The American Prints
(reflections on The American Prints of Bert Keller)

Dear Bert,

I’m in a peculiar state of mind (not to mention jet lagged) after viewing your work. ‘The American Prints’ elicits both terrible and beautiful responses in me: a veritable stream of realizations, connections, experiences and thoughts. For weeks I have been sorting these out and now, on this bonus day in leap year, I want to send you what I’ve written about ‘The American Prints’.


On August 26, 1976 I found myself aboard an Amtrak train headed from San Antonio, Texas to San Francisco, California, a three days journey away. Together with a girlfriend I traveled across the United States of America for a period of six months. Gerald Ford was still president, Jimmy Carter was just warming up. The vastness and sheer excess of pure nature overwhelmed me, even more than the immensity (and ugliness) of the towns and cities.

We had already had an almost three hour delay before the train departed and now it had come to a complete standstill for more than an hour in the swelteringly hot, uninhabited landscape of New Mexico. A new engine was supposedly on the way. An earnest-looking black conductor shuffled slowly down the aisle calming passengers and dispensing assurances as he went in a heavy southern drawl.
“Are we still on time, sir?” an elderly lady asked.
“Thank the Lord, ma’am, we always on time!”


 If we want to escape from the monotony of our daily lives we go on a trip. It’s a vacation when we’re in another country, in a differently arranged space. We’re free from work and living solely and purely for our own experiences.

The world has become a collection of places of interest. “Been there, seen it”. Not only artifacts, but above all, images accompany the traveler on his or her journey home. Thanks to the airplane, the world has been opened and made accessible. Formerly explorers, we have become consumers of the world. Even old images of the world have become collector’s items; it will never be the same again.
Not only do we dig up older and older skulls, we also want to know what the former owner has seen. Skeletons become reconstructions. We reassemble our collective memory sliver by sliver into a global worldview.

You know, Bert, I still travel now and then, but actually there’s no need for it any more. Day and night the world is projected into my room with the speed of TV and the internet, that which at one time I could only read, is now being Oscar-winning imprinted on my mind.


 Your ‘American Prints’ are not reports of a journey you actually undertook. You are not the maker of the photographs (slides) but their manipulator. Your journey began with flea markets in search of images of a vanishing world, and led to your home and then to your studio. The newly created images are indeed yours. They are certainly a report of a ‘state of mind’ and therefore a statement on transience of time.
What oppresses me about the world you created in your ‘American Prints’ is that all oxygen seems to have been taken from it. What had color, you have grayed and desaturated into an unearthly, silent celestial body. Into a world of mere things.

When we travel, the horizon is an ever-shifting line at the end of our field of vision. But here everything is motionless: the water of the Niagara Falls, fountains, dancing Indians, tourists walking. And you strip the colors, achieving an effect of time solidified into moon dust. You are a surrealist: this world no longer is the earth but a still celestial body. We are looking at time, not real ticking time, but solidified time. Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ was written down and no longer a highway to be traveled, but a book. That is what you tell us.


 It’s the afternoon of February the 29th, and I’m staying home because the NPS is broadcasting a concert by John Adams: ‘On the Transmigration of Souls’. It’s a memorial for the dead of September 11th. In this very dramatic piece of music, Adams works a lot with street noises and text fragments. One of the texts in Adams’ composition is called: ‘Windows on the World’, it’s about the attack that drastically changed the skyline and the postcards of New York City. Something very important (all those people) is gone and this makes this piece of music very moving and gripping.

That goes for your work as well, Bert, the souls have left your pictures to such an extent that you miss them.

Another 20 days to go and I will be 58 years old. Fortunately the sun is shining cheerfully into my room and a bird is hopping around on my roof terrace. I’m going to pour myself an American bourbon whiskey. That will soften the jet lag quickly and warm my bones.

Best regards, Willem Mudde

(This text is an abridged version of the contribution of Willem Mudde which forms part of The American Prints edition.)