EARLY WORK 1967-1990






























In 1786 Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, heads for the Italy he has been yearning to see since childhood.  He leaves behind his growing frustration with administrative work, a difficult love affair with Charlotte von Stein, and his lack of time for writing.
At the age of 37 he has become frustrated and divided against himself, overworked yet underachieving, disillusioned and depressed.  The gloom of northern skies further intensifies his personal darkness. 
At five o’clock in the morning on September 3rd, he leaves Carlsbad by stage coach.  He will travel to Eger, Regensburg, Munich, Bolzano, Malcesine, Verona, Padua, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, Perugia, Lojano, the Appenines, Assisi and Rome.
I have made precisely the same trip, visiting the same stations on exactly the same day as did the poet—only 223 years later.  Many of my photographs relate to Goethe’s text, while some do not.  Putting myself in the poet’s state of mind, I found other motifs he would have loved, but either didn't have the time to see or failed to mention.
My work on Italian Journey is a very personal portfolio.  It has not at all been my intention to produce a comprehensive account of Goethe’s book. 

Eric Klemm



by Gary Michael Dault

At 3 oclock in the morning on September 3, 1786, writer, artist and courtier, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, stealthily left Carlsbad and, in so doing, left behind civic responsibility, an unfortunate romantic entanglement with a married court lady, and a host of unfinished literary projects. I crept out of Carlsbad, Goethe noted in his journal, They wouldnt have let me go if I hadnt. He was 37, and he was in search of a larger worldwhich he hoped to find in Italyand the better part of himself.
In 2009, photographer Eric Klemm set out, alone, by car, eventually driving 8000 kilometres in a dedicated retracing of Goethes flight to Italy of 223 years before.
The photographs Klemm made during his pictorial recounting of Goethes journeywhile walking, as he puts it, in Goethes footstepsappear so effortless, so unmediated by any felt impediments of technique, so much like the simple, elemental act of seeing, that it is easy enough to forget that Klemm is really there at all.
The photographs look, in other words, like looking itself. As you can see, Goethe wrote from Venice to Charlotte von Stein, on the evening of October 3, Im just shooting everything on the wing. But, he continues, its caught for good in the perceptions of eye and heart. (1)
For Klemm, shooting everything on the wing was actually a matter of the most careful, painstaking preparation and performance: he had to make many of the architectural photographs (cathedrals, palaces), for example, during an almost impossibly narrow window of opportunityoften in the ten minutes between 6:00am and 6:10 amas a way of avoiding tourists. Always a perfectionist about lightand thus about atmosphere and, ultimately, meaningKlemm would sometimes have to set up his large format camera in the dark (when nothing at all could be seen on the ground glass and I felt essentially blind) and work with exposures that were as long as two minutes.
While it was never Klemms intention actually to illustrate Goethes self-realizing journey from Germany to Italy, his subtle sense of the way illumination affects interpretation works constantly, in these photographs, to provide atmospheric equivalents to the young German writers changing spirits as he heads south, leaving behind Carlsbads pewter-coloured skies, longing for enlightenmentsometimes literally (God grant me figs and grapes soon).
The photographs, therefore, look not like views but, rather, like the result of the considering gaze. When, in Verona on September 16, Goethe comments that I just wander round in my usual way taking a quiet look at everything, and I receive and retain a good impression, you feel that Klemm, too, looked quietly and well, all the while making photographs that look like studied considerations of a vista, rather than entrapments of itas with his exquisite photo-ruminations upon the grounds of the Villa Arvedi.
When, in Vicenza, Goethe comes upon his first building by Palladio (the Teatro Olimpico), he is first cautiously, then gloriously smitten (There really is something divine in his talents, its absolutely the power of a great poet who makes truth and untruth and makes some third thing from them that entrances us). Documenting the sites that have quickened so many othersand Goethe in particularto rapturous response is surely a problem of considerable photographic subtlety.
Klemms solution is to position himself like a spectator, full of inquiring regard for what he sees rather than a confident encompassing of it. Looking at Klemm seeing for the first time, you also feel Goethe seeing for the first time. In Venice on October 14, Goethe remarks of a building (the Carita) by Palladio, You could spend years contemplating works like this. Even to hint, photographically speaking, at such commitment, requires some pictorial way of opening a site to its intellectual depth, as well as to its historical presence and importance.
To photograph Venicegiven the millions who already haveis probably at best foolhardy, at worst dangerous. Goethe, howeverwho might reasonably have felt a similar (albeit cameraless) sense of over-touristed anxietyseems to have been blithely undaunted by his newness to La Serenissima. He calls himself a northern fugitive, but he is far too eager for what Venice can teach him to be cowed by his own inexperience. Like any respectable visitor to the city, he hires a gondolaand promptly writes a page and a half of sonic analysis in his journal, about the how the songs of the gondoliers carry so enticingly across the lagoon (the further they are apart, the more charming their song is; if the listener is between the two then hes in the best place).
And how is Eric Klemms Goethean Venice? Silvery and timeless, greyer than tourists like (tourists like blue sky). His Doges Palace, his St. Marks, his Salute (one example of bad taste after another), his Florians seem to look pretty much the same to him as they must have looked to the great poet. Ive been in Venice just this short while, Goethe writes on October 10, and all Venetian existence is as much part of me as if Id been here twenty years. There is in Eric Klemms Venetian photos, as well, a sense of having settled in, of deliberation, of claiming. To have shown Venice as mere splendour would have been distinctly un-Goethe-like; instead, Klemm pictures the city as a slow, sensuous fantasythe stuff of rumination, not acquisition.
Rome is as difficult to photograph as Venice is, but in a different wayjust as visiting Rome was, for Goethe, a distinctly different experience from that of visiting Venice. Roman history, he notes, is starting to feel as if I was there when it happened.
Goethe stands at a bit of a distance from Rome. So does Eric Klemm. On May 24, 1788, Goethe writes, bemusedly, to his old friend, Carl Ludwig Knebel, In Rome not a stone was looked at that wasnt shaped. Form, he tells Knebel, had driven out all interest in matter. So too, is Klemms Goethean Rome a rather wary triumph of monumental form over the humanizing detailas of the eternal city were becoming just a shade more eternal than was entirely good for it.
While it is true that Eric Klemm undertook to follow in Goethes footsteps from Carlsbad to Rome, but without any desire to actually illustrate Goethes account of his sojourning, the fact remains that in these splendid photographsso full of longing and the need for wanderingthere is an inescapable, persuasive sense that text and images continually echo and enrich one another. If only they could really have traveled together!
Sometimes they seemed pretty close to it. At the close of his journey, Klemm wrote me to say how, waiting in Frankfurt for his flight back home to Vancouver, he saw his imaginary travel companion at the airports Goethe Bar, sitting on a rock, larger than life, made out of plaster, after the famous J.H.W. Tischbein painting (Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787). It suddenly felt as if he were a dear friend, one whom I knew very well, all his affairs, his weaknesses and his passions. For more than two months I had seen the phenomenal world with his loving eye, trying to find and capture what is left that he may have seen and what he would have loved to see.

1) The Goethe text quoted in this essay is from T.J. Reeds translation in Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).