What forces a man from a flat country to travel to the other side of the world? To drive on highways that melt into the horizon to reach the prairie and canyons? To go back for the second, fifth, and seventh time? “It is recognized at first sight,” the photographer Kaupo Kikkas answers. A strong feeling that grew from a brief attraction has drawn him back again and again to the landscapes he calls his cathedrals. This journey lasted eight years, however, Kaupo is not sure it has ended. These places were different from what he had imagined. His expectations had been influenced by wildlife films with wide brush strokes: an abundance of animals, birds, insects, scents, and sounds. Certainly, they were all there, but different moods prevailed. Low in color, simple and rough. A lizard slipping under the gravel. Air rippling above a salt bog. A pine tree thousands of years old.
Photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) traveled in these landscapes in western America in his time. Kaupo literally started his journey in the footsteps of Adams. He wanted to see the places on Adams’ famous photos and a mountain top named after him in Yosemite National Park. Over the years, however, he realized that he has a path of his own and that he had to continue from where Adams had left off. And take pictures. In places two thousand meters above as well as sixty meters below sea level. In the morning and in the evening. When heavy hail falls from the sky and when an upright rainbow rises from the ground. A slice of sunlight, waves of sand, rocky outcrops, some of them like superior sanctuaries, others like collapsed and crashed battlefields – in his pictorial language Kaupo remained true to the same values that had immediately also attracted him in Adams. However, his content is gloomier, pertinent to our days. “My Ansel is not only landscapes,” Kaupo says. “It is a story of man’s relationship with nature. Of human activity which is about to make life on Earth impossible. And although these images have an apocalyptic air to them, I am convinced that nature will win in the end; a fantastic transformer, it will come out as a winner from this dramatic final round. These landscapes were here 500 million years before the arrival of man and they will remain after the last of us is gone. Rock art of ancient peoples might be the best part of the testament of humankind.”
Kaupo first learned about Ansel Adams’ in a second-hand book store in London – a name on the cover of the photo album, The Spirit of Wild Places. Ninety-seven black-and-white landscape photographs on coated paper traveled back home to Estonia with the teenage boy. He now started to study these with the same enthusiasm he had been reading the volumes of the Estonian Soviet Encyclopaedia. There was a sentence in this new “scripture” that especially fascinated him: Grey tones in photography are like piano keys in music: they are the same to everyone, but only a few can make them ring. When Kaupo speaks about Adams in his lectures to photographers these days, he begins by saying that Adams was an advocate of monumental landscape photography at a time when pictorialism as a fashion movement favored technical deception and stagedness; that he initiated a movement called F64 (the name comes from the minimum shutter aperture of a camera lens that gives a photograph a maximum depth of field); that he was an introvert, but passionate when he needed to speak out and take responsibility. And that during his lifetime the work of one of the most respected photographers today was criticized for being naïve and illustrative, claiming that nature cannot be his art. Kaupo’s discovery of Adams’ album was followed the beeping sounds of the modem and, to his parent's dismay, a constantly busy phone line, because this was a window to Adams’ homeland, the United States. Kaupo had traveled there before, at quite a young age when his mother and father had returned from a choir tour to the United States, bringing chewing gum and telling wonderful stories about the opulent shelves of grocery stores. America appeared on grained, dull and yellowish diapositives, as if soaked in cognac and Kogel mogel, projected onto the living room wall of their home in Nõmme, Tallinn. After reading several biographies and watching several documentaries about Adams, Kaupo’s strange sense of closeness to the photographer only strengthened, especially when he learned about Adams’ interrupted career as a pianist. Kaupo too had started piano studies at the Tallinn Music High School and later chose clarinet as his major. He has described performing in a crowded concert hall as an experience beyond reason. This, however, is only the romantic side of the life of a musician, with stage anxiety and blood pressure surges, practice routine, and sacrifices as its downsides. Kaupo realized that he could not translate his love into work as passionately as he should. He dreaded the idea of having to play the second clarinet in a piece
that did not fascinate him enough. When the time came to choose between the academy of music and photography studios, the latter proved more powerful. He is still surrounded by a lot of music, portraying musicians in London, Berlin, New York, and elsewhere. “Yet this gap left by not making music yourself cannot be filled with anything really,” Kaupo says. “But I am still a musician in my heart, and no-one can take that love away from me. My instrument is my camera.” As his first symbolic work, Kaupo photographed his former clarinet teacher.
Kaupo compares portraying of people with ensemble playing of chamber musicians. Giving and taking, trust, and proximity are inevitable. His last extremely voluminous project was a collection of portraits for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, The Story of One Hundred, which involved a hundred people living in Estonia (the oldest of them aged 101), representing various fields: a choreographer, a housewife, and a space lawyer among others.
Besides people, the other important keyword in Kaupo’s work is nature, especially trees, and their constellations that matter to him for one reason or another, be it an ancient sacred site or a random thicket. Split growth rings of a tree trunk, light shining through skeletons of leaves, and silent networks make us wonder whether these are canopies or roots. The Treescape series combines photography with wood from old houses, destined for destruction. These are not ordinary frames or trims, but part of the work itself. Kaupo treats nature as a human being, with compassion and respect, seeking character and trying to find sensitive angles to bring out the unique beauty of the place. There are many short words to describe his distant landscapes. Dark, steep, bright, bare, sharp, wide. Width, hope, fall. Solitude.
Apart from the reserved palette, black and white, and all the gray tones between these two extremes, these landscapes have something else that sets their tone. Silence. A special matte stillness. The muteness of latitudes, without a single wing flap of a bird.
As he walked on Adams’ tracks, it started to crystallize in Kaupo’s head how music might look – in trees, sand, and rock. He heard in his mind music by Arvo Pärt, one of the most important and dearest composers to him, whom he has also repeatedly photographed. “Pärt’s music is often outside of space. There is a lot of air in it, but this emptiness is intense,” Kaupo explains. This discovery has also filled his story with silence. It is dark and personal. It is purifying and hope-instilling. Like washing your eyes with ice-cold water.