On Joachim Koester's, Message From Andrée
"Memory has a spottiness," wrote John Updike, "as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it." There are moments when we close our eyes and a picture comes to us in pieces, bits of darkness hovering within the light as we wait for the whole image to illuminate. The act of remembering is similar to the act of photographing – it is the ability to capture a scene, to have an occasion leave its stain. Our mind waits for the light to happen, and so does the photographer.
Message From Andrée is not an illumination, but a fading. In July of 1897, three men set out in a hydrogen balloon, hovering over the Arctic to examine the North Pole. Engineer Knut Fraenkel, photographer Nils Strindberg, and expedition leader Salomon August Andrée lifted off unaware that their flight would come to a standstill only 295 miles (475 km) away. Fifty-one hours in flight, the crew had to make an emergency landing due to inclement weather and high winds as the balloon became encased in ice within an aerial fog. They touched down upon the frozen sea, and though no longer in flight, the mass below their feet was drifting with the current. After gathering up their belongings they continued on foot, first east and then west, with the hope of finding salvation and of making discoveries along the way. Photographer Nils Strindberg continued to document their journey, capturing their memories, their longings; of a desire to be found, and if not, to be remembered.
Leaving in July meant that the Arctic sky was in full sunlight twenty-four hours a day, but as they perished in October, three months later, their last sights were of a perpetual twilight as the sun remained just below the horizon. While their bodies froze so did time, and when they were discovered thirty-three years later, five rolls of film were also found, some frames still discernable – Andrée and Fraenkel standing beside the grounded balloon; hovering over a hunted polar bear; pushing and pulling their boat upon a sled. But other memories of what happened had faded. The Arctic environment had taken on the qualities of the pictures, capturing the feeling of the unknown, and their attempts in charting a brutal landscape.
Compiling the blemished stills, Danish artist Joachim Koester created a 16mm film to re-tell Andrée’s story and his journey into a white abyss. The ghostly voyage flickers in and out of focus, showing the “spottiness of memory” and the fading of history. Silent visual noise, the blurs and protoplasm of what we imagine to be figures, snow, light becoming darkness, becomes the only evidence of wonder, of nightmares endured, and of those horrors transformed back into dreams.