Paolo Pellegrin’s Photographic Quest for the Sublime @NewYorker
At 2:30 a.m., on January 10th, Paolo Pellegrin, the Italian photographer and winner of ten World Press Photo awards, was loading his gear into the back of a Toyota truck on the edge of the Namib Desert.
The sky was a void except for millions of stars. With the aid of a headlamp, Pellegrin fumbled through his bag.
He pulled out a small plastic vial of medicine, broke off the top, and put a drop in each eye. “I almost never forget this,” he told me.
“To find silence, you need silence,” Pellegrin had observed, and as we drove in darkness no one spoke.
After a half-mile hike, we reached the edge of the Deadvlei Pan. Here, a thousand years ago, a river snaked from the Naukluft Mountains, through the desert, to the Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles west.
A grove of trees developed taproots, pushing a hundred feet down into the sand to search for water as the river disappeared.
Then, six or seven hundred years ago, there was no more water to reach.
The trees died, but the roots were so deep, and the air so dry, that they stayed standing, mummified, atop a layer of solid white clay, in a basin of bright-orange dunes.
Pellegrin hesitated for a moment at the edge of the clay. “It’s not a silent silence—it’s very pregnant,” he said.
He crept toward the middle of the pan to study the shape of the trees. Jagged, broken, towering, ancient—“a sacred little graveyard for all time,” he said.
An order of “Rembrandt!” meant to cast the light diagonally down and across the face, so that one side was illuminated and the other was in muted shadow, hidden by the bridge of the nose, except for a streak of soft white light across the eye.
a Russian oligarch taught him how to construct memory palaces, placing individual thoughts in an imaginary, three-dimensional space, to be retrieved at will.
“there exists within the fields of mathematics and philosophy what is called the ‘infinite monkey theorem,’ stating that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter given an infinite amount of time will eventually write the completed works of William Shakespeare.”
But in 2017 he spent a month flying over Antarctica, with a group of nasa pilots and scientists, and found that the scale, the emptiness, and the infinite took over his mind.
a recognition that one is “helpless against the might of nature, dependent, abandoned to chance, a vanishing nothing in the face of enormous powers,” as one of Pellegrin’s favorite philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote, in “The World as Will and Representation,” in 1818.
He has sweated through forests and jungles, and destroyed two cameras while photographing winter storms on a beach in Iceland, as huge, freezing waves crashed against the rocks at his feet.
“It’s such a privilege, really, to be so close to something so powerful, so raw, and to feel and get a whiff of it—even be touched by it—and still get away,” Pellegrin told me.
“I’m really not going there to take pretty pictures,” he insisted. “I’m looking for, well—I don’t know what, exactly.” He paused and exhaled slowly, and then the idea arrived. “I’m searching for the sublime.”
An hour before sunset, we set off with a local guide into the Kalahari dunes, stained red by iron oxide.
The dunes begin in South Africa and extend beyond the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, he explained—but the patterns of the dunes hardly change.
Through artistic expression, Luigi instructed his children, “you have to pay for the oxygen you breathe.”
“There’s this Robert Capa quote—‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,’ ” he told me.
“Very true! It always comes back to reducing or annulling distance. But that is only part of the equation. The other part is that if you’re not good enough, then you’re not reading enough.
And the idea there is that photography is not actually about taking pictures—taking pictures is incidental. It’s a by-product, in a sense, of everything else. What you’re really doing is giving form—photographic form—to a thought, to an opinion, to an understanding of the world, of what is in front of you. And so if we think in these terms, then you have to improve the quality of your thoughts.”
For five years, Pellegrin studied and practiced on the streets of Rome. He was drawn to the fringes and the forgotten, the lives of drifters, circus performers, Roma families, and the city’s unhoused.
Through his lens—and through images often printed in Newsweek and the Times Magazine—viewers saw Yasir Arafat, Muammar Qaddafi, Kate Winslet, the body of the Pope.
Another time, he was trekking through a remote jungle in the Republic of the Congo with a local anthropologist in search of what they believed to be a tribe that had had almost no contact with the outside world; suddenly, a group of children ran toward them, shouting greetings in Mandarin.
Later, Pellegrin and the reporter Scott Anderson, a longtime collaborator of his, spent several days in Siberia with two hulking Russian brothers, neither of whom spoke English.
One night, after lighting a campfire, one of the Russians procured a short-wave radio. “Louis Armstrong,” he noted, as “What a Wonderful World” rattled through the tiny speaker. “Yes, yes!” Pellegrin said.
“My first four years of Magnum, I was unstoppable,” he continued. “But so was he—this darkness on the periphery.” The glaucoma’s progression mirrored his own, and he was too negligent or busy to address it
Today, Pellegrin speaks of blindness as a kind of spectral presence in his mind—not because it is imminent but because for nearly as long as he has been a professional photographer he has been grappling with the implications of what it would mean if it were.
He found inspiration in a passage about a group of devoted calligraphers in Orhan Pamuk’s novel “My Name Is Red.”
“They would copy the Quran with beautiful, meticulous handwriting, all of their lives,” he told me. “And to go blind, at the end of their lives, was seen as the completion of their opus, their life’s work. They had spent all of themselves and all of their vision.” He added, “They gave their eyes to God.”
“Guarda l’eleganza e la perfezione del disegno, delle forme,” Pellegrin said—“Look at the elegance and the perfection of the design, of the forms.”
The slopes of the sand were in some places so smooth and evenly lit that you could not make out the shape of the curves. It was constantly changing, particle by tiny particle, and “yet it is always perfect,” Pellegrin said.
Always a different shape, never a wrong one. The American poet A. R. Ammons observed in his book “Sphere,” from 1974, that “the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god.”
. “How do you render an experience of the sublime? You address the idea of infinity,” he said. “Now the macro can become the micro, and vice versa. Space becomes a mental state.”
In one of the most striking images, a mountain ridge appears as a scar in the snow, a mere slice in the white vastness.
“I wanted to make a picture like a Fontana cut,” he said, referring to Lucio Fontana, the Argentine-Italian painter who in the nineteen-fifties began slashing his canvases.
Fontana’s process required gruelling preparation; the outcome looked as if it had been done in one stroke.
“They think it’s easy to make a cut or a hole,” Fontana once said. “But it’s not true. You have no idea how much stuff I throw away.”
We set off north, through Namibia’s desolate Skeleton Coast. More than a thousand shipwrecks litter these sands, from as far back as 1530.
Local bushmen refer to this vast patch of desert and fog and surf as “the land God made in anger”; to Portuguese mariners it was “the Gates of Hell.”
Abandoned whaling stations rust in the sun, and jackals tread carefully amid the ruins of metal and shattered glass. Some bottles are still corked, with rancid booze.