CAMBRIDGE — “Compass Points” is a good title for Joël Tettamanti’s photography show, which runs at the MIT Museum through Aug. 31. It includes landscapes or cityscapes from Greenland, Iceland, Israel, South Korea, China, Luxembourg, Niger, Vietnam, Greece, Togo, and French Polynesia. He doesn’t so much box the compass as commandeer it.
“Compass Points” could also serve as title for a Tettamanti biography. Born in in 1977, in Cameroon, he was raised in Lesotho and Switzerland, worked in Paris, and now lives in Switzerland again. His considerable experience of the diversity of place informs “Compass Points” to absorbing effect.
The show consists of 74 photographs and four videos. All are in color. Most aren’t framed. They don’t need to be, they hold the wall so strongly.
What interests Tettamanti is the intersection between human settlement and the natural world. Sometimes that settlement can be very settled indeed, as with Seoul. Other places are barely inhabited, such as Greenland. He relishes turning your expectations on their side — where you’d expect an intersection to form a T, so to speak, he presents it as an X. The foreground of one of the Seoul pictures is a sea of greenery. “Qaqortoq, Greenland” shows a spill of habitations covering a snowy hillside; they look like nothing so much as a scattering of Legos. Tettamanti makes you want to go to Greenland — not stay there, but definitely visit.
Hardly any of these photographs have people in them (one of the Greenland pictures does have some dogs in it, though you have to look closely to pick them out). Evidence of human habitation there is aplenty. A couple of walls of the exhibition are taken up with gridded displays of oddly shaped structures. They recall the taxonomies of industrial architecture that Bernd and Hilla Becher specialized in. Tettamanti also shares to some degree the Bechers’ innate sense of order.
There are two key differences. The Bechers were devoted to black and white (it lent an abstract, even scholarly quality to their work). Tettamanti’s images here are unthinkable in black and white. He uses color to marvelous, and marvelously unemphatic, effect. Color also counters what would seem to be a certain aloofness. It’s not just that Tettamanti tends to photograph his subjects from a distance. He feels them from a distance, too. These pictures are two — no, three — steps away from feeling antispectic.
The other difference with the Bechers is that what interested them was types: the repetition of patterns. Particularity attracts Tettamanti. Those eccentric structures are arrayed as they are in the show because aspects of their appearance chime (sharply pointed eaves, steeplelike excrescences), but the overall effect is to underscore the singularity of each edifice.
Tettamanti’s relationship to the Bechers is something you have to think about and it’s brought out by the way Gary Van Zante, who curated the show, has hung the images. All you need is just to look at individual pictures to see Tettamanti’s relationship to another photographer, Edward Burtynsky. It’s there in the cool coloration, the interrogation of humanity’s relationship with the environment, the slightly sci-fi sense born of the collision between the futuristic and the banal. But there’s often a prosecutorial element to Burtynsky’s work. Tettamanti always remains detached. That detachment combines with the visual clarity of these images for an oddly elusive effect. These photographs spin you around while seeming to stand still.
The other difference with Burtynsky is size. Although the gridded pictures are smallish, 10 inches by 11 inches, some of Tettamanti’s other pictures are big, 32 inches by 39 inches. But that’s not Burtynsky big. Monumentality is as much his trademark as grids are the Bechers’. Scale is never Tettamanti’s primary concern. (If Burtynsky is Rodin-heroic, Tettamanti is Donatello-supple.) Spirit of place is his grail. What makes this show so utterly arresting is the vigor with which Tettamanti pursues that spirit, and in so many places, while just as vigorously refusing to force a definition of it.
Tettamanti will be taking part in a round-table discussion at the Swiss consulate, in Cambridge, on April 23.