The world of long-distance running has remained alien to me throughout my life. I was never addicted to pain and the joy of the often rumored adrenaline rush was always denied to me. The first time I was interested in long-distance running was with Alan Sillitoe’s story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of the story. We read the story at some point in English class, and then we saw the film too. I know I liked both. It was a pleasant encounter with long-distance running that could be experienced sitting. I think we were told at the time that the long-distance run at Sillitoe was a metaphor for life, maybe that’s the way it is, although at most a metaphor for a life full of agony and privation, as the first-person narrator seemed to endure.
My next noteworthy encounter with long-distance running took place many years later: in Berlin. There, the running route of the annual marathon doesn’t go far past our apartment. And every now and then I would visit the track and watch the runners. Almost forced, because a marathon route represents an almost insurmountable obstacle. The never-ending masses of runners keep you from getting to the seemingly so close opposite side of the street. A marathon run is a traffic-technical obstacle, in order to get from a to b, it requires ingenious planning and in-depth knowledge of the local conditions. So now I stood on the side of the road and watched the thousands of runners who all had one goal: to successfully cover the 42.195 kilometers. I looked into the faces of the runners, watched their posture while running, tried to assess how much some of them were already reaching their limits. But what surprised me most was that the marathons didn’t seem like a lonely, solitary undertaking, as I had actually expected. The runners seemed to experience a community experience, they ran together, people talked to each other, waved to the audience, and wore funny costumes.
And at some point I started taking photos at the Berlin Marathon. Somehow I had in mind to depict the pain, the suffering, but also the joy and communal experience of the runners. But actually I didn’t really succeed – and it soon seemed too boring to me. But then I found the place where the fire brigade had installed hoses that were used to spray water onto the running track. The runners could run under the jet of water and cool off. And instead of documenting the suffering and joy of the runners, I tried to give my pictures an abstract, alienated impression – and that means for the next three hours during which I didn’t move. What I mean by that is the following:
First: The splashing water, the spots of light and the shadows leave a graphic, artificial effect, create abstract structures. The drops and splashes that sparkle in the light, the shadows of the feet and the body create an unreal, graphic visual language.
Second: The silhouettes of the bodies in the backlight look like stylized archetypes of runners. The frozen gestures – the head thrown back, the tense muscles, the arms outstretched in the air, the hands turned towards the water – all these are more superficial elements that tell nothing really about the hardship of physical exertion.
This abstract character of the photos helped me to realize: marathon and photography represent, so to speak, two diametrically opposed concepts: movement on the one hand – freezing one movement on the other. Duration on the one hand – fraction of a second on the other. Physicality on the one hand – purely external aesthetics on the other. When we look at the pictures, we continue the movements in our minds: the foot is about to touch the ground – the water is about to splash up – the runner will put one foot behind the other, many thousands more times. The picture shows statics, our perception, but our experience expects movement.
My pictures tell nothing about pain, nothing about suffering, nothing about happiness, nothing about the adrenaline rush. I have come no closer to understanding what makes running a marathon so fascinating. But I have produced a series of photos which, in their alienation, in their abstraction, represent a gimmick with the visual elements of a marathon run. After all.
Jürgen Bürgin (2013)