Neither Here Nor There
Photographers were required to provide equally the neutral accuracy of the photographic trace, the show-window spectacle of the exotic, and the epiphanous engagement with the sacred. Each of these effects was expected to carry viewers beyond their everyday existences and yet confirm their most central assumptions concerning the word in general and the non-European world in particular. [From Travelling Light by Peter Osbourne]
The above quotation lays out some of the high expectations of Victorian commercial travel photography, whilst also hinting at Ninetieth Century fascinations, desires and obsessions. Such aspirations are all woven into Mountains of Kong by Jim Naughten — not only in subject matter, but also in medium and how one looks at the photographs. Tapping into the wonder and magic of the time, Mountains of Kong takes the viewer on a journey to a mythical mountain range in Africa. Historical descriptions of these fertile lands were lush and hallucinogenic, described by a series of Chinese whispers that became all the more paradisiacal with each Western explorer’s version. Gold and scarlet rivers and trees existed on cerulean mountains where the luscious vegetation jostled with fantastical beasts. Human desire for mythical kingdoms and the creatures that inhabit them are plentiful in literature and folk lore: from the hanging gardens of Babylon and Atlantis, to more contemporaneous beasts such as the Loss Ness Monster and of course King Kong. Such desires continue the promise of a Shangri La, or the capturing of mythical untameable animals that seem locked forever in our imaginations and cultural consciousness.
What makes the ‘real’ Mountains of Kong different was they existed on maps of West Africa right up until the 1880s. They did not come from the imagination of popular adventure novels by authors such as H. Rider Haggard or
Jules Verne, but were instead marked and mapped by cartographers, a fact that gave them the authority of truth. Similar expectations were (and still are) also made of photography, but as the above quote suggests photography also has to entertain, and in the 19th Century, it had to take the viewer far away from damp and miserable English winters into exotic lands that were simultaneously known and not known.
Nobody grasped photography’s ability to entertain more than one of its first inventors Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), who neatly double backs into this tale by being a key developer of the diorama theatre: a key development in three dimensional viewing of still images for mass entertainment invented earlier in the century. In these photographs Naughten has photographed dioramas in museums in both Europe and the US, taking artificial scenes that often don’t quite add up and presenting them as ‘scientific’ proof of the Mountains of Kong. Naughten is exploring and reinventing the fabled mountain range questioning the veracity of the photograph; the authenticity of map making; the fantastical desires for reality and fantasy; and the malleability of history. He ties these investigations back into a key moment of photographic history by making the images stereoscopic and thus echoing the excitement not only of the explorations and literature of the time, but also the wonders of the new invention of photography that was able to dazzle and amuse viewers with its transformative ability to turn photography three dimensional.
Breathing fresh life into the myth of the Mountains of Kong, Naughten is a modern day explorer filled with the same thrill of the chase and desire for the exotic as those ninetieth century heroes that filled the pages of Lost World Novels. His work holds the same excitement and wonder as early travel photographs. As we look at these three dimensional colourful worlds we know in our heart of hearts they are not real, just as a journey to the centre of the earth is impossible, but for a tiny moment, we hope it could be true.