making their way to a crest in the sand the color of the sky. One, two, three, or four are bent over, or sitting, or crawling—as if it’s too hard to stand on this incline. Like my experience with the surface of some of these photographs—some have a coating like very fine sandpaper; I was sweeping my hands over them even before I looked—these children might be thinking, ‘this sand feels good on my hands; on my knees. It feels good to crawl up and through it.’

Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.
Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.

Beyond these simple images of children is an essay called “Nothing Beyond” by Darren Campion. Like a detective who roamed the inner spaces of Huhta’s emotional HQ, Campion kicks up dust and peers under the furniture. He maps the territory and makes some very keen connections. But I find these words to make too much sense for the experience of these images. Huhta’s first book, Block, after many views of a New York City chiseled away by sun and shadow, ended with a lapidary short story about the epic nature of life called “A History of Everything, Including You,” by Jenny Hollowell. It was poetic and sad, but also concise and hopeful. “Nothing Beyond” feels more like a clinical diagnosis that reins in Omatandangole, grounding the reader’s experience, despite the often tenuous relation to reality much of this book enjoys. These are wise words, but they do not feel like kin to Huhta’s “Exit Plan.”

Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.
Omatandangole is less about evidence than an ephemeral promise, like the omatandangole itself. There are no mental gymnastics called forth by these photographs. I might flop, fall, and trip over them. I might soak, meditate, or allow them to dissolve into abstractions. Huhta’s project is a respite from questions and attention, saying both leave me alone and look at this. And, where are we?

We’ll never know. When you’re trying to get away, that’s kind of the point.

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Omatandangole. By Aapo Huhta.

Sarah Bay Gachot is a writer, curator, and cultural producer. Her curatorial project on Robert Cumming opened at the California Museum of Photography in 2019 and her monograph on the artist, Robert Cumming: The Difficulties of Nonsense, was published in 2016. Her writing has appeared in Aperture magazine, Hyperallergic, the photo-eye Blog, The PhotoBook Review, among other publications, as well as several artist's books and catalogs.