Having worked together on joint photographic projects since 2001, Leenders and Giesen combine an impressive inventiveness with considerable technical expertise to create an utterly convincing and yet knowingly enigmatic photographic oeuvre. In their most recent series, produced during a month-long artist’s residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, they photograph themselves as lone characters in magnificent landscapes.
Unlike many other photographs of the vast expanses of rural America, however, these enigmatic images all contain what Roland Barthes described as the ‘punctum’, the compelling part of an image which remains both a focus for our attention and a conundrum, resistant to pre-determined narratives and suppositions. Using the huge contrast in scale, Leenders and Giesen place themselves almost as miniature characters in their photographs, so that viewers have to work hard to identify the solitary figure in each large print.
Perhaps alluding to literary narratives about the perils of imagined or actual travel and the experience of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings, the diminutive figures in this series find themselves surrounded by a vast landscape. It is as if we are suddenly immersed in the travels of Lemuel Gulliver, but whether these are minute characters in a Lilliputian world or we are unwittingly positioned as huge Brobdingnagian giants, looking at these lone figures means nothing is quite what it seems.
From our knowledge of the artist duo’s work, we recognise that they always use themselves as photographic models but the major difference in this series is that the characters are miniscule in comparison to the massive landscape surrounding them. We discover what appears to be a tiny cowboy carrying a tree in a field of wheat, whilst another shot depicts a pensive Caspar David Friedrich-like figure gazing at the valley fog in the moonlight. Unlike their previous series, these images are site-specific, as the artists respond to actual locations on the West coast.
Leenders and Giesen invite the viewer to be attentive, not only to the visual look of their perfectly choreographed mise-en-scenes, but also the diverse cultural influences that make up Western shared cultural memory. There is something ominous and foreboding in the shot of a woman in a wheelchair on top of a cliff, perhaps an oblique reference to ‘Rear Window’. Once we have identified the characters, we are invited to read these shots as if they were stills in an engrossing film, a cinematic encounter without an apparent narrative.