Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The castle sublime

Once upon a time there was a photo blog called Wanderlust Europe. The blog was full of hyper-beautiful, hyper-real, hyper-seductive, hyper-sanitised photographs from all over Europe... It called itself "a daily curation of photos from the Old Continent" - and indeed it was full of the kind of images to make even an old-world Edinburgher want to sell all their possessions and to hit the road in search of German schlosses, Venetian eccentrics and Cretan sunsets. For new worlders, already in love with an image of European "authenticity" - as packaged by William Randolph Hearst - it must have been akin to Chinese water torture.

Unfortunately, this Edinburgher became - for a while - slightly addicted to these (significantly, usually people-free) golden snapshots. And, as much as wondering about where the wanderers had snapped these shots, I began to wonder about the techniques used to create the hyper-real effect which Wanderlust Europe as a whole evokes. Now, I like HDR as much as the next i-Phone evangelist, but there is something a bit odd at looking at page after page of images in which the sky is darkly foreboding (I accept that most people are better photographers than me, but there really can't be that many tourists out there in pre-thunderstorm conditions, snapping away, can there?), or vividly orange - or in which the sea is super-turquiose, or the grass disconcertingly green. I love Europe, and I love travel, and photographs, and even indulging in a tough of wanderlust - and in nostalgia for the "old world". Having lived in the "new world" for several years, I know how acute the longing can be for historical buildings, for some "wild" landscape that has nevertheless been traversed for millenia, for some authentic rootedness to place.... and yet, Europe is so much more than this (people live here for a start!). To hyper-perfect it in this way is to create not only a misplaced sense of nostalgia for a place that does not exist, but also to participate in an all-pervading commodofication of experience, of travel - and of history and nature.

I finally killed my minor addiction to the blog through a month-long obsession with the above picture of a castle. I first saw this (literally!) sublime coastal castle on my first browse of the Wanderlust site - I then couldn't stop thinking about it for days, but couldn't remember where I had seen it... I knew it had been labelled as a German castle - but which one? I started googling images of German castles, planning a trip to visit this one, if I could ever find it.... And then I struck gold - I had seen it on Wanderlust Europe and was able to find it again. Excellent, I thought, at last I can find out which German castle it is. But, alas - it is simply labelled as "Seaside Castle Germany". Nevermind: back to google...which seaside German castle?! A tangled web of links followed, which led finally to Mattijn's flickr page.

Mattijn is a very talented photoshopper - who specialises in nostalgic, fairytale visions of castles and vast over-sized scenery. I'm not sure if he is from Germany, but I want him to be - he has so much in common with the German tradition of the sublime as expounded by Kant ("might that has no dominion over us"; an object can create a fearfulness "without being afraid of it") and propounded by Caspar David Friedrich, in works like Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

Nevertheless, I felt cheated; stupid and cheated... The castle I had dreamt about visiting in the rain actually only exists in the mind of a photoshop artist. If you look more closely at the image, you will perhaps notice what I failed to: that it is something of an Escher conundrum. How could a sluice gate ever hold back the sea?? (you may also notice a cat on the wall and a figure staring out to sea in the far distance - Mattijn's trademarks) - I can't help but think that this cheated nonfulfillment is exactly what Wanderlust Europe engenders (quite apart from the question of why an artificial, manufactured image was doing there in the first place?) in its creation of a desire for a non-existent place and impossible experience.


  1. An update from Mattijn:

    "that was nice thanks, theres nothing German about this image its a city gate in the Netherlands it looks a bit different in reality, and im dutch also :)"

    All illusions now shattered - he's not even German...!!

    You can see the image itself on his photostream here:

  2. And a response from Wanderlust:

    "Thanks for pointing that out, I actually got it from another tumblr blog. And yes, it did look a bit “edited” to me, but you have to admit, it’s pretty fantastic. To each his own I suppose."