Equipped with a Leica SL, Cornelia Thonhauser took photographs in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Haunting, evocative and full of mystique, her long-term project, Hidden Hills, documents the lost spirituality of this place. In this interview, she explains how she managed in the extreme heat; and how, when working with a wide-angle lens, you need to be wary of the dust, and also of snakes.
How did you come up with the idea for Hidden Hills?
This project developed very organically, over the years. Since the first time I was in the Sonoran Desert, I was impressed by the many details of this ecstatic landscape, along with its colours and, of course, the light. Everything appears very archaic and mystical; and there is a particular atmosphere of heat, death and decay. There are instances where this pristine nature encounters the artificially idyllic concept of the modern suburb with its gated communities. They seem to celebrate their own (escape) mythology: a frivolous form of survival in this potentially fatal paradise. Both worlds were very inspiring for my spirit and my eyes.
How did you start working on the project?
At the beginning I simply took pictures. I drove around all day, collecting and then staging many objects I found out in nature. It was a phase of fascination and openness; I didn’t yet know what I was searching for. Over time, this process, as well as the research I was doing for the work, became more targeted. Photographically speaking, I increasingly turned more towards nature, which is something I continue to pursue intensively. A photo book titled Hidden Hills has been put together, and it includes the first part of my work in the desert. It was developed together with Studio Last in Berlin, and hopefully will appear this year.
What is it about the Sonoran Desert that makes it such a special place?
For me, the spiritual atmosphere is connected with the cultural heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Sonoran landscape. Nature here often feels as though it’s charged: it’s a stretch of land that has been inhabited by the Native American people for thousands of years; where mountains and animals were honoured with ceremonies. Unfortunately, this dimension has faded a lot today. Unlike in NYC or L.A., here in Arizona I felt a certain split in American society and cultural development for the first time; a certain loss of roots. Photographing in nature was and is for me a desire to express a kind of lost spirituality.
What impressed you most?
The light, the colours, the sky, the fascinating process of decomposition of cacti. Also, of course, the extreme primitiveness of the landscape, paired with capitalistic excess and the raw cowboy mentality.
In your project description, you mention an artificially-created Arcadia…
There are many places there – private housing estates and streets – with ‘magical’ names, such as Paradise Valley, Mirage Mountain, and Desert Orchid, just to mention a few. They immediately evoke ideas like a kind of film script, an escapism. In addition, these places are adorned with lots of fountains, artificial lakes and waterways, making the settings look like staged oases. If you consider the history of this area and the Gila River, the sight is somewhat uncomfortable. In the 19th century, European settlers redirected the waters of the river, cutting off the Pima and Maricopa tribal settlements from their elixir of life. As a consequence, their long and successful agriculture and trading structures were largely wiped out, and they were left behind in a dry valley.
Which camera and lenses did you work with and how did you manage with the equipment?
With the Leica SL and primarily the zoom lens. The Leica SL is a great camera. Though it’s heavier and larger than the cameras I normally use, it was still very easy to work with; and I always found it very special to look through the viewfinder. Furthermore, the camera has a strong presence, and people often asked me about it. It conveys a feeling of importance and respect in regard to photography and its history.
Technically-speaking, were there any difficult situations?
Physically-speaking, the heat is always a challenge and, of course, demands a lot from the equipment. The dust also means that you have to take a lot of care of the sensor, especially when changing lenses outdoors. However, as long as you pay attention to that, and also don’t step on snakes or Cholla cacti, then everything works really well.
Your pictures appear very mystical – did you photograph at a particular time of day?
I photograph at every possible time of day, but it is true that I prefer the evening hours. In particular, the brief time just after sunset, when everything is bathed in a blue glow, and many of the cacti, with their fine thorns, appear very soft. There is a whole chapter in my book that contains only this special evening and night time atmosphere.
Is there something particular you want your pictures to evoke in the viewer?
A deeper way of looking at nature and its details. And I also want this work to establish a connection to a wider social dimension.
What characteristics should a photographer have?
Of course, it depends on the work approach and the subject; but you should like and be ready to move around a lot on your feet. It’s only when you walk that you discover the world and its nuances. You also need openness, to enjoy experimenting, and, above all, to have patience.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
At the beginning there’s an idea, and then I just start experimenting. I go on a visual search. At this point I’m very open, and try out a lot with the camera, with materials, and also with the colours of the first edit of the pictures. I used to photograph a lot more; but, with time, I’ve become more targeted, and I also do more research. In the next phase, I do a more precise edit and I give the pictures a certain look. This is where I often discover visual surprises, which I couldn’t have imagined before. That, in turn, inspires me to find more pictures; to fill the series with whatever is still ‘missing’. For Hidden Hills, I took some supplementary photos, while I was editing the book. Editing demands the most time and often presents the biggest challenges. It is a very slow process; but also very fulfilling, as the work begins to take shape and the superfluous falls away. And the testing of papers and the printing have also become very important and require a lot of attention.
What inspires you?
Reading a lot, photo books, films, light and colour. Yet, inspiration comes in all kinds of moments. I love to see and listen to things. I make a lot of room for these things in my life.
Please complete the sentence: Photography is…
…my way of moving around in the world, and connecting with people. At times it is therapeutic.
Cornelia Thonhauser was born in Vienna. She is an interdisciplinary artist, whose work oscillates between photography, video and multimedia projects. She has an MA in History of Art from the UCL London, and studied Photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig. Her pictures and film work for fashion and multimedia performances have appeared worldwide in magazines, galleries and at SoundArt festivals. The main theme of her photographic work is the desert in the American West, which she sees as a source of geological and anthropological exploration. Hidden Hills, her first book dedicated to this work, will appear in 2021. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram channel.