Ocean Noir About


Photographs of Waves at Night by RALF TOOTEN

The ocean can be a beast in the day time, but at night it becomes a near-mythical creature we can only guess at. It’s always been with us but it’s never been seen as in the new image series of German photographer Ralf Tooten who has been out on the beaches of Japan, Bali, Thailand, Malaysia and the Maldives in an on-going project to capture moments that have never been shot before.

Ever since his Bangkok Noir project (2007-2009), published as a bestselling book, Ralf Tooten has been interested in very low light photography. Bangkok Noir presented the Thai capital as a palette of colours and shadows, of the sharp angles of the city’s concrete canyons and skyscrapers and the soft contours and glowing tropical darkness of its demimonde.

Now Tooten’s visual narrative segues from the urban small hours into Waves at Night and breaches more abstract territory. His curiosity for the ocean at night is rooted in our inability to truly know the sea. He tells of moonless nights spent on beaches that could have been anywhere in the world, staring into near impenetrable darkness, broken only by rare wave crests glittering in the distance. To Tooten these moments represent an overwhelming triumph of nature, so grand in scale that it makes us reflect on our primal fear of the dark as we contemplate what lies beneath the black surface of the water. Tooten’s images send our imagination on a journey beyond our deepest, most personal frontiers, both mentally and physically.

The man Tooten loves to swim in the world’s oceans at night. The photographer Tooten, who trained with Clemens Hartzenbusch in Cologne in the late 1970s, started his career as a still photographer on the sets of Germany’s modern cinema classics such as The Tin Drum and is the winner of the prestigious Hasselblad Master Award in 2003. He has focused on architecture, portrait and landscape photography throughout his career. For his highly acclaimed Eye of Wisdom project, he travelled for six years to portray the inner realms of spiritual practitioners and leaders around the world, capturing their auras as much as their visions.

Away from the documentation of human endeavours, Tooten has been thinking about how to create images of the barely visible but incredibly powerful movement of the sea as a meditation on the darkest corners of our spirituality and primal impulses.

But until recently, cameras were unable to let us acquire images of near darkness. Film, limited in its ability to see nothingness much the same way as the human eye, can only decode the night with artificial light or long exposure times. Digital cameras are changing all that and Ralf Tooten has seized the new, quickly evolving technologies to create a kind of Ocean Noir, a minimalist visual language that describes moments at once familiar and completely alien, frozen into photographs yet replicating endlessly in our heads. In Waves at Night, the ever changing face and terrible power of the sea, its mystical depths and the rhythm of its tides – the ocean’s age old movement – is laid bare in the here and now.

Tooten is out there on the beaches of the seven seas, like a Flying Dutchman occasionally returning to higher ground with new visions of wave crests and breakers as they roll in from nowhere only to dissipate into nothing a few seconds later, seeking answers while posing questions. He expects his journey through the night and into the waves to continue.

Tom Vater

487 x 2023