Since 2006 Dutch photographer Witho Worms has been documenting coal slagheaps in Northern Europe—in Belgium and France, Germany, Wales, and Poland. He photographs them and then, using coal from the site, makes contact carbon prints from his negatives. (Carbon printing is a 19th-century photographic technique that employs pigmented gelatin in place of dyes or metals to create the image.) The prints are thus both image and substance, icon and index of the place.
He has now made images recording 69 locations. Though each image is similar to the others in format, composition and subject—a dark heap rising in the center, trailing at the edges, left and right—each is also quite specific. Some look primeval—a black mesa silhouetted against a brown sky. Others are shambolic, overgrown with scrub that nobody is minding, still others suggest a post-industrial dystopia, a cone of darkness looming over a dead landscape. The tone changes with the nature of the coal—some tend browner, some blacker, some greyer. All are soft and sooty.
Coal as a substance has resonance in Europe—the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, a flashpoint for environmental action, the reason East Berlin smelled different than West Berlin. What is now the European Union started out as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Coal is the blighter of landscapes and the creator of jobs, a filthy polluter and the glow in the hearth.
This ambivalence comes through in Worms’ pictures, unnatural in their symmetry but soft in their tone and focus. The romanticism that lurked beneath Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial typologies is made overt here—these are elegiac landscapes documenting the loss of nature and the death of industry. The strategy of making images of a place from the stuff of a place has been used before (by Richard Long, among others) often in a vaguely mystical nature-worshipping kind of way, but Worms is bracingly pragmatic. These things look like coal. For better and worse.