Rein Jelle Terpstra’s Dark Dunes, on view through January 8, 2023, consists of some 20 large-format negatives by an unknown photographer, which were found by Terpstra. The negatives, which meticulously document the date and time of the photograph as well as the aperture and shutter speed, were all made during, or slightly before and after, World War II. The war itself is absent from the images, however. Instead, the negatives show fields of wheat, stacks of hay, still lifes of vegetables, and scenes from empty villages, presumably all in Holland. Terpstra, though, makes sure that viewers do not forget the time period – hung in the center of the room are blown-up images of newspaper pages whose publication dates correspond to those on certain negatives. “The Battle for Sebastopol” is the headline on one paper from June 29,1942; a negative labeled with the same date shows a lone woman seated on a hill, gazing out at the horizon beyond the fields.
Presenting the undeveloped negatives serves two functions. The choice emphasizes the “found” nature of the photographs, a sense that we have stumbled upon a piece of history. The second, though less successful, function is to act as the “negative” of history. The images – the idyllic pastoral landscapes, the clouds, the flowers – are presented as the inverse of the time in which they were taken. They are the negative of the moment, which, were it to be fully depicted, would show the horrors of the war. But would it? As writer and photographer Wilco Versteeg’s accompanying text acknowledges, “the banality of everyday life continued in 1942.” Versteeg and Terpstra view the decision to make images of everyday life in all its banality as a kind of escapism or a dignified rebellion against the conditions of war. But this seems like a view imposed upon the photographs in the exhibition by the accompanying newspapers.
In fact, the photographs are far from banal; they have a kind of a mysticism about them, and the war intrudes in the images in subtle, haunting ways. Candles burn with black flames; a single crow perches on a fence, the very figure of death; what looks to be a beached naval mine appears as an otherworldly presence, improbably glowing red (a product of damage to the negative) and bleeding its color onto the grass.
There’s an outsider-art impenetrability to the images. Photography is always an elegiac art, and that quality is heightened by the anonymity of the photographer, who becomes a specter within the image itself. The photographer, whoever they were, was clearly technically skilled, but the images are also slightly off, and the opacity of the photographer’s motivations gives the images their power. To present the image only in the context of the war represents not only a failure to approach each image on its own merits, but also recapitulates the very indignity of war, which Versteeg and Terpstra believe the photographer was trying to escape.