The Rückenfigur


Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist, 1818

Looking at paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and others, I always thought there must be a term that describes that figure with his back to us, contemplating the natural scene before him. And I was right, there is such a term, the German word Rückenfigur, or back figure (clearly the German word is better).

A Rückenfigur is ‘a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human.‘ (Elizabeth Prettejohn).

In Friedrich’s Romanticist work from the early 19th century, the new idea of Nature is the subject. Nature as a primal wilderness separate from Man was a concept that barely existed before that time, so Friedrich’s paintings were significant, depicting a sublime otherness which human beings must negotiate. See how the figure in his painting above is conspicuously clothed and even carries a walking stick. The two realms of Nature and Culture are confronted within the painting.

Nature ain’t what it used to be, so when Stephen Shore in the 1970s and Louis Porter in the 2000s focussed on the same topic (Porters’s image pays homage to Shore’s) nature is still the subject, but present only through its absence. And both photographers capture resignation and defeat in their rückenfigur figures.


Stephen Shore, El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975


Louis Porter, from Unknown Land, 2010

Porter and Shore

Louis Porter, from Unknown Land, 2010

Is there something familiar to you about this image of dreary suburban corner? It was taken by the brilliant Melbourne photographer Louis Porter who has a line in wry visual humour of a uniquely Australian kind. He focusses on the banal corners of everyday life but injects them with wit and sophistication.

Porter’s image is a take on Stephen Shore’s great photograph of a street corner in Texas. That image (below) was part of the currency of the postmodern debates of the 1980s about Culture and Nature (remember Baudrillard?). Clearly, nature was losing.

That lonely, neutered tree was an echo of the lonely, neutered man on the corner, his slumped shoulders denoting the exhaustion of the western male hero that the location – El Paso – evoked.

Porter’s image even lacks the tree, replaced by a garbage bin, or by the traffic sign. The resigned body language is the same though, the shambolic figure is at one with the landscape of suburbia.

Stephen Shore, El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975